Here's an intriguing little polka variation from late nineteenth century America: the cross step polka, which is found in both M. B. Gilbert's Round Dancing (Portland, Maine, 1890) and William B. DeGarmo's The Dance of Society, Fifth Edition, Revised and Enlarged (New York, 1892). It's quite easy to do and is particularly interesting because the partners dance different steps at the same time while in a close ballroom hold, which is quite unusual in late-nineteenth century couple dancing.
Some earlier examples of this kind of mismatched footwork include the slow French waltz and sauteuse described by Thomas Wilson in 1816, the old valse à trois temps, and Cellarius' valse à cinq temps of the 1840s. But in all of those cases, the mismatched steps are the basic steps of the dance rather than a variation. That suggests an unusual problem: how does one lead one's partner into different footwork for a variation when one is not doing the same footwork oneself?
Pretty easily, it turns out!
But first let's talk about the steps of the Cross Step Polka itself. The reconstruction is fairly straightforward:
Part One (two measures)
1&2& Slide left, hop on left, step on right crossed in front of left, hop on right
1&2 Slide left, close (or cut) right to left, leap gently onto left, making a half-turn
Part Two (two measures)
1&2& Slide right, close left to right, slide right, close left to right
1&2 Slide right, close (or cut) left to right, leap gently onto right, making a half-turn
The steps given are for both dancers; the lady does not dance opposite. Instead, the gentleman starts with Part One and the lady with Part Two. On the third and fourth measures (lady dancing Part One, gentleman Part Two), they will be dancing "over elbows", but the feet are still as above.
Notice that the second measure of both parts is a polka half-turn, so the mismatch is only in the first and third measures. The gentleman's steps can be thought of as "step-hop-step-hop, pol-ka-turn, slide-close-slide-close, pol-ka-turn." The lady's are "slide-close-slide-close, pol-ka-turn, step-hop-step-hop, pol-ka-turn." Gilbert describes Part Two as the Glide Polka, which I discussed briefly here.
When I first looked at the Cross Step Polka in Gilbert, I was so startled by the mismatched footwork that I wondered if I were reading his instructions correctly. Rather than the standard catchphrases like "Counterpart for the lady" or "Lady starts on opposite foot" or "Lady dances opposite", Gilbert wrote:
The lady commences at second part; doing second part while the gentleman does first part, and vice-versa.
That's reasonably clear, but it still seemed so odd to me that it was not until I cross-checked DeGarmo that I was quite certain:
While the gentleman is doing the "cross step," the lady does the Esmeralda and vice-versa.
I'll get back to that disconcerting "Esmeralda" in a bit; first let me talk about some practical issues in dancing the Cross Step Polka.
1. The dancer's body naturally turns slightly to face the line of dance during the first measure of Part One, making the slide-hop-cross-hop sequence feel rather like skipping: step-hop, step-hop. It's fun!
2. Performance of the polka step: Gilbert was somewhat ambiguous about the degree to which the second movement of the polka is an actual cut (coupé) vs. just a close of the feet. He described it in the Cross Step Polka as "draw right to left (1st), transferring weight of body to right". He used the same description in the polka itself, but also called it a coupé. It is significantly easier to make the following leap if it is done as a coupé, raising the displaced foot rather than just closing to first, so I would recommend doing it that way, but keeping it a very small and controlled coupé, just raising the foot slightly (still in first) rather than extending it to second or any other dramatic motion.
DeGarmo had given up on any sort of bounciness in the polka as early as the first edition of The Dance of Society (1875). He described the polka simply as a gliding chassé step: (hop) slide-close-slide, with the even the initial hop being phased out. I therefore think it would also be reasonable to do the polka turns in the Cross Step Polka completely smoothly; slide-close-slide rather than slide-cut-leap. That turns Part Two into a simple four-slide galop.
3. Leading the Cross Step Polka. This turned out to be surprisingly simple if done from a Glide Polka (or four-slide galop, if one is doing the gentler DeGarmo footwork), since the alternating footwork means that there is no problem if the lady does not pick it up immediately; she doesn't have to! She just keeps doing the Glide Polka, feels the gentleman do his little skipping sequence, and then echoes it herself. Or, if by chance she doesn't, that's not a problem for the couple; they both just do the Glide Polka on the third and fourth measure.
In actual practice, then, the skipping sequence is really a variation for the first measure of the Glide Polka. One partner can go merrily along dancing the Cross Step Polka while the other just does the Glide Polka throughout and it will all work out fine.
Leading the Cross Step Polka directly from the regular polka is trickier, and I do not recommend it.
4. One could, in theory, do all the normal variations of nineteenth-century couple dancing, turning in reverse or dancing forward and backward with no turn at all. But there's enough going on in the Cross Step Polka with the he-goes-she-goes sequence of steps that it doesn't feel particularly necessary.
Other than the ambiguity about the precise performance of the polka step, there are only two points of confusion in the sources:
1. Gilbert called Part Two the Glide Polka while DeGarmo called it the Esmeralda, which earlier in the century had a different, four-bar pattern of its own. Looking at the actual descriptions in their books, however, the steps of DeGarmo's Esmeralda and Gilbert's Glide Polka are the same, and DeGarmo's Esmeralda is subtitled "Glide Polka". DeGarmo's excuse for using the Esmeralda name, taken from his preface to the addenda to the fifth edition, was that he advised that "where different names are applied to the same dance, the original name be retained and all the others discarded." He wasn't being very consistent in this case, since he also acknowledged the different pattern of the original Esmeralda!
2. Gilbert has a habit of notating the polka as "&123" instead of "&1&2", which is particularly annoying in a variation like this, where he has notated the first measure of each part in two and appears to have notated the second of each in three: 1&2&123, 1&2&123. Is clear from a thorough reading of Gilbert as well as a comparison to DeGarmo that this is just Gilbert's little editorial tic rather than the Cross Step Polka being danced in five.
A Final Note
A dance called the Polka Croisée appears in G. W. Lopp's La Danse (Paris, 1903), which is in large part a translation of Gilbert. While the Polka Croisée is clearly related to the Cross Step Polka that appeared in Gilbert and DeGarmo, it lacks the mismatched footwork and has slightly different steps that reflect some of the differences in practice in Lopp. It is sufficiently distinct that at some point it will warrant a post of its own.
Special thanks to Christina for patiently dance-testing the Cross Step Polka with me!