ENNIS – Shortly after 7 p.m. Friday, the members of Jak Se Do announced,  “It’s polka time,” kicking off the 43rd year of the National Polka Festival.

Dancers in traditional costumes began to fill the floor at the Knights of Columbus Hall to continue their families’ heritage of Czech music and dancing.

In a little less than an hour, the hall was filled to standing room only as people of all heritages participated in what is termed by many as the “best Czech festival in the country.” Dancers as far away as Auburn, Ala., came for the weekend long festival.

“I’ve been polka dancing all my life,” Deborah Fillmer said, as her father, David Platt, added, “She started dancing on my arm as a baby 43 years ago.

Growing up in Dallas, the father-daughter team would travel to dance.

“We wanted to come back for the experience of the festival,” Fillmer said.  

One of the first organizers of the festival, Johnnie Krajca, stood on the edge of the dance floor watching the dancers step and swing to the traditional Czech music.

“I remember the first year. We only had two halls, the KJT and the Old Union Hall. We only had two bands on Saturday night, one at each hall,” he said.

Standing next to Krajca was festival executive director, Danny Zapletal. Comparing this year’s to past years’ festivals, Zapletal said, “This has been the smoothest to put together. Everything has gone real well.”

After the first break, the annual polka dance contest began, with 21 couples signing up in hopes of being crowned the 2009 Polka King and Queen. 

Before they began the competition, Zapletal introduced the honorees of years past. Led by the 2008 King and Queen, Richard and Joyce Brinker, each couple danced for the audience before the contestants took to the floor.

After the first round, 10 remained for round two. For round three, six remained and then the final three couples were announced.

“Couples three, five and six remain on the floor,” announcer Rita Holland said.

Showing their best steps, the couples danced before the five judges. After the votes were counted, the first runner ups honors went to Jody Hernandez and Jared Prachyl of Ennis.

The title of King and Queen for 2009 was then presented to Mark Hermes of Elm Mott and Ashley Sulak of Hillsboro.

Both described it as a “real honor” to be named King and Queen of the “best Czech festival.”

“We have been dancing for about a year,” Hermes said.

“We met at a polka dance and have been dancing ever since,” Sulak said.

“It’s a great honor to be associated with anything associated with the Czech culture. We feel especially honored the represent this national festival. We had some really great competition this year. We see it a real honor that the judges felt we were the best,” Hermes said.

“We want to continue not only the Czech music, but to preserve the Czech culture,” Sulak said.

Hermes plays in the Czechaholics band, which has participated for several years at the Ennis festival as well as making other appearances.  

Sulak was the 2008 Miss Texas Czech Slovak Queen and is a member of the Czech Heritage Society.  Representing the society, Sulak has attended 71 Czech festival as the reigning queen. When not dancing or attending festivals, she helps her mother in their authentic Czech bakery in Hillsboro.

Another crowning took place just before the royal couple was named. The 2008 Polka Queen, Joyce Brinker, drew from a box the name of the 2009 Polka Princess, announcing Caitlyn Vavra as the winner. The 7-year-old is the daughter of Catherine Vavra of Ennis. Caitlyn helped crown the 2009 Polka Queen. 

When it was time for the final strains of music to close the evening, a member of Jak Se Do announced, “We have to call it a night to get ready for tomorrow, but we’ll make it last as long as we can.

“Let’s polka,” he said as the dance floor filled yet again for the last dance.

The festival continues through this evening in Ennis.

For more information and a scheduled of activities, visit online at www.nationalpolkafestival.com.