History of the Mazurka

Mazurka is the national dance of Poland, and a mazurka rhythm is also the
nation’s national anthem. Today mazurka is most widely recognized in its
ballet adaptations on stage and in folk dance performances, but it was
once a widely popular ballroom dance until fairly recently at the turn of
the 20th century it was eclipsed with new dance styles. The mazurka dance
dates to the 1500s, and took root during Poland’s golden age, later
spreading during the 17th century throughout Eastern Europe as Poland
spent much of its history as a wealthy and influential power in Europe
whose influence was seen in everything from the arts to cavalry and
military strategies adopted well beyond its borders. By the 18th century,
Augustus II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland introduced the mazurka
to the courts of Germany during which time distinct variations appeared
throughout Europe according to class and region, with major variations
appearing according to the ballrooms of nobility, folk dances of the
peasantry and urban variations among town folk as the dance began to
spread on its own from there. In 1795, Poland lost its independence to the
occupying forces of Prussia, Russia and Austria. These powers took pains
to completely destroy and dismantle its constitutional monarchy, actively
repressed native cultural endeavors, and divided it up among them;
essentially removing Poland from the map. Further misfortune fell upon her
with the failed 1830 Uprising that soon thereafter caused the Great
Emigration to other territories in Western Europe and the United States,
which received the largest influx of Poles who found themselves without a
country. In addition to the influence exerted by the large numbers of
Poles emigrating to these countries, many of Poland’s neighboring
countries expressed their solidarity with the oppressed nation by taking
up its dances into their ballrooms giving renewed fame to both the mazurka
and the Polish polonaise which was adapted into the “Grand March” of
English speaking countries. Polish soldiers with their famous Hussar
uniforms began introducing steps during the Napoleonic Wars among
aristocratic ballrooms to create the classic Regency image of the mazurka.
Polish exiles in Paris during the 1830s, began to introduce Polish dances
to the Western European nobility as well. In 1845, the Duke of Devonshire
introduced England to a form of mazurka His Grace learnt at the Russian
court (which took the mazurka dance to St. Petersburg as a spoil of
conquest), though British newspapers (and church movements protesting
couples dances in general) were reporting mazurka crazes among the general
ballrooms by the 1830s. America maintained a mazurka craze during the gold
and silver rushes of the 1850s which drew yet more Polish immigrants to
its shores.

In 1847, Henri Celarius published his book, “La Danse des Salons” which
included the mazurka to become the dance’s foremost ambassador to
ballrooms and dance halls far and wide. His book was the most widely
published and influential dance manual of the era and did much to
re-introduce original Polish style to the dance from the many Polish
exiles who attended his dance academy. The 1830s and 1840s were the hey
day of mazurka in Western Europe, though the dance remained very popular
until the end of the 19th century. America, by virtue of its large
population of Polish immigrants of all walks of life enjoyed a wide
variety of mazurkas and influence of its styling can be seen in some
Americanized polka and waltz versions stretching most popularly from the
Midwest where Chicago was a gravitating city to Poles, to the American
West of the Californian gold fields. As Celarius notes in his dance
manual, the mazurka in nature is a dance of free interpretation and
dancers are encouraged to make up their own original figures without
copying each other. One can only assume this aided in the dance's many
proliferations of style around the world.

As to why there are so many spellings of the dance’s name as well as dance
variations, it is due to its wide popularity which spread and was adopted
and adapted to many cultures and languages. The dance’s name is derived
from the tribe of “Masures” who dwell on the eastern plains of Poland in
what was once the Duchy of Masovia. Hence, the dance being dubbed “Masur”
or “Masurek.” Mazur, mazour, mazourek, mazourtek, mazourka, mazurca and
mazourca are just some of the variations the dance’s name acquired as it
spread around the world. Our English word "mazurka" is from the Russian
corruption of it both in name and style rather than the English being
introduced to the dance by direct import from Poland. Thus, English
speakers tend to retain the Russian suffix for “dance,” -ka to the word
mazur, becoming "mazurka." According to Encyclopedia Britannica, mazurka’s
entry states “The music is in 3/4 time with a forceful accent on the
second beat. The dance, highly improvisatory, has no set figures, and more
than 50 different steps exist.”

Victorian dance articles by Leilani Howard, Sacramento Ballroom Society