LUDLOW -- I have wanted to polka around the Pioneer Valley and eat pierogis ever since 1996, when I first read Suzanne Strempek Shea's novel ''Hoopi Shoopi Donna." It's the tale of a Polish-American girl in a town near Chicopee whose dream is to play accordion in an all-girl polka band. (The title comes from a line in a song that goes ''Hupaj Siupaj Dana," which sounds like ''Hoopi Shoopi Donna.")
The area has a large Polish-American population. Polish immigrants first came in large numbers in the late 1800s, many to work as farmhands or in the textile mills, and Poles still make their way here.
This fall, I dragged my dancing partner to a Pioneer Valley weekend. I had tracked down what looked like the perfect spot: Collegian Court in Chicopee. It has been voted best Polish restaurant in the Pioneer Valley by the Valley Advocate newspaper, and advertised a live band on Saturday nights, featuring polka, cha-cha, and samba.
By 6:30 the place was packed. I scanned the extensive menu but found only one Polish dish, a combination plate of pierogi (a dumpling usually filled with meat, potato, cheese, or cabbage), golabki (stuffed cabbage), kapusta (a cabbage dish), and kielbasa. The rest was a cross of New England staples and Italian fare: spaghetti, clam chowder, baked scrod. We waited for the band to swing into action. They played ''Over the Rainbow." They played ''Mack the Knife." They played ''Spanish Eyes," ''After the Loving," and ''Memories." But they didn't play a polka.
''They might play one if you request it," suggested our waitress, but she looked dubious. We asked if there was somewhere else we might go to hear some polka music. ''No place I know of," she replied, shaking her head. ''And I'm Polish!"
I borrowed a phone book from the woman at the cash register. Several Polish-American clubs were listed for Chicopee and nearby towns: Ludlow, South Hadley, Willimansett. I jotted down addresses and phone numbers.
The address for something called the Polish National Alliance Cafe was just around the corner.
It was loud, with bright fluorescent overhead lights. The turquoise walls of the bar were lined with football team pennants and beer signs. The back room had pool tables and an entire cement-block wall painted with a scene of palm trees and leaping dolphins. There was no band, but you could pick three songs for $1 from the jukebox in the back room, including selections from Happy Richie's Polka Band and Happy Louie and The Julcia Polka Band, tunes such as ''Maryanka Polka," ''To Be Like You Polka," and ''Baltic Girl Polka." We dropped in some quarters and headed to the bar, where several guys in feed caps were downing $5 pitchers of Budweiser.
''We used to have a kielbasa festival," said Bill Zabik, wearing a hat that read ''2nd Infantry Division." ''Chicopee is the home of kielbasa. But it's kind of dying out, Polish things." A woman with long, straight hair said Ludlow's Polish club might have dancing.
We stayed an hour, long enough for two games of pool and several Eagles songs, but none of our polka requests came on. We headed off to our hotel and bed, promising to continue the search.
The Ludlow Polish American Citizens Club had dances later in the fall, but nothing this weekend. A Pulaski Hall in Chicopee served Polish food, but only during the day, and was closed on Sundays. I persuaded my partner to stop one last time. I had seen an online notice for a Sunday afternoon dance in Pulaski Park, in the town of Three Rivers, just east of Ludlow and Palmer.
A white concrete-block structure stood at the park entrance, and there it was, in big red letters: ''Pulaski Park: We Love Our Polka Fans"
We approached the large open shed with ''Polka Capital of New England" painted across its corrugated metal roof. Shiny red, white, and blue streamers hung from the ceiling, and written along the bottom of the bandstand was ''We Love Our Polka Fans." Musicians were setting up. People walked in carrying folding chairs and opened them at the edge of the dance floor. I started to cheer up.
The band, Change of Pace, was a bunch of young men from Toledo, Ohio. They had played Buffalo the night before, then driven all night to get here. After this gig, they were off to play another in Rehoboth Beach, Del.
Then it was time to dance. We twirled to a breathtaking mix of polkas and waltzes, bounding around the wide dance floor till we were dizzy and out of breath. Most of the dancers were middle aged or older.
We took a break at the concession stand, buying a $6 Polish plate of pierogi, kielbasa, and kapusta, and talked to a couple of women working there. There's not as much polka around as there used to be, they agreed. The one exception is summer, when many local churches hold parish picnics featuring polka bands, and Pulaski Park has a band nearly every Sunday.
Pulaski Park, however, was about to close for the season. Was any place open during winter? The women shook their heads.
''There's not the pride about being Polish," said Mary Ann Houle.
Nearby, a table held hundreds of records, cassettes, and CDs of polka bands. I spotted a flier advertising upcoming dances for fall and winter at the Ludlow Polish American Club. What about this? I asked the group. Oh, yes, right. They nodded, as if to say, Ludlow is two towns away -- that hardly counts.
Ludlow, indeed, has dances most Sundays from late September through May. The Polish American Citizens Club in nearby South Hadley also has regular Sunday afternoon dances. Corinne Dubois, the bar manager there, agrees the numbers have dropped.
''We've had dances here since 1965," she said. ''It used to be a lot larger crowd." A younger generation has found its own interests, and polka doesn't seem to be one of them. Surprise, surprise.
For ''the newer, younger breed," said Dubois, ''it's pool tables, karaoke. A lot of people think bingo players are old women. They have the same associations with polka, the idea of it being for old people."
Fred Brozek, a Three Rivers native whose father was a weaver in one of the cotton mills, says even the new Polish immigrants don't come out that much for polka.
''In Poland now they go heavily for rock," Brozek said. ''They're not into our kind of polka music." In his own family, however, the music is alive. His son, Paul, plays trumpet and accordion with several polka bands, including Billy Belina & Bay State.
Well, I say the younger generation doesn't know what it's missing. I went back to ''Hoopi Shoopi Donna" and found a scene set right under the corrugated metal roof of Pulaski Park, where the young protagonist describes her father taking regular breaks from tending bar to take her around the dance floor:
''Still in his white apron, he would scoop me up, and he would spin us so fast I feared I would go flying off into the coals of the chicken barbecue pit."
It may be an older crowd that turns out now to see bands like Billy Belina & Bay State or the Eddie Forman Orchestra, but there's still a lot of wild activity on the dance floor.
''It always amazes me," said Dubois. ''No wonder they look so young; look at all the exercise they're getting."
Kathy Shorr is a freelance writer in Wellfleet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.