Local Polish Folk Ensemble celebrate heritage all year long

31 Oct

555774-Traditional-Polish-Dancers-2It’s Friday night. Under bright lights on a glossy gym floor, sneakers are squeaking as Lisa Floczak calls out directions to a group of fourteen adults learning the Polonez—the national dance of Poland.

“One two three, two two three…that was gorgeous, let’s take it from the top!”

 Florczak leads the dancers in a circle around the gym. They follow her example, taking deep, stately steps with pointed toes and lifted chins.

The dancers represent roughly one third of the Harmony Polish Folk Ensemble. The other groups, the children, pre-teen and young adults, practice upstairs. Altogether, the dancers number around 55, making them the largest of three Polish-American cultural and dance ensembles in WNY, according to Manya Pawlak-Metzler, one of the group’s founders.

Buffalo is home to the second largest Polish-American community in the United States (the first is Chicago), meaning there are many Cheektowaga and other area residents throughout WNY celebrating their heritage during the month of October, Polish heritage month.

For members of the ensemble, however, celebrating their heritage happens all year long on Friday nights at St. John Gualbert Church in Cheektowaga, where they learn not only Polish dance steps but also Polish folklore, holiday traditions, regional customs, crafts, history and language.

Throughout the year, the ensemble performs at twenty different venues throughout WNY. The largest is the Polish-American Arts festival at Cheektowaga Town Park, a festival with a 30 year history.

“It’s a fun show to do,” said Manya Pawlak-Metzler of Tonwanda, who is president of the organization and one of the and dance instructors. “It’s our biggest crowd.”

For these public performances, the different age groups come together to dance, and they don festive, traditional folk outfits from Poland. They are colorful outfits, typically featuring the colors red and white, the colors of Poland.

The outfits are expensive. Florczak noted that the women’s vest alone costs $100. The costs for these outfits are covered by the group, and as such, they are the property of the organization.

 “I figured I’d give it try,” says Bill Brauch, a Cheektowaga resident who has been dancing with the group since it began four years ago. “I like to do the polka…I always wanted to be a folk dancer.”

He’s the only dancer in the room dressed in one of the authentic Polish outfits, an outfit, he explains, that just came in with others on a shipment from Krakow, Poland. It looks like a navy blue jumper and has a sash of little bells around one side. The women’s include full skirts, white undershirts and vests.

Members join the ensemble because it’s a way to stay connected to an art form, to their family and ultimately, to their Polish heritage.

 “It’s always been a part of who I am,” said Florczak, who began Polish dancing in her teens. “My family is steeped in Polish culture and heritage. In my family, it’s important that this be passed on to my children.”

Florczak’s two young children, ages five and six, both dance, and her mother dances too, making them one of many multiple generation families represented in the ensemble.

She noted that while at sporting events you see parents sitting around waiting for their children, at the Friday night practices, the whole family gets involved.

“It’s a fun family activity…a great way to bring your family together,” said Florczak.  

Kathy Pawlak of the Town of Tonawanda is Pawlak-Metzler’s mother and also one of the dancers. She also says, “It’s a family thing.”

For members of the Ensemble, it’s not only a way to stay connected to their families here in WNY, it’s also a way they remember the people who came before them.

“There is so much beauty in culture,” said Pawlak-Metzler, who took classes in Chicago to learn the regional Polish dancing she teaches. “It would be a shame to not learn about your family and where you come from.”

Though family bonds and love for the art form help keep local Polish folk dancing alive, some worry it will disappear with the younger generation.

Florczak is one of those people.

“I don’t want this art form to disappear…I would really like to see the next generation becoming involved in this type of thing,” she said.

Upstairs, two junior instructors teach a group of stepping, twirling pre-teens how to dance—Polish style.

Christina Slomezewski is one of those instructors. She’s a junior at Daemon College and a third generation dancer.

We’re like a big, happy Polish family,” she said, looking around at her room full of young dancers. “If I have children, I’m going to bring them here.”

For more information about the Harmony Polish Folk Ensemble, visit www.harmonypfe.org.

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One Response to “Local Polish Folk Ensemble celebrate heritage all year long”

  1. Manya December 1, 2009 at 4:47 pm #

    Thanks so much for this article! We are really proud of what we are doing in the WNY community and this was very well written!

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