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The Corn Palace floor is filled with dancers at last year's Corn Palace Polka Festival. The 31st annual event kicks off today with Senior Day. (Republic File Photo)

Musical favorites return to Polka Festival at Corn Palace

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"You ain't nobody until you've played the Palace."

Those are the words Julie Lee recalls from her first performance at the Corn Palace Polka Festival 14 years ago. They were spoken by former festival director Les Schoffelman, and they've stuck with the lead vocalist of Julie Lee & her White Rose Band.

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"That was his slogan," she said.

The melodies of Julie Lee & her White Rose Band will again fill the Corn Palace this weekend, as they are joined by Gary's Ridgeland Dutchmen and The Top Notchmen for the 31st annual Corn Palace Polka Festival, which kicks off today with Senior Day.

Senior Day begins at 9 a.m. with exercise and music. An opening ceremony will take place at 10:15 a.m. and a meal will be served by the James Valley Community Center at 11:15 a.m. Dancing begins at 12:15 p.m. The day will end with an ice cream social at 3 p.m.

Dancing on Friday and Saturday will be from noon to 10:30 p.m. The Top Notchmen will kick off the day's performances and will rotate with Gary's Ridgeland Dutchmen and Julie Lee & her White Rose Band.

On Sunday, Julie Lee & her White Rose Band will lead the Polka Mass at 10 a.m. and play at the festival's Parade of Flags at 11 a.m. Dancing will start at noon with Gary's Ridgeland Dutchmen. They will rotate with the other two polka groups until the festival's close at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets for Friday and Saturday are $14 each. Tickets for Sunday are $12. A threeday ticket package is $32.

Julie Lee and The Top Notchmen have been anchors for the polka festival, Corn Palace Director Mark Schilling said.

"What we typically see when we survey the people coming in is what they do dance to. Who did they come to see? More often we hear the names Top Notchmen and Julie Lee," Schilling said.

With her band since 1995, Julie Lee, a North Dakota native, said her music has now become a full-time gig -- and one she enjoys thoroughly.

"I love playing for festivals. It's the people. There's a group that travel around with you, and these are like circuits for them. They get together and see friends. It's like a big family," she said.

Lee and her husband travel year-round performing, but for larger festivals, like the Corn Palace's, she plays with a fourpiece band.

The band plays a variety of music including waltzes, country and '40s and '50s dance numbers, but Lee said she enjoys the polka tunes the most.

"It's very positive and it's happy music. It's a very uplifting thing," she said.

It's those upbeat melodies that draw the attention of polka dancers all across the country. In each of the past five years, Schilling said at least 40 states have been represented at each festival.

Last year's festival drew around 1,300 people, and although still a popular attraction, Schilling said that attendance is declining over the years.

"We're just not replacing the dancers we're losing each year," Schilling said.

Lee added that she wishes more younger people would be drawn to polka music and dancing.

"If they'd see and understand how fun it is and how much socialization there is, and come and enjoy what the older (generation) does ... It's truly a way of life," she said.

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