Tag Archives: polka

Sheelytown

August 10, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ever since the days of pioneer trails, immigrants from all over the world have managed to make their way to Omaha—smack-dab in the middle of the U.S.—to forge a new start for themselves and their families.

Today, the descendants of earlier generations of Omaha immigrants continue to build on the roots planted by their forebears.

Areas of town where many locals’ ancestors once lived and worked have been restructured within the city’s changing landscape, leaving behind unique traces of history and communities determined to maintain a connection to their heritage. One such local area is Sheelytown.

The City of Omaha annexed Sheelytown in 1887. Interstate construction in the 1960s cut through the neighborhood’s main street, flattening storefronts and homes. Much of the old Sheelytown is now buried under an endless stream of interstate traffic zipping past.

Sheelytown was once an important center of opportunity for Polish Americans. In the 1860s, the Stockyards thrived, and many in need of work headed here to be a part of that growth. The neighborhood—from Edward Creighton Boulevard to Vinton Street, and from 24th to 35th streets—was already occupied by Irish immigrants, but quickly expanded, promising steady income to the many arriving families.

Joseph Sheely, the area’s namesake, owned one of the meatpacking plants near Hanscom Park. Families there were hardworking, but low-income, and therefore generally looked down upon by the wealthier residents of Omaha. Still, they made their own fun, and even developed a reputation for throwing rambunctious parties and dance events.

John Szalewski, a second-generation Polish American and member of a local polka band named Sheelytown, says this kind of energy is representative of Polish culture. In his mind, Polish people are “hardworking, and enjoy their time away from work. They enjoy getting together.” In other words, Polish people work hard and play hard.

For Szalewski, this is a part of what he loves about polka: “People feed off the energy from the band. We grew up with it, and the Polish tradition brings us together.”

On the south side of Dinker's Bar & Grill, artists began work on the Polish Mural Project during the summer.

On the south side of Dinker’s Bar & Grill, artists began work on the Polish portion of the South Omaha Mural Project during the summer. Mike Girón was the lead artist with Quin Slovek as an assistant. Rhianna Girón, Richard Harrison, and Hugo Zamorano also assisted with the mural. 

Polka music, however, is not the only part of his family lineage that remains with him. “It’s very heartwarming when you walk into a South O establishment and they know your dad.” Other members of the Sheelytown band also have family ties to the neighborhood, including violinist Patrick Novak. Patrick is the son of accordion player Leonard Novak, a local musician who used to perform with The Polonairs.

These days, most of what remains of Sheelytown is the memory of what it once was. Szalewski continues, “I think most of the people that talk about the area talk about its history.” Still, he hasn’t lost the feeling of belonging, and says, “I don’t ever feel ill-at-ease going into that area.”

For younger generations, the memories are present, but not quite as clear.

Ryan Dudzinski, Omaha resident and third-generation Polish-American, is able to recall more general aspects of his heritage through stories and recollections of Polish family members. His great-grandparents came to Sheelytown as a young family with small children in the early 1900s.

“They couldn’t speak English. My grandfather (Edward) Dudzinski spoke fluent Polish, as could all of his brothers, but my dad (James) never learned it.” He says they all settled in South Omaha and remained there, with most of their descendants still in the area today.

Like so many immigrants, some level of assimilation was a necessary part of survival, and many traditions were ultimately lost. Dudzinski says grandpa Edward insisted that his father speak English only. While this meant that Ryan Dudzinski never learned the language, he understands why.

When asked to describe how he experienced Polish culture, Dudzinski echoes Szalewski’s sentiments, “There’s lots of drinking, singing, and dancing. They are fun people.” Regarding the cuisine, he’s not as much of a fan: “There’s lots of meat in tube form.”

Today, one of Sheelytown’s biggest draws is Dinker’s Bar & Grill, a family-owned establishment at 2368 S 29th St. The current owners are great-grandchildren of a Polish immigrant by the name of Synowiecki. The most popular fare at Dinker’s is quintessentially American—hamburgers—but Polish sausages with kraut are also on the menu.

Just as it occurs within families, much of what originally united the immigrants in South Omaha has given way to time. The melting pot of ethnic groups present here allows disparate backgrounds to commingle and adapt to an evolving cultural climate.

Still, the essence of what the Polish community brought to Sheelytown has not been lost entirely. It continues to be passed along by many who were raised here, and those who want to see future generations maintain an association with their history.

Though it may be hard to spot, Sheelytown holds onto a sense of pride in its Polish traditions and continues to celebrate them today. If you look for it, you can see the community’s impact on our diverse city, and you may even be able to catch the Sheelytown polka band warming up for a night of traditional Polish mayhem. 

Visit sheelytown.net for more information about the band, Sheelytown. 

Visit amidsummersmural.com/for-communities/south-omaha-mural-project/ for more information about the South Omaha Mural Project.

OmahaHome

Let’s Dance!

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For over 50 years, Dottie Dankof and her husband, Dan, have been partners in life as well as on the dance floor. The couple met while Dottie was an instructor with Arthur Murray Ballroom Dance. Today, Dottie says they try to go dancing four to six times a month. The Dankofs enjoy ballroom dancing, which includes the tango, the rumba, foxtrot, swing, and polka, among others. “We do all that stuff, but we favor the waltz,” she says.

One of the benefits of dancing that Dottie cites is the fact that it’s great exercise. “They say that it’s the one physical exercise you can do that works the whole body, and they’re right!” She also finds dance to be relaxing. “When you’re out dancing, you’re not thinking of all the other things [going on]. You’re just having so much fun!”

Gone are the days of seniors spending their retirement years rocking in the front-porch swing. Today, more and more folks ranging in age from their 60s to well into their 90s are doing swing moves on the dance floor.

“It’s really, really good exercise,” says Elizabeth Edwards, dance instructor and owner of Omaha Ballroom at 153rd and Q streets. “It’s [great] for memory, too.” Edwards explains that dancers have to remember a wide variety of dance steps and that keeps their minds and their bodies active. She shares that she and one of her students have a running joke: “When he forgets a dance move, he says he has waltz-heimers.”

Dottie and Dan Dankof

Dottie and Dan Dankof

Omaha Ballroom teaches all types of dance, but Edwards says that the seniors she works with are mainly interested in ballroom and swing. The instructors have also traveled to local retirement communities to teach lessons. Edwards is working on adding line dancing and Zumba Gold (Zumba for seniors) to their repertoire. She adds that such classes are good options for seniors who are single and may not feel comfortable dancing with an instructor.

As an instructor, Edwards meets many people who come to her studio to learn a dance for various reasons. “Some people just want to dance socially,” she says. For those, Omaha Ballroom offers what they call practice parties every Friday night. “They get a lesson and then everyone dances until 10 p.m.”

For others, who wish to pursue dance on a competitive level, Edwards and her staff can help their students achieve their goals. “We just kind of see what they’re interested in and then get them started in the right direction.”

“They say that it’s the one physical exercise you can do that works the whole body, and they’re right!” – Dottie Dankof

What would ballroom dancing be without a big band to provide the music? Thanks to the Greg Spevak Orchestra and Lonny Lynn Orchestra, local dancers won’t have to find out.

The Greg Spevak Orchestra has been playing for 43 years. “We used to play at the Music Box downtown…it’s not there anymore,” Spevak adds wistfully. The Peony Park Ballroom is another lost favorite. But today’s dancers are making memories at some other local ballroom hotspots. Of course, the Wahoo Starlight Ballroom is a favorite, as are Omaha Post 1 American Legion Hall and the Bluffs Center across the river, just to name a few. Both Spevak and Lynn play at the regular Wednesday dances hosted by the Center.

While the Greg Spevak Orchestra plays a wide variety of music—from ballroom, Latin, country, swing, and popular music from the 1950s through the mid-80s the Lynnvts Orchestra tends to stay with the Big Band Era. “But we mix a lot of Latin in throughout the evening,” Lynn adds.

Both band leaders say that the majority of their audiences are in their 60s and 70s, though it’s not uncommon to see dancers in their 80s and 90s grace the dance floor as well.

“These people move great…they dance every dance,” says Spevak. “It’s an aerobic exercise. I don’t know if I can keep up with them, to tell you the truth,” he laughs.

“If there’s a dance, the seniors don’t miss it,” says Lynn. “It’s their recreation and their social get-together.”

 “We have five or six parties a year where we hire a band and invite a bunch of our closest friends.” – Linda Todd

Lynn likes the fact that he has come to know a lot of the people who come to hear them regularly. “The people we attract to the dances…they have become like family.” He says that while he can’t remember everyone’s name, “I look at their face, I can remember their favorite song.”

Bob and Linda Todd of Gretna are regulars on the ballroom dance circuit and are close friends with the Dankofs. “We’ve been married for 20 years, so we’ve probably been dancing for 25 years,” Linda says. The couple enjoys dancing so much that they’ve built a ballroom in their basement. “We have five or six parties a year where we hire a band and invite a bunch of our closest friends.”

She adds that while they have participated in local dance classes, she and Bob often use DVDs to learn new dance steps for the convenience. “We want to learn the Argentine Tango,” she says.

Both the Todds and the Dankofs travel around the metro area to meet their friends and fellow dancers several times a month. “We enjoy socializing with our friends,” Linda says, adding that their group of friends range in age from 50 to 90. “It’s just a lot of fun, and we love it!”