The Evolution of Gym Class Part II: The Legend of the Polka

The polka developed into an iconic feature of being a DHS student, before being disappearing due to trimesters.

Students+swing+their+partner+around+them+in+an+effort+to+impress+the+polka+judges+%28aka+the+gym+teachers%29+during+the+polka+unit+in+gym.+Tricks%2C+flips%2C+stunts%2C+and+props+were+often+added+to+routines+to+make+an+impression+on+the+dance+floor.+Students+looked+forward+to+the+polka+unit+in+gym+every+year%2C+going+all+out+to+become+the+champions.+
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The Evolution of Gym Class Part II: The Legend of the Polka

Students swing their partner around them in an effort to impress the polka judges (aka the gym teachers) during the polka unit in gym. Tricks, flips, stunts, and props were often added to routines to make an impression on the dance floor. Students looked forward to the polka unit in gym every year, going all out to become the champions.

Students swing their partner around them in an effort to impress the polka judges (aka the gym teachers) during the polka unit in gym. Tricks, flips, stunts, and props were often added to routines to make an impression on the dance floor. Students looked forward to the polka unit in gym every year, going all out to become the champions.

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Students swing their partner around them in an effort to impress the polka judges (aka the gym teachers) during the polka unit in gym. Tricks, flips, stunts, and props were often added to routines to make an impression on the dance floor. Students looked forward to the polka unit in gym every year, going all out to become the champions.

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Students swing their partner around them in an effort to impress the polka judges (aka the gym teachers) during the polka unit in gym. Tricks, flips, stunts, and props were often added to routines to make an impression on the dance floor. Students looked forward to the polka unit in gym every year, going all out to become the champions.

By Alexa Fisher and Keira Andrews

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Girls on one side of the gym, boys on the other. The girls stand there with sweaty palms wondering, “Will anybody pick me?” As the gym teachers call “seniors”, the senior boys walk across the gym to pick their partner, followed by the juniors, the sophomores, and finally the freshman.

All of this stress and drama for one gym class activity: The Polka.

The Polka dates all the way back to 1835, beginning as a Czech peasant dance in Bohemia.

The name comes from the Czech word pulka, which means half-step, resembling the rapid movement between both feet.

The Bohemian originated dance reached the United States by the middle of the nineteenth century.

Although the “hop-step-close-step” dance began in ballrooms, it eventually made its way to the Dallastown gym floor, sparking a lifelong tradition.

Before trimesters, all gym classes polkaed as a requirement. Because it is such an easy and learnable dance, it was a no-brainer.

In the 80s, the gym teachers introduced polka into the gym curriculum as a part of the social dancing unit that also featured square dancing.

In the 90s, the dance unit turned into a full polka competition.

“First rainy day in spring you could always count on polka competitions to start,” alumnus Lauren Hassinger said. 

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Many students dreaded the polka, due to the awkwardness of choosing a partner. Each year it rotated between guys and girls choice, but the seniors always have the first pick. This yearbook picture from 2004 shows just how awkward learning the polka could be for some dance partners.

There would be several days of practice, and on the last day, a competition was held.

On the first day, students chose partners. Each year, it alternated from guys and girls choice.

“It was all about choosing the partner with the best cardio stamina because you had to outlast everyone as well as have the dance moves down,” Dallastown grad Constance Bahn said. 

Each couple showcased their newly learned polka skills to the gym teachers. If the judges tapped or called out a couple, they would advance to the finals round.

“Becca Austin and I practiced at least 3 times outside of class to perfect our signature moves. It was always the best gym class!” DT grad (2013) Michael Doran said. 

During the final round, dancers added tricks and stunts to spice up their performance.

The dancers skipped and hopped the entire way through the song. At the conclusion of the song, the gym teachers, and in this case the judges, carefully deliberated who they thought danced best.

The judges announced the top three winners, and first place winners received the title of polka queen and king of their respective gym period.

Prizes included crowns, and even some years t-shirts, to show off the champions accomplishment to the entire school.

“Coming up with different ways to impress the “judges” (aka gym teachers) was always so fun and I loved seeing what everyone came up with,” Taylor Jones (Class of 2014) said. 

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The 2014 polka champs pose for the annual winner’s picture after the competition. It was an honor to be known as the Polka Queen and King of your gym class. Since trimesters went into effect, only freshman polka and the esteem of winning the polka championship has lost its glory.

Many teachers that graduated from Dallastown still recall the fond memories of the polka.

Werner recalls being picked by a senior during her freshman year. The duo danced all the way to 1st place. Werner says she was known as the “polka queen”.

“It was a great time, especially as a junior and senior.  I never won, but I got close,” Social Studies teacher Mr. Zelger says.

Counseling office secretary Mrs. Beck (Class of 1987) said, “Mr. Beck and Mr. Pitzer told me if I could teach my dance partner how to polka, I’d get an O in PE for the marking period. We succeeded!”

Unfortunately, due to the switch to trimesters, the department cut polka from gym class. 

Currently, polka is only a part of the curriculum in the freshmen physical education classes.

The freshmen polka the last week of the trimester for two days. These two days include a day of practice and a day of competition.

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Parents even got into the polka! Byron Markle and his partner Emma Curtis (DHS class of 2014) were runner-ups in their gym class. Markle’s mom Dina Seifert recalls him texting her the results. She crafted a bumper sticker saying “Proud Parent of an Honor Polka Student.” “I made a sign, like the ones you see on the back of cars that say ‘my child is an honor roll student’. The whole class loved it!” Seifert said. Markle was killed in a car accident in 2016 when he was a student at Penn State University, but Seifert says polka is a great memory of her son. “He always thought it was so fun!”

There has definitely been some negative feedback about the cut of polka, but the gym teachers say there is just not enough time to incorporate it into every class.

“It definitely puts the students out of their comfort zones, but it teaches you to have fun and let go and learn something you wouldn’t learn otherwise,” senior Kylie Calloway says.

Senior Hoyt Reinalda said, “My favorite part was dancing with girls in school.” 

Some students thought the polka was not a valuable aspect to the curriculum.

“It was a waste of good gym time! If you’re gonna teach a dance do something more relevant like the whip and nay nay,” Clay Gable (Class of 2009) said. 

At the moment, the Polka may have been the most dreaded thirty minutes of some students’ lives, but it left Dallastown graduates with great dance skills and unforgettable memories.

Megan Thoman (Class of 2002) said, “My cousins and I (all Dallastown grads) broke out the polka at a recent holiday party. We laughed, reminisced, and tallied up our Polka championships.” 

See The Evolution of Gym Class: Part I to read about changes in uniforms and curriculum in gym class. 

This story was originally published on The Beacon on January 11, 2019.