GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. – They arrived at the outdoor concert in pairs, folding chairs slung across their shoulders. Volunteers took their tickets, then directed each couple to a 6-by-6-foot square.
Their own personal polka pod, chalked onto the pavement.
Over the course of this sunny summer evening, they’d venture beyond these lines for a brat or a beer. But even during Mollie B & Squeezebox’s most popular numbers, when she was playing piano with her left hand and trumpet with her right, attendees clapped, sang and two-stepped within their squares.
This is how you put on a polka concert during pandemic times. A restriction, yes, but also a 6-by-6-foot opening into a wider world.
“We’ve been pretty well cooped up,” said Deb Vinkemeier, 68, of nearby Bigfork. “It’s great to get out and do something.”
Since COVID-19 wiped out months of shows, the Reif Performing Arts Center in Grand Rapids has been brainstorming innovative, sometimes odd ways to safely gather people.
“I’m not a big fan of the virtual things,” said Shantel Dow, executive director of the Reif Arts Council. “Our mission is live performing arts.”
The Reif might have been the first venue in the state to host a drive-in concert, staging a duo on a scissor lift donated by a local company. They’ve done a handful of drive-in movies, too, social distancing the cars in their lot. This month, they tested a boat-in concert, having the band Venison Cupcake play on the banks of Pokegama Lake. The musicians faced the water, and Dow wondered: Would anyone come?
“As we’re sitting there, it was like this force — this magnetic force — all the boats were coming in,” she said. “We ended up with 54 boats.”
Last week’s polka concert was the first live performance many had attended — or, in the case of two of the three bands, played — since before the pandemic triggered a wave of cancellations and postponements at venues across the state.
So folks were a little rusty.
The Vinkemeiers tipped sideways for a moment mid-waltz before righting themselves, laughing. Mollie B, too, gave fair warning: “A lot of these songs we haven’t played for five months.”
In a few ways, the concert, held at an outdoor hockey rink behind the IRA Civic Center, felt like pre-COVID, Up North times. Volunteers sold brats out of the penalty box. The opening act made Ole and Lena jokes. Kids sucked on snow cones sold from a truck, staining their lips blue.
But attendees wore more masks and gave fewer hugs.
Then there were the polka pods, numbered 1 to 81. Normally, Dow would expect Mollie B to pack this venue, which could hold 1,500 people, standing room. Last Thursday, they limited tickets to 250. About 150 came.
Since March, the Reif Center has canceled or postponed all performances indoors, replacing them with much smaller outdoor shows, which the Blandin Foundation and donors have helped fund. The nonprofit’s year-over-year revenue has dropped about 85% because of COVID, said Bud Schneider, chair of the Reif Arts Council.
“In many ways it has been more work at a fraction of the revenue,” he said, “but it has kept people engaged and provided small outlets from COVID impact.”
Snapping her fingers and dancing along the rink’s boards on Thursday was Ofelia Godwin, a Reif volunteer. She moved to Grand Rapids from tiny, chilly Embarrass some 15 years ago and was struck by all the concerts, plays and performances.
“Oh, my word, it was like a feast,” she said. A hard-core old-school country fan, she’s come to enjoy rock, pop and, yes, even polka. “When you’re involved, it opens up your horizons like crazy.”
Without the Reif, “there is zero to do — if you don’t want to go to a bar.”
So Godwin appreciates that the arts center has continued to host events this summer. She credits Dow and her “let’s-get-’er-done type energy.”
“So what if we haven’t tried that? Why not try it? She just has that attitude.”
Even before the pandemic, Dow was hosting more events outside the Reif’s grand venue, expanded and renovated in 2016. Partly because “so many people viewed the Reif as an elitist place,” she started partnering with the local country music radio station to hold a summer Grand Jam.
But each of these pandemic performances has been an experiment. Would people come? Would people stay distant? And would people dance?
Ainy and Winnie Taylor arrived early last Thursday, wearing the matching red-and-white colors of the Polka Lovers Klub of America. Their red vests touted the king and queen titles the couple won in 1996, when they attended polka shows once a week, at least.
“It’s our hobby, it’s our social life, it’s our exercising,” said Ainy, who is 80. “If we weren’t dancing, we’d be in nursing homes.”
Since March, she and her husband had left their lakeshore property just five times, mostly for medical appointments. But they were Mollie B fans. So for Thursday’s show, they added matching masks to their matching outfits.
At first, the couple didn’t dance. There were plenty of reasons not to.
The concrete, “like sandpaper,” could wreck the soles of their white shoes, fashioned for ballroom floors. Then there were the 6-foot boundaries. A waltz, their favorite dance, would typically carry them across a room — twice during a single song.
“That’s how much we move.”
But Ainy couldn’t keep still. She tapped her toes. She bopped her knees. She waved her hands.
Then, during intermission, the pair pushed their homemade red-and-white chairs back to the edge of their square. A few songs into the second half, they stood.
They danced, their hands clasped, their movements sure. Winnie, 84, spun Ainy to one edge of the square, then the other.
When the keys and accordion stopped, they did, too. But for a few beats longer, they held each other close.