Polka dots
Everything you ever wanted to know about polka dots
(but were too lethargic to ask)

Let's start off by examining the word itself. (Words, actually, unless a hyphen is used to join the two words together.) (Oh no, semantic digression already!)

It's a noun. It has three definitions - all based around the idea of patterns of dots.

Definition 1: One of a number of dots or round spots forming a pattern, as on cloth.

Definition 2: A design consisting of a pattern of regularly spaced circular spots.

Definition 3: A pattern or fabric with such dots.

To elaborate just a little on the definitions: Polka dot patterns are quite variable: they range from a series of dots in a single colour that are equally spaced and sized to a random arrangement of multi-coloured dots of different sizes. Polka dot patterns come in a wide variety of color combinations that are limited only by the imagination.

Larger, colourful polka dots are often considered whimsical and fun and may be associated with such items as children's decor, Easter egg decorations and clown costumes. They are most commonly seen on children's and fashion clothing, toys, gift wrapping and furniture, (and now even dog life jackets!).

Smaller polka dots are often considered dressier and are still found on items such as men's ties, decor fabric for the home and some women's dresses. The pattern rarely appears in formal contexts; exceptionally, white on black regularly spaced polka dots do appear on more formal clothing. 

Where did the 'polka' in 'polka dots' come from?

No-one knows.

But the first appearance of polka dots pretty much coincided with the emergence of a new dance called the 'Polka' (which was the Twist of its day; times change) so let's take as an assumption that the name of the dance - for no other reason than they both emerged at the same time - led to the name of the dots.

The polka, as you doubtless already know, is a simple, lively dance step that took Europe and America by storm soon after its introduction in 1835. The name 'polka' is itself a minor mystery. Although the best match for the word 'polka' is exactly that word in Polish (meaning 'Polish woman'). However, the polka dance is actually of Bohemian origin so that doesn't really add up. And where was Bohemia? In Czechoslovakia (the modern day Czech Republic). The Czech word 'pulka' means 'half'. The polka is a dance largely composed of short, 'half' steps. It's therefore widely accepted that 'polka' may be a corruption of 'pulka'. Sounds pretty logical to me!

At the peak of the polka craze, from about 1840 to 1890 (this was a very long craze), a variety of manufacturers cashed in on the public's polka-mania by naming a vast range of products after the dance - polka hats, polka jackets, polka gauze, polka curtain ties, and, of course, polka-dotted fabrics. Few, if any, of the products had anything to do with the dance but, like celebrity endorsements (did I mention that John Barrowman has bought two of our doggie life jackets?) the word-association with the dance meant that everything containing the word 'polka' sold like hot cakes. (Research doesn't reveal if there were 'polka hot cakes', but I expect there were.) Alone amongst all the polka-products, the polka dot pattern proved to have staying power.

The Polka

Emerging from wherever it came from (Bohemia or Poland - your call!) the polka rapidly became popular first in the ballrooms of France and England and later throughout Europe and the US.

When the polka reached New York in the mid-1840's, its was danced mainly by the upper class. But as waves of German and Eastern European immigrants brought their own music with them, including the polka, a musical democratisation occurred; the polka came to represent a shift from the established, formal, dance styles to an informal style of social dancing.

Grand Polka

Polka was played and danced to in the new, well-lit, family-oriented bars and dance halls that were the centre of much social activity in the US; polka music and dancing gave close-knit immigrant communities a continuing cultural connection to the 'old country'. Polka was music for happy times, as the immigrants were optimistic about their lives in the new country.

In the dance itself, polka couples circle the dance floor, often at seemingly break-neck speed, using a simple technique consisting of step, close, step, hop. (Try it!) Whilst there are innumerable derivative forms of the dance, one of the most popular versions (because it's soooo easy) is the 'heel and toe and away we go'. The music is in 2/4 time with a strong upbeat.

Probably the most recognizable polka tune is 'The Beer Barrel Polka', originally a massive 1935 hit in Europe for accordionist/band leader Will Glahe (for every polka band, an accordionist and a tuba player are essentials!). In 1939 the tune was further popularised when it was recorded by the Andrews Sisters.

Fancy a dance? Here's a simple polka dance - get yourself a partner and off you go:

Position: Closed dance position.

Footwork: Opposite throughout.

Measure: 1-4

HEEL-TOE, STEP-CLOSE-STEP;

HEEL-TOE, STEP-CLOSE-STEP

On the first measure, man puts foot to the side and in front on the first beat, and closes this foot with the toe touching the floor close to his right heel on the second. Then he does a step-lose-step, more or less ahead, on the second measure. (He steps left on 'one', closing right to left on 'and', steps left again on 'two', holding it through the 'and'.) Then he does the same thing to the right, using his opposite feet.

Measure: 5-8

HOP, STEP-CLOSE-STEP; HOP, STEP-CLOSE-STEP;

HOP, STEP-CLOSE-STEP; HOP, STEP-CLOSE-STEP

In the closed dance position, four two-steps , usually turning once around. The hop comes as a sort of little hic-cup before each two-step, a sort of grace note. (Some people rise on the toe and back down again. Others do a brief hop, whether the music omits it or not. For instance a quick hop on the right, and a two-step beginning with the left.)

Hey, you made that look really easy! You're a natural Fred Astaire (or Ginger Rogers, once again that's your call)!

King of the MountainsPolka dot cyclists!

In the Tour de France cycle race, the polka dot jersey (a white jersey with red dots) is awarded to the 'King of the Mountains' - the best climber during the mountain stages of the race.

The 'King of the Mountain' classification was first introduced in 1933. The first winner was Vicente Trueba, who was first to reach the top of most of the mountains. He was, unfortunately, a rubbish descender, so what he gained on the roundabouts he lost on the swings (so to speak).

Although the best climber was first recognised in 1933, the distinctive jersey was not introduced until 1975. The colours were decided by the then sponsor, Chocolat Poulain, to match a popular product. The Tour's jersey colours have also been adopted by other cycling stage races; for example, the Tour of Britain also has a polka dot jersey.

Famous wearers of polka dots

Marilyn Monroe wore polka dots on many of her more memorable dresses, whilst Disney's Minnie Mouse is almost entirely clothed in polka dots! Bob Dylan is remembered as wearing black and white polka dots on his shirts throughout several decades (gosh, what a rebel!).

More recently Gwen Stefani, Paris Hilton, Carmen Electra and Sarah Jessica Parker have all been photographed wearing stylish polka dots. (You can tell when a narrative is getting dull - 'Paris Hilton' gets a mention.)

Polka dot plants!

Hypoestes phyllostachva are happy little plants that are easy to grow and disease-resistant. The Hypoestes, commonly called the 'Polka Dot plant', is a tropical plant native to Madagascar, classified under the plant family Acanthaceae. It is a small green plant with pink spots that look like polka dots (use your imagination a bit, we're talking nature here!). The plant is also available with white or red polka dot-like spots. It is often used for borders around flower beds or for container gardens to add colour and pattern.

Polka dot TV!

Polka Dot Door was a long-running Canadian children's television series, broadcast from 1971 until 1993.

The show, broadcast from Monday to Friday, was set in a large playhouse. The hosts would lead children in songs and stories, and interact with stuffed animal characters. They would often peer through the Polka Dot Door to witness a video of some sort, showing, for instance, how crayons are made.

Each day's episode had a particular theme. On 'Imagination Day', the character Polkaroo appeared. The actor playing Polkaroo donned a tall, green plush costume that resembled a kangaroo. Polkaroo appeared only to one host while the other was away, performing a pantomime whose meaning was guessed by the audience. The missing host would return upon Polkaroo's departure, habitually exclaiming, "Polkaroo was here?!? And I missed him again?!?"

Because of the irony laden in this sentence, Polkaroo has become something of a Canadian cultural icon to the generation raised on Polka Dot Door - the catchphrase "Aw, I missed him again" may often be employed for humorous effect. (Never heard it myself!)

In the late 1990s, the success of Polkaroo saw him, together with the other animal characters, placed  in a new series - Polka Dot Shorts.

Dreaming of polka dots

It's with relief (if, indeed, you do dream of polka dots) that I can report that dreaming of polka dots signifies the enjoyment of a pleasant occupation or pass-time. There's nothing sinister hiding behind those big dots!

Polka in Computerland

Apparently 'Polka' is an object-oriented parallel logic programming language, built on top of Parlog. (So they say, but what do they know?) (Lots, by the sound of it!)

Not a lot of people know this but...

...there is a widely held belief that during World War I the British used polka dots as a place to hide Morse code.

And finally, an itsy bitsy teeny weeny bit more on polka dots (this is what you've been waiting for!)...

Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini

Sung by Brian Hyland (yes, the 'Sealed With a Kiss' singer; hard to believe isn't it!), together with Trudy Packer singing the 'One, two, three, four...' interval lines) 'Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini' is a novelty song which tells the story of a shy high-school student wearing a very revealing polka dot bikini (which she apparently did not bother to try on beforehand) who keeps her body hidden from view - first by staying in the locker room (that's a changing room in the UK), then by wrapping herself in a blanket, then by submerging herself in the water - while other high-schoolers gossip about her.

First released on 8 August, 1960 the record was soon a No. 1 hit for young Master Hyland. While it made a star of Brian, Trudy has been all but forgotten, much like Wendy Richard - yes, the former Eastenders' Wendy Richard - has become the forgotten female voice (just moan, moan, moan!) on Mike Sarne's 'Come Outside'.

Brian Hyland - sexbomb!The song was featured in the 1961 Billy Wilder film comedy One, Two, Three. In a key scene, the character Otto (played by Horst Buchholz), is suspected of being a spy. The East German police apply 'torture' by playing the song to him repeatedly, eventually with the record off-centre to create a ghastly howling variation of pitch.

Inevitably, the song's been used on too many TV commercials. So many that I can't be bothered to give them further cheap publicity.

There have been cover versions in many languages. For example, there were French and Italian versions by Dalida in 1960. It was sung in German by Club Honolulu (Caterina Valente and brother Silvio Francesco) in the same year.

It was also remade in 1990 by Bombalurina which featured Timmy Mallet, star of then-popular United Kingdom children's television show, Wacaday. That version was the No. 1 UK single for three weeks in that year.

A Brazilian version of the song - Biquini de Bolinha Amarelinha - by Celly Campello was a huge success. Another interesting cover version is El Cohete Americano, a Cuban propaganda song sung by Las D'Aida in 2000. Must try to track down copies of those two.

The song, in all its derivations, has sold over 1,000,000 records worldwide. Referring to the royalties he'd received over the decades, co-writer Paul Vance was later to describe the song as "a money machine". (The other writer was one Lee Pockriss.)

That's it - all you could want to know about polka dots. (Perhaps more than you could want to know about polka dots!) Let's finish with a bit of a sing-song:

Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini

Bop bop bop bop boppoppoppoppop

Itsy...She was afraid to come out of the locker;
She was as nervous as she could be;
She was afraid to come out of the locker;
She was afraid that somebody would see.

One, two, three, four, tell the people what she wore.
Bop bop bop bop boppoppoppoppop

Bitsy...(Chorus)
It was an itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini
That she wore for the first time today,
An itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini,
So, in the locker she wanted to stay.

One, two, three, four, stick around we'll tell you more.
Bop bop bop bop boppoppoppoppop

Teenie...She was afraid to come out in the open,
And so a blanket around her she wore;
She was afraid to come out in the open,
And so she sat bundled up on the shore.

One, two, three, four, tell the people what she wore.
Bop bop bop bop boppoppoppoppop

Weenie...(Chorus)
It was an itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini
That she wore for the first time today,
An itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini
So, in the blanket she wanted to stay.

One, two, three, four, stick around we'll tell you more.
Bop bop bop bop boppoppoppoppop

Yellow...Now she's afraid to come out of the water,
And I wonder what she's gonna do.
Now she's afraid to come out of the water,
And the poor little girl's turnin' blue!

One, two, three, four, tell the people what she wore.
Bop bop bop bop boppoppoppoppop

Polka dot...(Chorus)
It was an itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini
That she wore for the first time today,
An itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini
So, in the water she wanted to stay.

One, two, three, four, stick around we'll tell you more.
Bop bop bop bop boppoppoppoppop

Bikini!From the locker to the blanket,
From the blanket to the shore,
From the shore to the water,
Guess there isn't any more!

then carry on singing the chorus until everyone gets annoyed with you...


Last updated: 28 January 2010

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