Show Up and Polka

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Tucson’s Lajkonik Polish Folk Dance Ensemble Celebrates 25 Years of color, spin, and tradition

by Kimi Eisele

On a Thursday evening in late September in the large hall behind Tucson’s St. Cyril of Alexandria Roman Catholic Church, a dozen or so people—mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings—are learning the basic three-step of a polka. Chenoa Covington, a tall, thin young woman with curly hair, arrives late wearing chunky-heeled boots.

It’s her first time here, and Matthew Schmit, who’s leading the polka lesson, asks her if she has any dance experience. “A little,” she says. “Lindy Hop.” He nods then takes her hand and whisks her around the room in the one-two-three, one-two-three of a fast polka.

Welcome to Lajkonik, Tucson’s Polish Folk Dance Ensemble, now in its twenty-fifth year. Open to everyone, no matter your heritage. Show up and polka.

After her spin around the room, Covington, who is not Polish, fixes her hair and laughs. She says she met members of the troupe at an information table on the University of Arizona mall and decided to show up. “I’m interested in getting involved in different kinds of dance, and it seems really energetic,” she says.

Young Lajkonik dancers in 2012 in the Leo Rich Theater, Tucson Meet Yourself. Photo by Steven Meckler

From Warsaw to Tucson

Energetic indeed.

That might be the most apt description, too, of Lajkonik’s founder, Joanna Schmit, Matthew’s mother, who founded the dance group in 1998. For years, she taught and choreographed the dances, made the costumes, found the right songs, and booked the gigs. Until 2017, that is, when she turned over the leadership to her son and his wife, Amy Schmit, neé Robertson.

Joanna came to the United States from Poland in 1991 for a PhD in optical sciences at the University of Arizona. She eventually had two children and wanted them to grow up knowing something about their Polish heritage.

An early performance at Tucson Meet Yourself. Courtesy Joanna Schmit
Joanna Schmit was awarded a Master-Apprentice Artist Award in 2017 from the Southwest Folklife Alliance. Photo by Steven Meckler

As a child, Joanna danced for eight years in Gawęda, a famous folk dancing troupe in Warsaw. “I loved every moment of it. We did 100 performances a year and traveled outside of Poland in a time when that was not so easy for others,” she says.

With Gawęda, Joanna performed for such dignitaries as Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul II and traveled to the United States to perform for Polish American audiences. “I remember very vividly being on stage and feeling that we were ambassadors of Polish culture, bringing smiles to people who had left Poland long ago,” she says. “I still feel I am wholeheartedly the ambassador of Polish culture in whatever I do.”

Joanna had the idea of teaching folk dances to her own and other children and performing them after mass at St. Cyril’s, the home parish of many members of Tucson’s Polish community. “I wanted to give back,” she says. “What a better way than singing and dancing in Polish costumes?”

Matthew was six years old at the time. “They’d put us in costumes, and we would waddle around on stage, and everyone liked it because we were six,” he says.

Parents contributed by helping to make costumes and props.

“No one thought it would really go anywhere, but more and more kids got interested,” Joanna says.

150 percent support

Twenty-five years later, more and more “kids” are interested in Lajkonik. Today the group has 20 members. What is it, exactly, about Polish folk dancing that draws them?

Hannah Johnson, who joined the group a year ago, says, “I love dancing with other people and these people, well, as Amy would say, we’re a bunch a nerds, which is how I vibe.”

A bunch of nerds? “People with hilariously strange hobbies,” Johnson explains. Sword fighting, Live Action Role Playing (LARP), Dungeons and Dragons, D&D, sewing, cooking, making vodka infusions, and Polish folk dancing.

Johnson says Matthew and Amy, who were part of her “quarantine pod” during the pandemic, encouraged her to join. “They would talk about Polish things and sometimes Matthew would show us moves.”

Those moves, Johnson says, were hard to learn once she started showing up for practice. “A lot of the steps did not come naturally, but that made it really nice to get it.”

Lajkonik Polish Folk Dance Ensemble, after a Tucson Meet Yourself performance in 2019. Courtesy Matthew Schmit

Athena Simmons joined Lajkonik eight years ago. She had danced with Amy in Barbea Williams African Dance Company, and Amy encouraged her to join Lajkonik.

Simmons has Polish ancestry but didn’t know much about it and hadn’t experienced many Polish traditions. Since joining the group she’s learned more about Polish traditions and foods.  “My great grandparents came from Poland. My grandmother, she passed away before I joined, but I know she would have been so excited about it. But my aunt is very excited about my involvement,” she says.

For Simmons, the variety of the dances is what she most enjoys. “Every region has different dance, a different costume. I like getting to dance both with and without a partner.”

Andrea Carmichael started attending Lajkonik rehearsals after meeting Amy in ballet class, who “gently encouraged” her to attend. At first, she hesitated because “I’m LGBT, so I didn’t quite know. But I trust Amy, so I said, it’ll be okay. And it has been,” Carmichael says.

While Polish partner dances are traditionally gendered, Carmichael says the group has been supportive of her identity and her dancing. “The dances are binary, so if you’re non-binary you have to figure out which role you’re willing to be in. I’m female so I know where I belong, and they support that 150 percent.”

Amy credits her husband’s Matthew’s enthusiasm about dance drawing in new members. That’s what drew her to him when they met. As a trained dancer, she was tired of going to social dances and meeting boys who only danced to meet girls, not because they particularly liked dancing. “Here was someone who really likes to dance,” she says.

Amy assists in the leadership of Lajkonik, creating chorography and costumes. “It is family,” she says. “We’ve created a community that looks out for each other and cares about each other.”

Currently the group is helping to raise funds for one of its members, who was recently hit in her car by a drunk driver and remains in a coma.

Lajkonik dancers at Tucson Meet Yourself in 2019. On the right is Ana, a long-time member of the ensemble, who is currently hospitalized after being hit by a drunk driver. The groups is raising funds to support Ana and her family. Photo by Steven Meckler

Meeting Yourself

Once the polka lesson ends, Matthew divides the group in half: those still learning basics and those who will perform at Tucson Meet Yourself, the annual three-day folklife festival in downtown Tucson every October. It will be Lajkonik’s 25th year at the festival.

For many years, the festival appearance was the group’s biggest performance and remains one of its most significant, Joanna says. It also helps finance the group’s travel, costumes, and studies.

Since the mid-1970s, before Lajkonik existed, Tucson’s Polish community operated a food booth at Tucson Meet Yourself, selling Polish dishes to festival attendees. In the 1980s, during the Solidarity social movement in Poland and accompanying economic hardship, the Tucson Polish community sent proceeds from the booth to organizations in Poland active in supporting communities in need of supplies, medication, and education, Joanna says.

But in 2015, the community turned over the booth to Lajkonik, recognizing the troupe’s contribution to local Polish culture. The dancers now run the booth, selling kielbasa, pirogi (generously donated by the Polish Cottage), and other Polish foods over the festival weekend. Typically the booth brings in several thousand dollars each year, Joanna says.

“Tucson Meet Yourself has been a blessing for us,” Joanna says. “We go to Poland, we bring new dances, new costumes back to the Tucson community.”

The troupe has traveled numerous times to Poland, most recently in 2019, to perform at International Festival of Polish Folklore in Rzeszow, which brings nearly 40 groups from around the world together every three years. At that festival Lajkonik represents Tucson, sharing Polish regional dances as well as dances from the Southwest.

In 2017 with funding from Tucson Meet Yourself, the group studied with Tucson’s Ballet Folklorico Tapatio to learn the Mexican folkloric dance, Sonora Bronco, which they then shared in Rzeszow.

The dance was both familiar and new to the Polish dancers.

“In Mexico there is a lot of influence of culture from Europe, so there are polkas. But the most difficult was all the stomping, which is less common in Poland. We had to work a little bit on that,” Joanna says. (For another dancer’s take on learning the Sonoran Bronco see Yvonne Montoya’s “Dancing Like a Folklorist” in the August 2022 edition of BorderLore.)

The group has also performed Lindy Hop, jazz, and disco dances—all choreographed by Robertson—in the Polish festival, Joanna says.

Matthew Schmit, left, took over the direction of Lajkonik to the delight of his mother, Joanna, in 2017.

Folk dancers as Folklorists

In 2017, Joanna was awarded a Master-Apprentice Artist Award from the Southwest Folklife Alliance to teach aspects of Polish dance, culture, and costume to her son Matthew and his wife, Amy.

“We do very thorough research, buying books, watching YouTube videos but also talking to experts, dancers from those regions. We want it to be very authentic,” Joanna says.

Traveling to Poland not only to perform but also to research regional dances has become part of their practice. For Matthew, visiting people in a village and learning from those who grew up doing folk dances, is a rewarding kind of education.

“You can explore the details of the village’s culture through the dance. I liked that variety. It was a good way to explore culture and how different culture can be in a country like Poland, which is the size of Arizona,” he said.

Matthew also recognizes the significance of cultural continuity, especially since he grew up in the United States. “It also has a lot of meaning for my mom to have me doing these dances from Poland. It builds a sense of community when people would see the dancing.”

The team supports artists in the regions where the dances originate, hiring local seamstresses to construct costumes. “They have such pride that their costumes are traveling to the US. I call them ‘costumes with soul’,” Joanna says.

For this year’s Tucson Meet Yourself folklife festival, Matthew has created a suite of dances showcasing the culture of his grandfather’s home in Poland, a village in central Poland between the regions of Łowicz and Opoczno.

The group arranged workshops in both places, Joanna says, then connected with local groups and learned the dances. They also commissioned music from regional musicians. The suite of dances shows both the similarities and distinctions between the two regions, from dance style to costume to music.

An early Tucson Meet Yourself performance on the City Hall Stage in Tucson’s Presidio Park. Joanna Schmit is on the far left; her son Matthew on the far right. Courtesy of Joanna Schmit

Not just a spectacle

Lajkonik has become known at Tucson Meet Yourself for its high-energy performances—usually dancers get air And the audience gets on its feet.

For Matthew, creating spectacle is part of his approach to sharing Polish culture. Turning folk dances from colloquial village expressions into performances for the stage, all while maintaining cultural authenticity, is what helps people get interested, he said.

“We structure the dance to be on stage, to be entertaining because that’s a good way to make the culture accessible. That’s kind of the point,” he said. “When they see us perform, they say, ‘Oh there’s something else that’s different and cool.”

If by “different and cool,” he means a whirlwind of color, adorned with flowers, dancing that’s lively and flirtatious and buoyant, then yes, absolutely.

Sometimes a polka is just what gets you in the door.  

“It was a lot more spinning than I’m used to,” Covington said, when rehearsal ends. “But I like it a lot. I’m going to come back.”

Cover photo: Matthew Schmit and his mom, Joanna Schmit in 2000. Courtesy Joanna Schmit

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