My mother encouraged me to join a Polish youth folk dance group when I was 12-years-old. I thought she was crazy. Polish folk dancing? What dork liked to folk dance? Certainly no one I knew. And not me.
Since I had recently given up ballet to play basketball, she thought I would have fun – even if it was Polish folk dancing. She was persistent and I was skeptical. I finally agreed to watch a rehearsal, and a few days later we sat side by side on aluminum folding chairs in a VFW hall. In front of us there were 25 teenagers skipping, hopping, dancing and having a great time while a woman played the accordion with great enthusiasm and gusto. I was simultaneously amazed, intrigued and intimidated. It was no longer a matter of gauging the level of dorkiness, but rather how could these kids have so much fun Polish folk dancing? One of the older girls brought me onto the floor and taught me a few steps. Then they put me in a dance and I felt like a feather caught in a tornado.
Mom was only wrong about me liking it. Wrong because soon I came to love Polish folk dancing and was an active member of the youth group for 15 years. We rehearsed weekly and performed several times monthly. At one point there were 40 of us – all who smiled, laughed and loved performing. Some of those “kids” are still my closest friends. I have great memories of performing and entertaining at nursing homes, V.A. hospitals and community events around the State of Wisconsin and even in Poland. What also stuck with me was a love of boots.
Who knew footwear could be so important to Polish dancing? My first pair of boots came from that Polish folk-dance group. They weren’t “authentic” Polish boots because we ordered them from JC Penney, but they were a good starter pair – red leather pull-ons cut to the knee with a flat heel and leather sole that was repaired many times. A few years later, I graduated to a “real” pair of red folk dance boots – made in Poland. They were to mid-calf and laced up the front with a two-inch heel. On our performance tour in Poland several years later, I was able to visit the small roadside costume shop in Krakow where the boots were handcrafted.
After I graduated to the authentic footwear, I sometimes wore my starter pair on regular days. This was the mid-80s, so red knee boots with a white t-shirt and long black skirt was totally acceptable. In eighth grade, I was rarely without my pair of low-calf black suede boots into which I would artfully tuck my jeans after first pinning them tightly around my ankle. For passing my driver’s license test, my dad treated me to a pair of beautiful, pale pink, calf-high, flat-soled boots with thick brown laces – reminiscent of wrestler’s footwear. Then I purchased boots as I could afford it. In college, I wore boots that were not only stylish, but could also survive the sloppiness of a Milwaukee winter as I travelled the county transit system.
Through the years, my boot purchases have been eclectic but they’re always made of leather as I prefer the quality and durability, as well as the look and feel. Stiletto-heeled and pointy-toes in black. Chunky-heeled grey suede. A hunting boot with steel buckles. Distressed brown with front laces and a side zipper. Brown plaid fabric with decorative gold buckles at the ankle. A biker motif with snaps and laces. At a recent writer’s conference, I wore a pair of stylized riding boots that combined black leather with a stretch material and someone thought they were “steam punk.” Without even knowing it – how trendy of me!
I wear boots as frequently as I can and choose pairs that are comfortable and stylish simply because I refuse to wear footwear that hurts. My boot count is nearly as high as my shoe count, and when I look at the assortment of browns, greys, blacks, patterns, heights and styles greeting me in my closet, I am giddy.
Every year at the Polish Fest in Milwaukee, I watch the folk dancers float, jump and prance across the stage in their red leather boots. I’m tempted to pull mine out of storage, lace them up and join in, but I remain in the audience, content to enjoy the memories. Those were my influential footwear. My red Polish dance boots that represent a wonderful transition from adolescence into adulthood, and the happy memories of good friends in a Polish folk dance group who weren’t afraid to be dorky or part of something different.