The name comes from the Czech word půlka – literally, "little half" – a reference to the short half-steps featuring in the dance. The word's familiar form has been influenced by the similarity to the Czech word polka, meaning "Polish woman". The name has led to the dance's origin being sometimes mistakenly attributed to Poland. It should also not be confused with the polska, a Swedish dance with Polish roots; cf. polka-mazurka. A related dance is the redowa. Polkas almost always have a time signature. Popular music has also been parodied several times by Weird Al Yankovic in the style of polka.
There also exist Peruvian polcas (becoming very popular in Lima). In the pampas of Argentina, the "polca" has a very very fast beat with a 3/4 compass. Instruments used are: acoustic guitar (usually six strings, but sometimes seven strings), electric or acoustic bass (sometimes fretless), accordion (sometimes piano accordion, sometimes button accordion), and sometimes some percussion is used. The lyrics always praise the gaucho warriors from the past or tell about the life of the gaucho campeiros (provincial gauchos who keep the common way).
While the polka is Bohemian in origin, most dance music composers in Vienna (the capital of the vast Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was the cultural centre for music from all over the empire) composed polkas and included the dance in their repertoire at some point of their career. The Strauss family in Vienna for example, while probably better-known for their waltzes also composed polkas which have survived obscurity. Josef Lanner and other Viennese composers in the 19th century also wrote many polkas to satiate the demands of the dance music-loving Viennese. In France, another dance-music composer Emile Waldteufel also wrote many polkas in addition to his chief profession of penning waltzes.
The polka evolved during the same period into different styles and tempi. In principle, the polka written in the 19th century has a 4-theme structure; themes 1A and 1B as well as a 'Trio' section of a further 2 themes. The 'Trio' usually has an 'Intrada' to form a break between the two sections. The feminine and graceful 'French polka' (polka française) is slower in tempo and is more measured in its gaiety. Johann Strauss II's Annen Polka op. 114, Demolirer polka op. 269, the Im Krapfenwald'l op. 336 and the Bitte schön! polka op. 372 are examples of this type of polka. The polka-mazurka is also another variation of the polka, being in the tempo of a mazurka but danced in a similar manner as the polka. The final category of the polka dating around that time would be the 'polka schnell' which is a fast polka or galop. It is in this final category Eduard Strauss is better known, as he penned the 'Bahn Frei' polka op. 45 and other examples. Earlier, Johann Strauss I and Josef Lanner wrote polkas which are either designated as a galop (quick tempo) or as a regular polka which may not fall into any of the categories described above.
The polka was also a further source of inspiration for the Strauss family in Vienna when it was written only for plucked string instruments (pizzicato) resulting in the well-known 'Pizzicato Polka' jointly written by Johann II and Josef Strauss. Johann II also wrote a later 'New Pizzicato Polka' (Neu Pizzicato-Polka) op. 449 culled from music of his operetta 'Fürstin Ninetta'. Much earlier, he also wrote a 'joke-polka' (German "scherz-polka") entitled 'Champagne-Polka' op. 211 which evokes the uncorking of champagne bottles.
The United States Polka Association is based in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Polka America Corporation is a non-profit organization based out of Ringle, Wisconsin.
Grammy Awards were first presented for polka in 1985. The first award went to America's Polka King, Frank Yankovic, for his "70 Years of Hits" album on Cleveland International Records, produced by Joey Miskulin and Dragutin Razum in 1986. Cleveland International Records had another Polka Grammy winner with Brave Combo's Polkasonic in 1999. Other Polka Grammy nominees on Cleveland International Records include Frank Yankovic's "America's Favorites" (1986), "Songs of the Polka King Vol. I" (Produced by Joey Miskulin and Slavko Slivovitz, 1996), "Songs of the Polka King Vol. II" (1997), and Brave Combo's "Kick Ass Polkas" (2000). Jimmy Sturr & His Orchestra is arguably the most popular polka band in America, having won 17 out of the 23 Grammy Awards given for Grammy Award for Best Polka Album.
Polka Varieties was an hour-long television program of polka music originating from Cleveland, Ohio. It was the only television program for this type of music in the US. From 1956 to 1975, Polka Varieties ran solely in WEWS-TV, Cleveland, on Sunday afternoons from 1:00 to 2:00, and was syndicated during its later years to 30 television markets. The program featured various popular Polish, Slovenian, Italian, and Bohemian-style bands. America's "Polka King" Frank Yankovic was the original band to perform on the show. Other bands included Richie Vadnal, George Staiduhar, Markic-Zagger, and Hank Haller. Original host Tom Fletcher was replaced by Paul Wilcox, whose presence became an indelible part of the show.