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2 enthusiasts keep tradition of polka alive

The Baltimore Sun

Kim Kutchins could not take her eyes off her son. She was listening to music and noticed Jack, 6, dancing along.

"I thought, 'You would be really good at either Irish step dance ... or the polka,'" said Kutchins, of Ellicott City.

Now 8, Jack is a two-year veteran of the Polka Kids, a children's dance troupe.

Although Jack participates in several sports, polka is his favorite activity.

"It's a dying art," said Kutchins. "A lot of people don't even know what it is, and it's a really fun activity."

Butch and Mary Kotowski have been training children to perform the dance for more than 20 years at Blob's Park, a German restaurant in Jessup. Their Polka Kids group will appear at 5 p.m. Sunday at the restaurant, just over the Howard County line in Anne Arundel County, off Route 175 near the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The show, the group's only fundraiser of the year, is part of a four-hour event that will include live music by the Rheinlanders.

The Kotowskis met in 1975 at a polka class taught by Mary's brother, Tom Kalinowski, and his wife, Shirley. Butch Kotowski said Mary Kalinowski "made my appreciation for polka really deep. She made a dancer out of me."

Soon, the couple were dancing professionally, teaching polka around the country, including at Blob's Park. They started a business, Polkas Unlimited, and married in 1978. The Kotowskis live in Annapolis and are retired.

The couple started their children's polka group in 1984. "Some three to four hundred kids have come through and been Polka Kids," Butch said.

They usually have more than 20 children in the troupe, with new members allowed to join every other year. Ages range from 6 to 17.

While there is no formal audition, Butch evaluates potential newcomers after they rehearse with the Polka Kids for a few weeks. He interviews each child, asking if he or she enjoys polka.

"They can't be a Polka Kid because mom and dad want them to be a Polka Kid," he said. "When their heart's not in it and they go out and do the show, they're not going to have the look on their face that they would if they were really into this stuff."

Bryanna Llewellyn, 17, studies Irish dance with another troupe. The Laurel resident said polka is the simpler of the two styles. "Once you've got the rhythm, it's easy to pick up," she said. "It's very loose and relaxed."

Carmela Barbo, a fifth-grader at Hillsmere Elementary in Annapolis, is a junior member of the troupe. She said, "At first it's kind of hard, but then it starts getting easier," especially dancing with boys.

Children learn the dance routines more quickly than adults do, Butch said. "When you teach kids, you've got to keep your foot on the gas pedal for two hours," he said. "There's got to be constant teaching from the first time you start with them till the class is over."

Otherwise, children lose interest, he said.

Once children are accepted into the troupe, their families pay a lifetime registration fee of $25. For each successive sibling who participates, the cost is $5 less. The prices have not changed since 1984, Butch said.

"We didn't want to create any kind of hardship in any families. We wanted to help preserve polka entertainment," said Butch Kotowski, who also teaches adults.

The program attracts families primarily from Howard and Anne Arundel counties. Peggy Pugh, the Kotowskis' daughter-in-law, drives her three teenage sons from Lothian to participate in Polka Kids. Pugh said she likes the boys socializing with children from different areas. "All these kids are bringing something else into the group," she said.

For a children's dance organization, Polka Kids attracts a good number of boys. They make up about half of the dancers.

"I think it's good for boys ... to be comfortable holding a girl's hand, put their arm around a girl, lead a girl around the dance floor," said Kutchins.

Columbia home-schooler Sophia Pileggi, 14, said the basic polka step is similar to a waltz, but with the emphasis on the first beat. "You walk on the balls of your feet," Sophia said. "If you're not tripping on each other's feet, then it's OK."

Sophia's brother, Mark, 13, said he enjoys the camaraderie of the troupe.

"All the kids are really nice," he said. "Mr. Butch and Miss Mary, they make it really fun. ... If it was just the dancing and we had this stone-faced teacher, I wouldn't really like it."

Because they are performing with their friends, most of the children get over their fear of being in the spotlight.

Kutchins said that when Jack is on the dance floor "he takes it very seriously. He concentrates when he's doing it, and at the end, when everybody claps, he gets a huge smile on his face."

Information: Blob's Park, 410- 799-0155, or www.blobspark.com.

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