Cutting a Rug: How Polish Dancefloors Changed through the 20th Century
From workers’ dances to techno in post-industrial halls – the history of partying in Poland is a worthwhile read.
We start our journey in 1918, since Poland's newly-gained independence coincided with a boom in its nightlife. As Antoni Słonimski wrote:
In the cloakroom of the Astoria restaurant, my generation left the well-worn Konrad’s cloak (TN: a reference to Adam Mickiewicz's Romantic hero who sacrifices himself for his country) and sat at the table to start a normal life in a normal country.
Elegant receptions and Balls of Savages
At first, new venues focused on gastronomical offerings, reserving dancing only for special balls. Still, there were many of those during the carnival. Separate balls were organized for the aristocracy, gentry, military, and diplomats. Industry balls, such as those of the press or the Pen Club, were also in fashion, as well as charity balls.
Newspapers wrote extensively about the Fashion Ball, ‘where there is nothing too beautiful or too expensive for those celebrating the carnival.’ The most beautiful costumes were described in newspapers such as Teatr i Życie Wytworne (Theatre and the Sophisticated Life). Exclusive clothing producers competed to dress the Fashion Queen, as it guaranteed free press coverage.
In contrast with the elegant receptions of high society, Polish bohemians chose spontaneity, creativity, and carnival transgressions, immersed in vodka and the absurd. ‘Zostawcie w domu fraki i szelki, strój byle jaki, a grunt to butelki’ (editor’s translation: ‘Forget your white ties and cufflinks, the dress won’t matter if you have drinks’), screamed a poster advertising Byczybal literancki (the Literary Bullball) in the legendary Jama Michalika in Kraków. Besides the afore-mentioned attractions, the programme included jazz and futuristic decorations. Anyone who entered such a ball in a suit or worse, a tuxedo, was sure to be punished. His jacket would be turned inside out, his shirt and face painted, and his hair adorned with feathers or other accessories.
The Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków regularly organised ‘Balls of Savages’ whose participants dressed as exotic tribes. Warsaw’s Academy, on the other hand, held a rollicking ‘Ragman’s Ball’. Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz described it as follows:
I devised a ‘pearl fisherman’ costume. Wanda Telakowska says that I was completely naked, but that's not true, just my arms were bare. Anyway, everything was covered with a dense mesh of artificial pearls.
With time, new venues specializing in dances started to emerge. The Adria opened in 1929 in Warsaw and was iconic of the interwar nightlife. It had an underground dancehall for 1500 people with a rotating dancefloor and two bars. The weekly Świat described the venue enthusiastically:
Three prime orchestras – authentic Argentinian, jazz-band and salon… A big coffee hall (with 300 seats) in the Viennese style… separated by a hedge of blooming cacti from the glass-covered winter garden, the first of its kind in Warsaw. An abundance of blooming flowers, exotic birds, a beautiful fountain in a marble frame, and the discreetly placed lights…
Workers’ districts had their own premises and own parties. In summer, special dances ‘na dechach’ (on planks) were organised, typically in Sielce and Praga parks, and on the beaches of both banks of the Wisła river. There was no entrance fee, only a small charge for each dance instead. Winter also needed its attractions. In his memoir Boso, ale w ostrogach Stansław Grzesiuk described the famous dancefloor of the Czerniaków Friends Association. Its parties had an informal code – woe betide any ‘frajer z miasta’ (city chump) who did not abide by it:
There weren’t any pairs. Anybody could dance with any girl. There were fewer women so it was normal to give away your partner during the dance… If you wouldn’t, a squabble would surely unfold.
Obviously, holiday resorts couldn't do without dances and Zakopane soon became the leisure capital of Poland. In each of its respectable clubs: ‘a terrific jazz band excited the couples cooped up inside.’ In the summer and winter seasons the best Polish bands came to perform, including those of Karasiński and Kataszek, Ady Rosner, and Fred Melodist, as well as the Jolly Boys group. Dancefloors would break under the pressure of people dancing the Charleston, the foxtrot, the Lambeth walk and the shimmy. Witold Gombrowicz remembered the Zakopane night fever as follows:
Dawn. The couples don’t want to stop, they dance even though the music fades… The end at last, jazz band members put their instruments down, people get dressed, they put on coats and wellies, when suddenly… they feel the twist again and start whirling, music gets crazy again, coats and scarves are flying over the dancing public. Nowhere else have I witnessed parties like the ones in the morning in Zakopane.
‘Nur für Polen’ dances
On the first day of the war troubles, I was sure nobody would come to the café. And there it was, full of people! Even though there was a blackout imposed… there were still crowds at the café, to the last day of my performances.
After the invasion of Poland, the Nazi General Government divided the venues into ‘nur für Deutsche’ and ‘nur für Polen’ categories. At first there were also some locales in the ghetto – the most famous of them, Sztuka (Art) hosted performers such as singer Andrzej Włast and pianist Władysław Szpilman.
It made sense to hit the town and dance a little bit… the Krauts get on my nerves. There are too many of them wandering about town. To dance, I need a drink first, but when I am buzzed I could get into a scuffle with them again.
In line with the slogan ‘tylko świnie siedzą w kinie, co bogatsze to w teatrze’ (‘only pigs go to the cinema, and the rich ones – to the theatre’) the German entertainment industry was boycotted. Thus, bars remained one of the only attractions of the wartime reality. Wild parties mirrored the news about the subsequent German defeats: Stalingrad, the US entering the war, and the Normandy landings. On the other hand, on important state holidays, such as Independence Day (11th November), and on the days the Nazis carried out executions, Polish bars closed in solidarity.
People from all sorts of professions opened their own bars. And so a group of jobless artists settled on the first floor of a once grand apartment on Jerozolimskie Avenue, creating the ‘Gospoda u włóczęgów’ (Guesthouse of Vagabonds). In a book on underground gastronomic locales, Anna Strzeżek wrote:
The parlour was partly a restaurant and a bar, and partly a cabaret. An 8-member orchestra played traditional hits. Waiting on clients were ex-theatre actresses, ballet dancers, and singers.
Such locales were popping up in all of Warsaw’s neighbourhoods. The reason for the gastronomic boom: People opening their own companies received a confirmation of employment, which prevented them from being sent to Nazi Germany as forced labour.
Most of the Polish nightclubs were nightclubs in name only – there was a curfew imposed. After 11pm, only secret clubs in private apartments stayed open.
‘Your jacket is flying’
As soon as the war ended, new venues opened in the ruins of Warsaw, while the ‘nur für Deutsche’ plates were removed from the few locales that remained intact. Swing orchestras reformed. YMCA chapters restarted and opened their own jazz clubs – in Warsaw, Łódź and Kraków, among others. From the mid-1940s, Latin sounds were in fashion for over a decade: the samba, cha-cha, mambo and calypso were danced. The tradition of grand balls was revived. Agnieszka Osiecka commented in her memoirs:
The organisers of these balls swore by all that is holy that they would be democratic and open for all people. In fact, they were as elitist and exclusive as the ones before the war.
The situation changed in 1949, when jazz was condemned as an imperialist invention to degenerate the youth. The new authorities chose to promote homely dances in the rhythm of polkas and obereks instead. Fans of the off-beat music known as ‘bikiniarze’ (the Polish equivalent of beatniks) or ‘dżollerzy’, were forced underground. Osiecka wrote:
Until October 1956, lumpish oberkas were danced, after October – crooked boogie-woogies.
The political changes of October 1956 brought about a new stage in the history of Polish partying. In the second half of the 1950s jazz once again echoed across Poland, from the Baltic Sea to the Tatra Mountains. In 1956 the first Sopot Jazz Festival took place, which proved as formative to Polish beatniks as Woodstock was for American hippies. The Kalatówki mountain shelter organized jazz camps. Student clubs held dance evenings. Even Kraków’s neighbour Nowa Huta, which was supposed to be the realization of the socrealist ideal, became one of the most important centres of jazz and later big-beat. After all, the youth engaged in the huge construction project also needed a place to have fun. The following romantic letter was published in Głos Nowej Huty (Nowa Huta’s Voice) in 1957:
Soon autumn’s foul weather will interrupt our frequent pleasant walks. I have been thinking about where we will meet up now. I can’t visit you, because your hotel doesn’t allow it…. I have been dreaming about a pleasant place where we could feel at home, which, taking the waiting list into account, we won’t be having soon. And can you believe it, I found a place like that…. It has a good eleven-tube radio, record adapter, a wonderful dancefloor…. We will probably have a nicer time here than in the cafés, which, even the best of them, are always petite bourgeoisie, and in the worst you can hear dirty words.
‘Three thousand guitars are playing for us’
Tere-fere, ecie-pecie,bawmy się jak małe dzieci,bo my też już wreszcie mamy,rock and roll.Eeny meeny, miny moo,Let’s have fun like children do,‘Cause at last we also haveRock and roll
These are the words of the Polish version of Billy Halley’s hit Rock Around the Clock. Sung by Carmen Moreno for the Polish Film Chronicle in 1957, it started a new era in music, which soon conquered dancefloors across the country. In 1959, the first proper rock’n’roll band, Rhythm and Blues, debuted in Rudy Kot in Gdańsk. To hide its Western provenance, rock’n’roll’s name in Polish was changed to ‘mocne uderzenie’ (big beat).
The most famous club of the big-beat era was Non-Stop in Sopot, which opened in the summer of 1961. At first sight it looked rather shabby – a dancefloor made of pallets and a small stage in an adjacent square under a tarpaulin roof. Sometimes as many as 1000 people partied inside, many of them hitch-hikers from all over Poland. Underage and poor, they contrived cunning ways to have fun: either by jumping over the net or creating an alternative dancefloor on the pavement in front of the club. Some danced in pairs, some preferred the expressive solo dance called surf.
Even though the parties ended at 10 pm sharp, the venue had to repeatedly change its location. By 1981 many important Polish bands had played there, including Czerwono-Czarni, Niebiesko-Czarni, Czerwone Gitary, Budka Suflera, Breakout, Polanie, Skaldowie, and Czesław Niemen. The man behind it all was Franciszek Walicki, who later promoted the first Polish discotheques.
Theatre of mechanical music
In winter, Non-Stop would move to the Grand Hotel, which opened its Turystyczna room for big-beat fun. It was probably there that the first Polish discotheque took place in the summer of 1970. The posters advertised it as follows:
!!!For the first time ever!!! The Polish Jazz Federation invites you to the first party of discotheque hits in Poland… Hi-Fi sound, full stereo, light effects.
Parties took place twice a day: from 7 pm to 9 pm for youths and from 10 pm to 1am for the ‘young at heart.’ Because of the young audience, the Grand Hotel’s authorities changed its alcohol policy and mainly sold coffee, cakes and non-alcoholic beverages. In 1971 Jacek Podgóreczny reviewed the Musicoramas as follows:
The dim light of the room is broken by the flashes of lights pulsating to the rhythm of the music. Music is everywhere. You can almost feel its tangible presence in each corner of the room. Powerful loudspeakers of more than 250 watts constantly bombard the dancefloor – when the music requires it, of course.
By the wall – the mixing console, the brain of the disco, the commander’s bunker. It is from here, with the help of two stereo gramophones and a complicated system of amplifiers, cameras and mixers, that sound and light are carried. It is from here that the records are announced and the party is directed.
Podgóreczny’s article ends with a manifesto of sorts:
In a country whose citizens spend more on vodka than on soap, theatre and books; where the beer kiosk has become an institution of necessity; where there are thousands of disgusting pubs and where many night clubs, targeted at God-knows-whom (because surely not at ordinary people), are subsidized with millions – in such a country it is difficult to speak about establishing youth clubs, theatres of mechanical music, or discotheques. For people with cash-stuffed wallets, for the brazen indolents, for prostitutes and black-market money changers – Warsaw offers several luxury clubs. For its youth, however, it leaves beer kiosks and the grinding of the city centre’s pavements, as there is not even a single café with a dancefloor left for them…
Soon the situation was to change – the soundtrack of Gierek’s era was disco.
‘I work hard in a discotheque’
In the era of ubiquitous wannabe and self-made DJs it may be difficult to believe that in the previous era it was very difficult to become one. The entire process was monitored by the National Council of Disco Presenters at the Ministry of Culture and Art. In the mid-1970s it certified around 100 DJs. Its director, Franciszek Walicki:
It is not without importance for the cultural politics, what kind of content [the DJs] present to millions of people every year.
Not surprisingly many DJs performed illegally without the necessary permits. The official wages were low, but tips made it possible to make the equivalent of an average month’s salary in one night. However, Western records were hard to get. As Piotr Fronczewski ‘Franek’ Kimono sang:
Jestem dżokejem - lansuje hity
Lecz skąd je brać - powiedzcie mi
Czasem na giełdzie - coś mi podejdzie
Lecz w gruncie rzeczy sprzedaje kitI am a DJ – I play the hits,
But where to get them – please tell me
Flea markets maybe today it will be
But to be honest I sell shit.
Because of their proximity to West Berlin as well as the popularity of deals with sailors the port cities of Pomerania became disco powers. Pomeranian DJs were a sensation across Poland. Other DJs, without useful connections, had to rely on hits recorded from the radio. Even music equipment was often do-it-yourself. Despite the difficulties, discos were organized not only in entertainment venues, but also in gyms, workplace canteens, and cultural centres. In 1975 Filipinka magazine published tips on how to organize a city discotheque:
First you go the director of the cultural centre and present your bright action plan. Use convincing arguments like the fact that the disco will allow you to shape the musical sensitivity of young people and popularize Polish music. Mention that it will lower delinquency rates, providing youths with an attractive way of spending time.
‘Death to the discotheque’
The rebellious youth, however, would not attend discos. The beginning of the 1980s saw a boom in new wave and punk rock. Concerts were back in style, while the pogo became the most popular dance style. As Kazik Staszewski ironically stated: ‘Młodzi warszawiacy to szpanerzy, słuchają Boney M’ (‘Young Varsavians are show-offs, they listen to Boney M’), while Dezerter mocked disco’s ‘easy music and idiot words’. Even the mainstream band Lombard had its anti-disco protest song:
Łomot, łomot, łomot tępy
Bolą, bolą, bolą zęby
Zabić, zabić tę maszynę,
Która uszy nam wygina
Śmierć dyskotece!Thud, thud, dull thudding
Teeth teeth teeth hurting
Kill, kill the machine
That one that hurts our ears
Death to the discotheque!
Nevertheless, the legacy of disco in Poland manifested itself in two characteristic phenomena – the emergence of the ‘poppers’ subculture and in later years, the emergence of depesze – a subculture of fanatical fans of Depeche Mode. The disco era continued with new trends hitting the dancefloors: new romantic, Italo disco, and dance.
Meanwhile by the end of the 1980s new alternative parties started to emerge. Music parties inspired by Jamaican soundsystems were developed in Lublin by the Love Sen-C Music Crew and in Zgorzelec by Mirosław ‘Maken’ Dzięciołowski’s Joint Venture Sound System. In an interview with Onet.pl, Dzięciołowski said:
The biggest problem to convince the public of ‘mechanical music’ was to show them that it’s not another discotheque, but a form of underground activity. Unlike live music, playing records was commonly considered commercial back then…. Dub, reggae, ska, but also industrial, new wave and even favourite bits by Dezerter – that’s how we entertained our public in those early years.
The 1990s: a rave in a forest, disco polo in a silo
Even the oldest ravers don’t remember when exactly techno came to Poland. Supposedly, as early as 1989, when Łódź saw an underground party featuring DJs from the Berlin Love Parade. In Warsaw guerrilla raves called Dance Missions were organized in an old bathhouse on Chmielna by Dezerter’s first vocalist: Darek ‘Skanda’ Hajn. In Krzystofory in Kraków the Acid Dance Party cycle began. Its organizer, Michał Długosz aka MK Fever, recalled:
Clubs invited an elderly gentleman from Kraków’s Filmotechnika, who added fragments of old film chronicles and Soviet propaganda films to the music played by the DJs. Someone brought stroboscopes and the atmosphere instantly became incredible.
Famous for uncanny theme parties was Sopot’s Sphinx, where the New Year’s Eve party of 1991 became a New Year’s Eve Symposium: ‘Ancient Egypt and the degenerated Mediterranean civilization’. The ball at the end of the carnival in 1993 was titled The Return of the Saint Inquisition.
In big cities the club scene was expanding and becoming more diverse, while new genres such as house, drum’n’ bass and psychedelic trance were introduced. It reflected the concept of different strokes for different folks, both in terms of beats per minute and drug of choice. DJs playing more radical techno subgenres opposed the commercialization of the scene and organized illegal parties in forests and abandoned buildings. It seems ironic now that by the end of the century Łódź and Warsaw punks, bored with the development of the clubbing scene, revived the retro discos of the 1980s.
The 90s was also the formative era for Polish hip-hop. Most significant here were the parties of DJ Volta organized in Hybrydy and Alfa clubs in Warsaw. By the end of the century every bigger city had its own cycle of hip-hop parties: in Mega Club in Katowice, Słowianin in Szczecin, Eskulap in Poznań and Rotunda in Kraków.
Post-transformation developments in disco polo allowed the discos to expand beyond big agglomerations. In 1995 Mariusz Szczygieł and Wojciech Staszewski reported on the phenomenon as follows:
Disco polo venues appear on a great scale in villages. Mazurki have Kaskada, Bondary – Karino, Chorosz – Paradiso, Mońki – Manhattan. This is the most puzzling phenomenon: halls of former State Agricultural Farms are leased out as well as bankrupt granaries and within a month you have a venue, attended by two thousand people every Saturday night.
The emergence of new music genres and new subcultures at the turn of the 21st century helped the party industry grow bigger than ever. But this is already a topic for another story…
Based on books:
- Maja and Jan Łozińscy. W przedwojennej Polsce. Życie codzienne i niecodzienne, Warsaw: PWN, 2011.
- Anna Strzeżek Od konsumpcji do konspiracji czyli warszawskie lokale gastronomiczne 1939-1944. Warsaw: TRIO, 2012.
Written by Patryk Zakrzewski, translated by OK, 8 Feb 2016