I love when a new generation grabs onto old traditions and swings them back into life. I love even more when they don’t grab it so hard that the older generations get left by the wayside.
I was stoked, therefore, to learn last year during a visit to Cleveland that the age-old practice of Polka is being dance merrily by young and old alike — in the same places, on the same nights — all across the city. It happened over just a few years and, if you ask a lot of the people in the know, they’ll point to one guy: DJ Kishka.
Here is an interview with some such folks, including Mr. Kishka himself, gathered at Grassroots Grantmakers’ “On the Ground” anti-conference in Cleveland last September.
It came about when, on the first night of the conference, a few attendees were dancing Polka with some fully-regaled locals in the meeting hall after dinner as Polka music bounced through the air. I knew no Polka, but love to dance, and a young woman seemed to notice. She had a cute white dress on, short blond hair, a friendly face, and a sash that said “Miss Dingus 2014.” I gladly accepted her offer to teach me. I learned pretty quickly and, surprised to see such a young person dancing such an old dance, asked how this was possible. She shared about the amazing revival of this tradition in latter years there in Cleveland.
“How did this happen?” I asked.
“That guy,” Miss Dingus answered, pointing to the long-legged fellow perched happily in the corner of the room behind a card-table, donning a giant curly grey beard, old German-syle hat with his hands on the music machine. This, apparently, was DJ Kishka and he had started it all.
I wandered some more and later saw the fully-Polka-costumed other young person from earlier, a young man with a (real) beard and dancing, smart eyes. He runs a radio show that plays Polka. I asked him if it was true that this DJ Kishka fellow has been so instrumental in unleashing a whole new Polka culture across Cleveland. He not only affirmed the charges, but went on to rave about what a humble, dedicated and all-around great guy DJ Kishka is.
Wow! I was blown away. So I grabbed a quick interview with Miss Dingus and, despite the late hour, the super friendly DJ Kishka and his greatest fan, Andrew the Mailman.
I love this story for its timeless message of how much one person’s passion and perseverance, by unleashing the same in others, can ripple out and change things not just for them but for a community, city, and maybe even the world.
I love that DJ Kishka, an unassuming vegan catering owner, created this wave of polka love without really meaning to. It speaks so much to how change can happen from the bottom up — through that spark of enthusiasm any person might carry and their decision to turn that enthusiasm into action. It’s a great illustration of stuff discussed in one of my favorite books, Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed.
I must also add that I think change happens just as much because of those who respond to the actions of the person who often gets given all the credit – those who this brilliant video about leadership calls “the First Followers.” Folks experimenting and pioneering in generative journalism have told me how much they’re looking to tell a narrative that’s different than the same old “Single Leader” story in their journalism.
If we look at this story of what seems like “Single Hero” change with a slightly different lens, we can see that the loving memory of Polka-dancing has revived thanks just as much to the actions of the many people who added to the momentum in their own unique ways — “First (or Second, or 30th) Followers” like this video’s other characters Miss Dingus Day and Andrew the Mailman.
Technical Note: Please excuse the camera shakes. These are the fruit of my first forays into shooting and editing video. Feedback is WELCOMED!!!
What would you love to unleash in your city? Or how are you supporting something you care about in a way that, like Polka in Cleveland, could become a cool new viral thing that makes life better for your city?
What do you think the story and the Dancing Guy video say about leadership? How do they compare to your own experiences?
What kinda hoaky, yet adorable, traditions did you enjoy from your family? (mine: Prarie Home Companion)