Opening Letters

Roll Out the Barrel

my Wisconsin upbringing has fostered a tenderness toward polka

Kinzy Janssen, illustrated by Michelle Chrzanowski |


In my family, polka is unavoidable. Whether it’s an anniversary party, birthday bash, or wedding, aunts hop with cousins, fathers high-step with daughters, and grandpa and grandma bound around at surprising speeds, considering the knee replacements. At weddings especially, you’ll be able to spot my family, because they’ll be perched on the edge of the dance floor, waiting for Fergie’s voice to recede so they can charge the dance floor for She’s Too Fat for Me.

All the Wyoming folk left the dance floor, dumbfounded but too polite to laugh. Meanwhile, my entire family of Wisconsinites flooded the space, as if to say "Finally." That’s when I felt nakedly aware of my own culture ...

My fiancé knows that marrying a Janssen comes with a few strange obligations, one of which is the absolute necessity of polka music at our wedding. I’ve briefed him on the subject extensively, warning him of their hunger for polka by describing the scene at my cousin Sara’s wedding in Laramie, Wyoming five years ago. You see, Sara had grown up in Wyoming, but half of her family is composed of Wisconsinites. The groom was a straight-up westerner. So when the unmistakable trumpets blared from the speakers, all the Wyoming folk left the dance floor, dumbfounded but too polite to laugh. Meanwhile, my entire family of Wisconsinites flooded the space, as if to say finally. The tide of dancers flipped again when conventional pop and country music returned. That’s when I felt nakedly aware of my own culture, and of the fact that when I get married, polka will not just be appreciated, it will be expected.

Even when we weren’t gathered for any particular reason, the familiar tuba-toots and accordion honks were in the air. I spent many-a-Saturday evening watching The Big Joe Polka Show on RFD TV (Rural Farm District Television) with my grandparents. Hosted by a roly-poly, white-haired man named Joe with an affection for any and all polka music (and, notably, for garish silk shirts, sheer chiffon sleeves, and vests that resembled accordion keyboards), the show always featured a different band from around the Midwest and bravely took the camera where it should never really go – into the sea of dancers. 

It becomes apparent when you gather a bunch of disparate polka dancers together that they were all taught what appears to be a different dance. (For the uninitiated, the basic steps are right-left-right, left-right-left; embellish as you will). But sometimes the embellishments smother the basic steps.  Some over-excited couples hop and kick in double or triple time, as if trying to squeeze more juice out of the plodding oompah beat. Some couples walk-skip around the perimeter of the dance floor, side by side. My dad does an about-face after every triple step, so that my mom (who is much shorter than him) complains that she never has a clue where she’s going. And the range of outfits can span years and thousands of miles: you can travel from Bavaria to Dolly Parton’s closet to an 80s prom catalog and back just by watching the Big Joe Polka Show.

Some ways into the hour-long show, my grandma would turn to my grandpa and ask, “Well, how about this one?” and they’d kick in the footrests of their twin recliners and make their way to the adjacent kitchen, dodging the table and jutting countertops as they shuffled lightly around.

Recently my fiance posed a question that I had never really considered. “Do you like polka?” he asked. I was taken aback by the simplicity of the question and my inability to answer it. It wasn’t that I was evading it; a decision was simply impossible and irrelevant, akin to asking a Christian if they liked Christmas trees. Only if I could approach the activity without a dab of cultural tenderness, without the force of familial attachment, and without any personal memories could I objectively say whether I “liked” the dance or not. At first, I embraced it because at five years old, you have no inhibitions, and any beat is a good one. Then I embraced it out of a desire to survive socially within a large extended family. Now, I polka because it’s what I’ve always done, and because I simply can’t picture myself sitting on the sidelines during Roll Out the Barrel. Can you blame me?