Saturday, June 30, 2018

Watching the dead dance

Tonight Nanticoke had its fireworks display for the 4th of July. Just like last year, my mom and I planned to watch together from the comfort of her car, parked in front of the house and facing the stadium where the fireworks are launched.

We didn't know exactly when the fireworks would begin, but we figured right around sunset. (They actually didn't begin until after 9:30.) Eight o'clock rolled around, and my mom wanted to pass the time by watching something on TV, something that didn't have anything to do with Donald Trump. We scanned our options, and settled on the locally-produced polka dance show Pennsylvania Polka.

Pennsylvania Polka is quite the phenomenon in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Think of it as a geriatric, polka-based version of Soul Train or American Bandstand. Live bands provide the music, and locals - many of them regulars - show up at the studios of the local PBS affiliate, WVIA TV, to provide the dancing. In an interconnected area like NEPA, it's almost impossible for a local viewer to not see someone they know amongst the dancers.

Once, when visiting my grandmother at the John Heinz Rehabilitation Center as she recovered from yet another complication of her stroke - this would have been 1997 or 1998 - I passed two little old ladies in wheelchairs in the hallway. "I like to watch the pol-kas," one of them said to the other. "Do you like to watch the pol-kas?" My grandmother loved to watch the polkas, too.

The show has been on a bit of a hiatus lately. New episodes have just started to be produced again. Yet the show has continued to air regularly, making use of old episodes.

And some of these episodes are very old. My mom enjoys watching these old episodes to look for dead people - people she knows who have died since the episode was recorded. Once identified, she will then watch them turn and reel across the studio dance floor, sometimes filling in little details of their lives and how she knew them.

Granted a temporary reprieve from their eternal rest, the dead carouse with younger versions of those still living, dancing to the horns and accordions and clarinets. They whisper secrets to their spouses, their dance partners, sharing private jokes with those who would outlive them by many years and those who would soon join them in death. At the end of the hour the show is over, and the dead go back to their graves, waiting to be summoned once again some Saturday night from WVIA's vaults to dance the Polka on tens of thousands of televisions across Northeastern Pennsylvania.

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