At six years old, Nick Bratkovich learned the one thing he said every Serbian immigrant son is expected to learn. That is, how to play the accordion.
"At first I didn't like it. But I learned to like it, and when I found out not only do I like that kind of music and enjoy playing it, folk dancers enjoyed listening and dancing to it. The combination was really good," Bratkovich said.
Bratkovich, who now lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with his wife, performed international and Balkan-styled accordion on Tuesday, July 22, for International Dance Milwaukee, a dance group that is open to the public with a $4 donation at the Hart Park Senior Center, 7300 Chestnut St.
Bratkovich has performed for the folk dancing club for four years. He makes this his annual trip to Milwaukee.
"He's one of the top in the country," said Forrest Johnson, dance group organizer. "He's a one-man band, and that's rare."
A mix of styles
Bratkovich's musical stylings range from Bulgarian to Romanian, Russian, Greek, Hungarian, Macedonian, Ukrainian, Serbian and Israeli.
"This is fun music. In fact, this is the international folk dance version of line dancing. So, anybody interested in doing something like this, it's fun. It's easy," said Bratkovich.
The folk dance pace is quick and focuses on foot movements. There are few dance numbers with male and female dance parts, so the dance group is great for singles or people new to learning the steps. "It's a social thing that gets people interactive. It's like a party," said Johnson.
Bratkovich's range of techniques is exceptional, especially to those used to Western accordionists, who may be limited to basic polkas.
"For an accordionist in Europe, it's nothing to play music from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds. So a lot of that just carried over here. My parents had a big influence on me for the music I played," said Bratkovich.
Immigrants from Europe
Bratkovich's parents and grandparents immigrated to the United States from a German refugee camp in 1949. They settled in Milwaukee, where Bratkovich's father worked at a packing house and his mother served as a deli manager in Milwaukee food stores.
"There were no ethnic-style accordion teachers at the time who could teach me to play that music," said Bratkovich. "You're not just playing notes; you're playing a style. To get the style down, you have to practice for many, many years."
Bratkovich joined a Serbian band at age 13 and played with it through college. Bratkovich is now primarily a solo artist. He plays regularly at retirement centers and by invitation for the National Accordion Association Inc. and other international folk dancing groups.
Bratkovich noted the various rhythms that come out of ethnic-style dance. "The end result is a unique sounding sort of music," he said.
In addition to playing the accordion, Bratkovich played soccer, sang in the church choir and served as an altar boy.
"I did it all," said Bratkovich. "Accordion actually turned out to be the best for me."
Attend International Dance Milwaukee every Tuesday at Wauwatosa Hart Park Senior Center, 7300 Chestnut St. Cost is $4 donation. Early group dances and lessons take place from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Regular programming continues from 7:30 to 9:45 p.m.
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