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Pilsen preserves polka tradition for future generations

Staff writer

Paulette Holub’s family took her to dances in Pilsen before she could walk. She learned to love polka early.

Like many who glided across the floor at Pilsen Community Center’s dance Saturday, Holub can claim Czech music as her birthright.

Holub’s father, Paul Bezdek, was a drummer for home band The Blue Aces back when Pilsen boasted three dance halls.

“I grew up with this kind of music,” Holub said. “It’s in my blood.”

The same could be said of Mary Ann Conyers, who floated across the floor, partnered with her husband, Keith.

Conyer’s grandfather, Rudolph Svitak, opened Pilsen’s historic Starlight ballroom in the 1930s. His son, Frank Svitak, organizer of Saturday dance, ran the Starlight until it closed in 1984.

Music and dance always have been a part of Conyers’ life.

“My husband always said I probably learned to dance before I could walk,” Conyers said. “I have danced since I was little, all my life.”

Conyers paired up with grandson Dylan Svitak, 26, when Keith’s knee injury started giving him trouble.

“He really is the best,” she said proudly of Dylan after the two finished a waltz.

Like all four of her children and 11 grandchildren, Conyers began teaching Svitak to dance when he was 3.

“At home in the kitchen is where it all takes place,” Conyers said. “I start them early.”

This year’s dance, which featured the Mark Vyhlidal Orchestra, drew families from well beyond Pilsen including residents of Wichita, Newton, and Hutchinson.

Frank Svitak was happy to see 30 youngsters dancing to polka at the packed community center along with their parents and grandparents.

“I grew up on it — Czech music. Our parents played Czech music,” he said. “And all the kids heard it.”

Money from a donation box set up in the entryway goes to maintain the community center.

Bandleader Mark Vyhlidal has made Pilsen a regular stop on his polka band’s fall touring schedule for eight years.

The Fremont native’s love of traditional Czech music has taken him on the road throughout the Midwest since the 1970s, but Pilsen has always impressed him.

The band is asked to add country and 50s and 60s rock-and-roll to its play list at many dates.

“Not in Pilsen,” he said. “It’s strictly old time. Polkas and waltzes — and that’s fine with me.”

Pilsen dances offer the band the treat of playing to a packed house, and this year was no exception.

At least half in the venue were younger than 40, which also is rare, he said.

“It was a regular Saturday night dance,” Vyhlidal said. “You’ve got to give the people of Pilsen credit. They don’t have a lot of those anymore. There are too many other things to do.”

Last modified Oct. 27, 2021

 

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