Meet this newly minted polka DJ

She was in search of an escape. In waltzed a preoccupation with polka on vinyl.
Stacy Harbaugh holding a record in her DJ set up
Stacy Harbaugh picked up a polka DJing hobby over the pandemic. (April 2021)
Photo by Paulius Musteikis

I love polka. It’s part of the Wisconsin culture that brought me to Madison in 2004. A 2020 New Year’s resolution to learn how to use DJ turntables became an adventure in firing up my brain in new ways, including how to DJ with polka music.

My polka collection focuses on Dutchmen-style recordings from the upper Midwest. Cuca Records selections from Sauk City are among my favorites. I play music that has a very vintage, old-time sound. Spinning records is a fun way to enjoy music, but it’s also an escape from the news.

The COVID-19 crisis has forced a collective trauma on us all. It impacts our social, emotional, economic and physical health. From the fear of communicable disease to the pain of those who have lost their livelihoods, many of us feel constant pressure simply to survive. That can put us in a fight, flight or freeze mode and make us quick to anger, desperate for escape or just sluggish and in a constant fog.

Boston University psychiatry professor Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes in “The Body Keeps the Score” that we can process trauma through music, dance, drumming and physical exercise that requires balance and presence, such as yoga. While daily stress and decades-old trauma keep parts of our brain stuck in old patterns, these other activities unlock neural pathways and new ways of thinking. They let us experience life and be present in the moment.

I love vinyl because it requires presence. You have to touch it — though not like a screen where you tap an image of a heart to like a song, or drag and drop it into a playlist. You can feel vinyl. You pull pressed PVC out of a paper sleeve, place it on a spinning platter, set a wired needle into a groove and let vibrations and electricity amplify the beat. With turntables, you have to be 100% present and attentive to the music and what to play next.

My goal is to play polka records for people at Oktoberfest events, polka festivals or just during Packers game commercial breaks at a neighborhood bar. Until we can gather together again, I’ll keep practicing with my turntables, getting to know my collection and hunting for more albums.

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