Queer as Polka: Lakeside Pride plays a new tune

Melissa TerrellChamber Ensembles, News & Events

Kaitlyn Hollysmith has added the “oom-pah-pah” rhythm to the many styles and sounds Lakeside Pride Music Ensembles plays through the new ensemble Queer as Polka.

Hollysmith was born and raised in Long Grove, Illinois. In fourth grade, she picked up the trumpet to play in the school band and she stuck with it all through high school.

She recalled she originally really wanted to play the flute when picking out an instrument and chuckled when she explained she was told she couldn’t blow properly for the flute.

“But I was pushed toward the trumpet, which again, is another reason I like Lakeside Pride because I got the chance to finally learn the flute, just 20 years later,” she said. “So, I tried the trumpet and I really did like it. I liked playing it, loved learning all the music; I took to it right away.”

Playing music led her into more musical activities like singing in choruses and acting in musicals.

Hollysmith went on to study finance at University of Miami in Florida and then went to law school at Notre Dame. Currently, she resides in the North Center neighborhood and works in-house at a pharmaceutical company.

Aside from music, she is a member of the Chicago Curling Club in the winter and she runs to stay healthy, mostly with her wife Heather. The couple have run the Chicago Marathon together and even got engaged one year, moments after crossing the finish line.

Hollysmith emphasized how supportive her wife has been through her transition. Coming out as trans, she said, was a long process that started in December 2014 and began with confiding in Heather.

“She’s fantastic and she’s supported me and helped me find resources to figure out when I was questioning my gender identity and what that means, so for about two years we were figuring that out privately and then we decided I was transgender,” said Hollysmith. “So, then three years ago I’ve been coming out to friends slowly then family and then I had been living socially as a woman for about the last two years.”

Last year, she came out to everyone publicly ( outside the Chicago area ) on her birthday, which happened to be International Transgender Day of Visibility. This past September, she came out at work.

Hollysmith discovered Lakeside Pride at Midsommarfest in 2017 where the group was tabling and displaying their musical talents. Hollysmith explained she went to the queer-friendly festival, still somewhat closeted as a transwoman and when she spoke to Lakeside Pride’s president that day, she felt so welcomed. It had been 10 years since she played the trumpet and she said they still welcomed her to join the group.

“There was no reason not to come, so I was hooked right away,” Hollysmith said. “They have so many different groups and ensembles that are so open. It’s in our bylaws that we’re not allowed to audition for anything. So, if you want to play in a group, you’re allowed to and you can be LGBTQ or not. Everyone is allowed and I just love that. So, I’ve played in their symphonic band, I’ve played in their jazz band.”

“I just loved all the different avenues of music you that could provide and on top of that, even if you can’t find what you love in those four main ensembles—the symphonic, jazz, marching and, now, pop—we have a huge amount of chamber ensembles.”

Among those many ensembles is the one Hollysmith has created with Michael Maloney—Queer as Polka. Hollysmith, Queer as Polka’s musical director and conductor, has been a long-time lover of polka music and decided to bring it back to life at Lakeside Pride.

“I absolutely love polka music,” Hollysmith said. “I don’t know why. I’ve loved it since I was young. I’m probably the only person that listens to polka records, which I did in college, used to get made fun of for it. … It’s so hard to hate polka music. It’s just fun; frankly, it’s easy to learn—you come out, you play it, you can have a beer, celebrate with a bunch of people and then go home. It’s just fantastic.”

Hollysmith added she loves the atmosphere polka creates. Queer as Polka had its first performance Oct. 19-20 at DANK Haus German American Culture Center to celebrate Open House Chicago Oktoberfest.

“It was so fantastic because I think it was a lot of people who came to see the architecture and maybe aren’t used to hearing polka bands and how much fun they could be, so we had a lot of people who were very interested, a lot of kids that came who were dancingm” she explained of the performance at DANK Haus at the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago, a free public festival that features more than 200 architectural and historical buildings around the city.

According to Hollysmith, the ensemble rehearses once a week and play gigs throughout the year. Describing polka music as extremely fun, easy to play and impossible to do without a smile, Hollysmith said any skill level can play this genre.

“It’s nary impossible to be sad during polka music,” she said. “We have the tuba going on in the background, it’s just very fun, simplistic sounding music. It just makes you happy inside, maybe that’s also the alcohol because your drink beer, but I don’t know, it’s just really great. You can dance to it, you can stand around.

“You grab a partner and [step] one, two, three, one, two, three. It’s got easy dancing with partners built into it and good, happy music and the type of gigs we go to are just fun festivals. It’s perfect.”

To learn more about Queer as Polka and Lakeside Pride, visit LakesidePride.org.

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