There’s nothing like a bit of polka music to lift your spirits. Truly. I’m not joking.

I didn’t want to go at first. We were happily basking in the unusually hot rays of the sun (it is July in San Francisco, after all). I was upon the verge of snoring, flanked on either side by a friend absorbed in her book. The roar of the ocean lulled me even deeper into my state of semi-consciousness. Emily finally poked me. “It’s almost 1. We should think about going.” Oh, but I’m so comfortable, I thought. Just 10 more minutes. Just a little more… and I felt the beach blanket being tugged out from under me.

We had planned an all day outing, first a picnic on the beach, a little girl bonding time, then a respectable nap before heading over to the Marin German Tourist Club, Friends of Nature, nestled deep into the woods on Mount Tamalpais. It’s the annual Summerfest.

I’d never been before, but had heard fabulous tales of the frolic and fun that was bound to occur at each of the 3 annual “fests” – May, Summer, and October. We parked the car along the tiny, windy road that transverses Mt. Tam. We descended down the narrow and steep switchback path leading to the Friends of Nature lodge, each step bringing us closer to the fabled Summerfest.

First barely audible, then with each step growing stronger, we heard the music. Happy notes, carrying through the branches, up the mountain, into the sky. As we rounded the last switchback, I stopped and gasped. We were standing in the shadow of a Swiss chalet. But we definitely weren’t at Disneyland. I looked around, expecting to see Hansel and Gretel at any moment. And in some respects, I did.

A large band of elderly men with drooping grey mustaches and snug lederhosen offered sprightly tunes. The tuba, the trombone, the spoons, an accordion, and others I couldn’t recognize. They took requests (at one time performing a tango/polka mix, not the best idea of the day). They played. And the people danced. People in traditional costumes. People in Birkenstocks. People in gold lame boots and flowing tunics. We nestled into a corner of the wooden deck, the bandstand as it were, trying to find a slice of shade to cool our overheated bodies. We watched, unspeaking, in awe. Everyone, at first glance, seemed to know what they were doing. The pairs of dancers moving in perfect unison, each pair spinning counterclockwise while also swirling and twirling in a larger counterclockwise formation around and around the deck.

I watched everyone, but certain characters caught my eye. The woman with snow white hair, a faded hot pink silk flower pinned to her girlish bob. What I first noticed, however, was the way she bounced, almost a jump, really, as her partner twirled her. Her dress, dark blue with a blood red apron tied over the skirt, sported layers and layers of red tulle peeping out from below. She wore a red version of the standard black dance shoe, a moderate heel that gave her spindly legs just enough lift to be shapely. With these shoes she wore dark blue anklets, encircled by light blue organza bows hugging her ankles tightly. It was such youthful packaging for such a mature product. Her eyes, though, her penetrating crystal clear blue eyes, oh! how they sparkled. When a new partner asked her for the dance. When she heard the music. When her partner spun her, or twirled her, or bowed to her at the end of a dance.

Then there was the younger gentlemen who looked as though he should be at the porn star convention instead of enjoying an afternoon of polka. Displaying Elvis sideburns, oversized gold sunglasses, and drooping trousers, he coolly surveyed the scene unfolding in front of him. It wasn’t until the band broke out into “The Chicken Dance” that excitement pulsed through his veins. He grabbed an unsuspecting partner (also porn star material), commandeered the center of the deck, and began the most unusual rendition of the chicken dance I’ve ever seen, culminating with a full-on breakdance exhibition extraordinaire.

And then. The old man, joy personified. Stooped, he shuffled the dance floor, asking woman after woman to share a dance with him. As he circled by his blue eyes stared straight ahead, never wavering, magnified by his Coke bottle eyeglasses. He was a cartoon animation come to life. I expected his bushy gray mustache to suddenly animate and run away. And he continued, steadfastly, around and around and around the circle with an enduring slight smile, obviously enjoying the moment at hand, oblivious to the commotion surrounding him and his partner.

It was one of the rare occasions when I chose to be an observer and not a participant. Only once was I approached to dance but I politely refused with a smile, not wanting to admit I don’t know how to execute the happy steps of a polka. But after watching the merriment of the afternoon, I think maybe it’s time I learned.

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