span.fullpost {display:inline;}

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Johnny Castle Was a Polish-American

Johnny Castle's cousin is named Billy Kostecki.

The latter surname is obviously Polish. The name's suffix -ecki is a common adjectival suffix in the Polish language. The etymology of the name's root, Kost, is not clear. The proposed possibilities include the following:
* The adjective for the Polish word kost, which translates into English as knuckle bone.

* A resident of the Polish town of Kostki.

* A Polish nickname for the Latin name Konstantius.
The name is not socially distinguished in Poland. There were no aristocrats, heroes or celebrities named Kostecki.

Not many people named Kostecki immigrated to the United States. The following image, from the Ancestry website, shows the number of US residents named Kostecki recorded by the 1920 census.

In particular, the number of residents named Kostecki in New York state was only between 10 and 17.


Many Polish immigrants Anglicized their Polish names, the spellings of which puzzled most Americans. The Wikipedia article about the History of the Poles in the United States includes the following passage:
Polish Americans often downplayed their ethnicity and changed their names to fit into American society.

During the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, name changes were commonly done by immigration agents at Ellis Island. An example of this is in the family of Edmund Muskie, whose Polish surname was Marciszewski.

During the 1960s and 1970s, an unprecedented number of Poles voluntarily chose to Anglicize their own names. In Detroit alone, over 3,000 of the areas' 300,000 Polish Americans changed their names every year during the 1960s. Americans took no effort to respect or learn the pronunciation of Polish last names, and Poles who made it to positions of public visibility were told to Anglicize their own names. ....

Polish American children quickly changed their first names to American versions (Mateusz to Matthew, Czeslaw to Chester, Elzbieta to Elizabeth, Piotr to Peter). A 1963 study based on probate court records of 2,513 Polish Americans who voluntarily changed their last names share a pattern:

* Over 62% changed their names entirely from the original to one with no resemblance to the Polish origin (examples include: Czarnecki to Scott, Borkowski to Nelson, and Kopacz to Woods).

* The second-most common choice was to subtract the Polish-sounding ending (ex: Ewanowski to Evans, Adamski to Adams, Dobrogowski to Dobro), often with an Anglicized addition (Falkowski to Falkner, Barzyk to Barr).

Let's imagine two Polish-immigrant brothers with the family name Kostecki. One brother has decided to keep that family name, but the other brother has decided to Anglicize it. The second brother looks around for an English family name that looks similar and sees Castle, which he mistakenly thinks is pronounced
And so the second brother changes his family name from Kostecki to Castle, which he pronounces wrongly with the letter T sounded aloud.

Then if these two brothers had sons, the sons' names might be Billy Kostecki and Johnny Castle, and the sons would be cousins. Of course, this second generation would know to pronounce the English word "castle" correctly, with the T letter silent.


In the movie Dirty Dancing, Johnny Castle knew how to dance already as a boy or young man. When he was told about the possibility of working for an Arthur Murray Dance Studio, he immediately went and took a dancing test and was selected for training to become an instructor.
So where'd you learn to be a dancer?

Well, this guy came into this luncheonette one day, and we were all sitting around doing nothing. And he said that Arthur Murray was giving a test for instructors.

So, if you passed, they teach you different dances, show you how to break them down, teach them.
Where had Johnny already learned to dance well enough to pass the dancing test at Arthur Murray?

Polish immigrants celebrated their Polish heritage by dancing the polka. Polish-immigrant families often visited polka dance halls, where their children learned various polka dances.

The bands were led by accordion players, most of whose instruments had been manufactured by the Castle Accordion company. All such accordions were labeled with the word Castle. Maybe that's where Johnny's father got the idea for changing the family name.

An accordion labeled with the brand name Castle on the right front side.
The following video shows Polish-Americans dancing in a polka dance hall.

Imagine that young Johnny Castle learned as a young man to dance with such skill. This Polish-American couple dancing the polka looks similar to Johnny Castle and Penny Johnson dancing the mambo in the Kellerman resort hotel's ballroom near the beginning of the movie Dirty Dancing.


One of the most popular television shows during the last half of the 1950s was the Lawrence Welk Show, which often featured polka dances. It's likely that Johnny Castle's family enjoyed watching such broadcasts, because the family danced often at their local polka dance hall. The following two videos show polka music and polka dancing on Lawrence Welk:

One of Lawrence Welk's musicians was an accordion player named Jo Ann Castle, who adopted her stage surname Castle from  from the Castle Accordion company. She  is featured playing her accordion on the Lawrence Welk Show in the following two videos:

You must watch the following 1958 video (five years before the Dirty Dancing story) from beginning to end. She is adorable! The music is terrific!!

Jo Ann Castle appeared on the Lawrence Welk show hundreds of times from 1958 to 1969 and surely was a favorite among Polish-American families who watched the show loyally every week. Watching the show perhaps gave Johnny Castle much of his musicality.

There's a remarkable similarity between the names Jo Ann Castle and John ("Johnnny") Castle.

Jo Ann's birth surname was Ziering, which is German. The word's root "Zier" means "ornament". I would say, however, that Jo Ann has Polish-blonde hair.


The Polish equivalent of the first name Johnathan is Jonatan (pronounced Yonatan). The Polish nicknames include Jan (pronounced Yan), Janek, Janeczek and Jasiu. Polish-Americans, however, would likely use the English nickname Johnny.


As the child of a Polish-American family, Johnny Castle might also have learned to dance the easy but elegant traditional Polish dance called the Polonaise. I suppose that Polish families sometimes organized debutante balls for their daughters and compelled their sons to participate. Even awkward, clumsy boys can learn to dance the Polonaise. It's a good first step on the path to becoming a skilled ballroom dancer.

Compare the clothing of the male dancers in the above video with the clothing of Johnny Castle in the below video clip from the movie Dirty Dancing.


If Johnny Castle is Polish, then the movie's ethnic subtext has an additional conflict because of the historic rancor between Poles and Jews.

No comments:

Post a Comment