Dyngus Day is the Polish answer to St. Patrick's Day. Celebrated since the 700s, the holiday historically marks the end of Lent but involves quirkier traditions such as boys and girls dunking each other in water and whipping the opposite sex with pussy willow branches. "Back when it started, it was a pagan holiday — a rite of spring," says Justin Gorski, aka DJ Kishka, who started it here in 2010. "In Cleveland, we throw a huge polka party." Drawing 25,000 to Gordon Square Arts District, Ohio City and Tremont, Dyngus Day returns April 6. With oddities galore and a barrel of fun, we roll out this guide to the fifth annual romp.
Bobby "Banjo" Yankovic toured with his dad, Frank, the late polka legend, and played banjo on the 1986 Grammy Award-winning album 70 Years of Hits, the first to win in the best polka recording category.
My dad's blood runs through my veins. I feel it. My dad was known for never taking a break. He said time went faster when we played straight through. His motto was, "Smile! Make people happy. That's what we get paid for."
He's not the greatest musician, not the greatest singer, but he has style. It's like magic — like Elvis and rock 'n' roll. He had a lot of charisma.
He would say, "Polka music is the happiest music this side of heaven."
I'm putting the alumni together that used to play with my dad to play the main stage at Dyngus Day [for what would be his 100th birthday party].
Cleveland is a polka town. The majority of the polka bands around now have some connection with my dad. Dad touched some musician every job he played: an accordion player, a banjo player, a drummer would sit in with us. My motto is that he is gone but not forgotten. — as told to Chuck Bowen
DJ Kishka recommends three standout acts playing Dyngus Day.
The Chardon Polka Band is just as likely to perform "In Heaven There is No Beer" as a Lady Gaga cover. "They write a lot of their own originals and add some fresh energy to the whole polka," Kishka says of the act starring in the reality TV show Polka Kings, which premieres April 11 on Reelz.
Don Wojtila and his veteran band have been playing Cleveland beer halls for 40 years. Their Slovenian-style renditions of songs such as "She Don't Want No Egg Roll" are the closest to Cleveland's golden age of polka.
Jody Maddie and the Honky Express play a true Polish-Chicago style that's faster and heavier on the horns for a hoppier polka dance that's unlike the Slovenian-Cleveland style. "Stylistically, it's a different sound," Kishka says.
Kim Hanko-Dale, Miss Dyngus 2014, earned her crown as much for her devotion to Polish culture as her ability to tie a babushka. She offers advice on how you too could don the kielbasa crown and pierogi scepter.
Hanko-Dale uses a plastic cup to cut the dough and adds brick cheese to her pierogi filling. "You want it to be traditional but to still stand out," says Hanko-Dale.
The right polka must be more than a back-and-forth shuffle and not too hoppy, she advises. "You have to perfect your polka spin," she says. "It really helps if you have a few drinks."
Contestants must tie their babushkas onstage. "You have to make sure you have the right placement, and the knot's not too tight, so it lays nicely," she says. "It's a little lower than your chin when you tie it."
Kishka's Heavenly Beer Tent
Gordon Square Arts District
The epicenter of Dyngus Day offers a new band every hour and the accordion parade. Plus, a Sterle's Slovenian Country House food truck will serve sausages, and Cleveland Vegan (which Kishka owns with his wife) will dish out potato and leek pierogies. West 58th Street and Detroit Avenue
Prosperity Social Club
You'll get a spirit of what Cleveland was like in the '30s and '40s when neighborhoods like Tremont and Collinwood were imbued with accordion music and hearty food," says Joe Valencic, president of the National Cleveland-style Polka Hall of Fame. 1109 Starkweather Ave.
Mitchell's Homemade Ice Cream
New this year, the shop has live entertainment and special Dyngus treats: Rum Babka, a rum-cinnamon ice cream with babka pastry and Paczki's and Cream, a paczki with a scoop of your favorite Mitchell's flavor. 1867 W. 25th St.