It's way past midnight and the weekend crowds of well-dressed patrons are three deep at bars serving $3 Okocim beers. Work-weary young men hunker down on bar stools, content to simply watch groups of leather-clad young women gyrate to blasting music by Darude. There's an upbeat din of foreign chatter. Welcome to clubbing in New Britain - Polish style. At one end of the city, smack in the middle of the oldest Polish neighborhood, is Strokrotka, featuring intimate tables and tea light illumination around an expansive, tiered dance floor. Across town, the club Zodiak boasts syncopating beams of colored light that catch the mirrored reflections of dozens of decked-out dancers on an equally crowded floor. "We come here at least a couple of times a month," said a slightly flushed Marta Drozdic as she finished a dance at Zodiak, a former steakhouse on West Main Street. "We like to dance and it's our kind here," said the 22-year-old immigrant as she readjusted her black leather miniskirt and beaded jacket.
"It's a club about us." The clubs provide modern American music, wardrobe and attitude with the solace of familiar language and camaraderie of the old country. Most patrons, who travel from as far away as Rhode Island and New York, are 20-something college students who came to the United States as youngsters, or anxious, success-driven immigrants trying to bridge cultures. Polish is still their first language, although they are quick to note that they would never go back to Poland to live. During the days, their focus is on assimilating into the American culture, but on weekend nights, those who find their way to the clubs are visibly proud, almost smug, about the fact that as young Poles, they have their "own" place. "I don't know what it is, it can't be explained," said Agnes Targonski, who owns the 2-year-old Zodiak. "The Polish like to be with each other and seem to find each other no matter what," said Targonski, whose newest club is actually a bigger and better version of one she ran on Allen Street for five years. "We've tried advertising on radio and in English newspapers as well as the Polish papers, but it still seems to be a place that attracts just the Polish. "I guess it may be that the Polish community is so tightknit that they know they can come here and see others they know. Or maybe it is that they know they can come here and speak their own language. I don't know what it is. ... I just know it is working." Disc jockeys at both clubs speak Polish, which is one reason some say Polish patrons come to the clubs and others stay away. Although most of the music at Zodiak is "soft," top 40-type American stuff by artists such as Ricky Martin, Cher, Boyz II Men and Madonna, both clubs offer a smattering of music by famous Polish pop artists, including Urszula, Zero and Kayah. Both places have dress codes, and while most men show up in simple slacks and sweaters, the women are dressed up. Many people, even longtime city residents, don't know the clubs exist. A casual passerby would swear the slightly rundown building that houses Zodiak is vacant because there seems to be little activity. From the outside, Strokrotka appears to be a small storefront in a dingy neighborhood. But when most of the lights around the city have gone out for the night, both places are hopping as patrons plunk down cover charges and good-naturedly vie for ringside seats and spots on the dance floor. Strokrotka, the larger of the two clubs, at 10,000 square feet, is open to the 18 and over crowd. The building once housed the Falcon Theater and more recently an indoor sports arena. A DJ spins a mix of techno-style and American pop music on Fridays and Saturdays from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. A decorative grill surrounding the bar is meant to keep minors out of the drinking area, while the oversize dance floor is open to all. An upstairs sitting room features upholstered couches and chairs and a picture window that offers a bird's-eye view of the club, which looks like it belongs in New York rather than New Britain. Patrons, who pay $8 a head to enter, are mostly singles, or young immigrants new to the city looking to meet other young Polish people. Zodiak caters to an older crowd, usually couples and large groups of friends who call in early to reserve one of the precious few tables that flank one side of a smaller dance floor. The club is open Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and there is a $5 cover charge. Music ranges from Latin to top 40. Both clubs have a bilingual staff. Eva Barwacz, one of Strokrotka's owners, suggests that the popularity of the clubs has to do with the fact that club dancing is extremely popular in Poland. "That's why I got into this," said Barwacz, who works as a financial analyst during the day. "New Britain had such a large Polish population, but no disco." Oscar Swan, a professor in the Polish studies program at the University of Pittsburgh, said he is a bit perplexed by the clubs' popularity, noting that Polish immigrants are usually the first to try to integrate with the American culture. "It could be some kind of cultural bond, but usually the Polish do not stick together," Swan said. Patrons, however, contend just the opposite. They say it is the cultural familiarity in the clubs that allows them to relax and be themselves. "We both like to dance and this is a place we are comfortable," said Evelyn Jachimiec of East Hampton as she prepared to dance at Zodiak on a recent Saturday night with a friend from Middletown. "Maybe it's just a matter of the Polish mentality," she said with a shrug. "We stick to our own." For others it's a matter of staying in touch with strong roots and being able to "be Polish" for a while. "We come over here and have to be American in our jobs and at our schools," said Tad Klotz, a Bridgeport 24-year-old who said he regularly goes to both clubs. "We can talk Polish to each other and be ourselves." That could be part of it, agrees Stanislaus Blejwas, a history professor who holds the endowed chair in Polish studies at Central Connecticut State University. "I think you are seeing a lot more college students who come from Poland to go to school in the United States," Blejwas said. "You can't go party in Warsaw on Saturday night, so you go to one of these clubs instead. It's cultural networking." Despite being well known in the Polish community, the clubs have been a well-kept secret that has gone unnoticed by the general population. When a developer recently approached the city with an idea for a new nightclub in a former bank building near city hall, officials were excited about the possibility of some nightlife in a city that is considered pretty dull in that area. But to those in the know, the proposal was simply an extension of an already established club scene. "The reason New Britain doesn't know about Zodiak and Strokrotka is because everyone is sleeping when these places are just getting busy," said William Millerick, executive director of the New Britain Chamber of Commerce. Millerick said he is proud of the success of the two clubs, noting that to the untrained eye, they appear to be deserted buildings. "I had some local businessmen call me and ask if there wasn't something we could do to help Zodiak because it appeared the parking lot was empty on Fridays and Saturdays," Millerick said. "I told them they were just going by too early in the night. And when I approached Agnes, she assured me the club needed no help. ... Business was fine."