Richfield executive fights child abuse through dance

Coached by Gordon Bratt, Heather Polivka rehearses her dance routine in a basement  studio at Southdale Center on Thursday, Oct. 31, as she prepares for the Let’s Dance Gala. (Sun Current staff photo by Andrew Wig)
Coached by Gordon Bratt, Heather Polivka rehearses her dance routine in a basement studio at Southdale Center on Thursday, Oct. 31, as she prepares for the Let’s Dance Gala. (Sun Current staff photo by Andrew Wig)

A Richfield woman combined her passion for dance with her concern for victims of child abuse as she took first place in a dance competition Saturday, Nov. 2.

Richfield’s Heather Polivka and her dance partner emerged victorious out of a field of four duos at The Let’s Dance Gala, a fundraiser hosted by the Graves 601 Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. The show was the culmination of a month of practice for Polivka and her fellow dancers as they competed in a program modeled off the TV popular show “Dancing with the Stars,” with the sequinned and suited participants raising funds for Corner House, a Minneapolis organization that interviews child abuse victims for law enforcement agencies and prosecutors.

With that cause in mind, the duos consisted of professional coaches along with partners that made up the “celebrity” halves of the teams. The amateur dancers included Polivka, senior director of global employer branding and marketing for Minnetonka-based United Health Group.

Polivka’s association with Corner House comes from a personal place, and began well before the dance endeavor.

Her parents divorced when she was 11 years old, and she often found herself under the care of a babysitter. That babysitter turned out to be abusive, Polivka said, but she was hesitant to talk about it at the time.

“I remember being really afraid and thinking that I was doing something wrong, that I was sort of bad in some way, so I was afraid to tell my mom,” she said.

But one day her mother asked what was wrong, and the young Polivka felt better when she opened up. Those feelings, she said, were “freedom and relief that I could be safe in my house again.”

Reporting her experiences helped her move on from the abuse. Six years ago, Polivka helped young abuse victims do the same when she began volunteering for Corner House.

The organization specializes in interviewing abuse victims in order to confirm their experiences for prosecutors and law enforcement. Polivka helped the sensitive process by playing with the victims before and after their interviews in an effort to keep them calm and comfortable.

They did activities like putting puzzles together or coloring, while in the back of her head, Polivka had the heartbreaking knowledge of what the children had endured.

“There were one or two cases when I went home and I burst into tears,” she said, remembering a particular case so sad that Corner House offered counseling services to everyone involved in the interview process.

Even on the days she went home crying, Polivka knew, though, that “a child got to tell their story and find their path to healing.”

While the main purpose of the interviews is to cull information, Corner House’s priority remains the child’s well-being.

“The child comes first no matter what,” said Patricia Harmon, the organization’s executive director. “We want to assure (people) that we’re not re-traumatizing in the course of talking to them about what’s happened.”

 

A return to dance

Polivka danced as a young girl before taking up other pursuits as she grew up. She joined Corner House’s board of directors in 2010, and the executive’s chance to revisit her childhood pastime came last year when she was asked to participate in the dance fundraiser for the first time. The event is now in its fourth year and sold out, with more than 300 people attending Saturday’s show.

Since her performance a year ago, Polivka has started dancing for fun, too, with the help of coach Gordon Bratt, who spent a month training Polivka for Saturday’s competition. The pair worked on a salsa number set to the song “Weapon of Choice,” by Fatboy Slim, the song that became a hit 12 years ago thanks in part to a video featuring a dancing Christopher Walken.

In keeping with contest rules, Polivka and Bratt worked on their routine for a total of 10 hours. The first five or so were dedicated to simply learning the basics of salsa, a new style for Polivka even though she danced with Bratt for fun in another competition in May.

With Bratt by her side last spring, Polivka won her group, a beginner’s division. But in preparing for last weekend’s competition, learning salsa presented a challenge as the amateur dancer worked on developing the all-important “samba bounce” that characterizes the style.

Speaking the day before the show, Bratt was confident in his student, whom he coached out of a studio in the basement of Southdale Center in Edina.

“I think Heather’s ready,” Bratt said, “and she’s got quite a bit of natural ability. She handles the performance really well.”

Polivka is not shy, and “that helps a lot, being a little more vivacious,”Gordon said.

She has also received assistance at home from her husband, Paul. Preparing for the show, they would clear the furniture out of the living room to form a practice space. She calls Paul “my poor husband” for taking on the role of training partner. She makes it clear that he is not a dancer.

“I always tease and say my husband hears beats that nobody else hears,” Polivka joked.

Through ticket sales and votes – at $10 a piece – for the dancing pairs, Corner House raised about $70,000. Aside from the Polivka-Bratt duo, teams included Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau and other corporate executives.

Their dancing helped support an organization that works with about 500 child abuse victims in Hennepin County each year and trains agencies across the country in conducting forensic interviews of child abuse victims.

Despite their sad and tragic stories, those children have inspired Polivka.

“In some cases you know that they’ve been through horrific things,” she said, “but they’re very resilient, and very brave.”

 

Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected]