Saturday, January 23, 2010

Well Rounded Reenactor

I’ve recently been active on a couple of living history and reenactment type forums, mostly for the sake of the podcast. I’m enjoying the discussions there with different types of reenactors that I would not normally get to mix with. I am amazed by the different sorts of living history going on out there.

When I was working at Strawbery Banke Museum (more than ten years ago now) as a costumed interpreter and tour guide, a Civil War reenactment group came and set up on Puddle Dock for a weekend. Since I was playing the maid in the governor’s mansion I was in the year 1870, only 5 years off from the civil war folks. On my break I walked around their encampment and said hello. One of the young female reenactors walked back with me after my break and we sat on the porch swing and talked living history. She was in high school, I was in college, she was reenacting as a hobby, I was a professional. But I was a bit jealous of her. She got to make her own clothes and wear them out and about, mine belonged to the museum and were too big for me. The group she was involved in were all friends and had a lot of fun together. I enjoyed my colleagues, but we were working together, not hanging out.

I’ve never been a member of a colonial or civil war group. I’ve set up summer camps, worked in museums, done a number of renaissance faires, I’ve presented in schools, and entertained in corporate settings. This past fall Stephen started a reenacting guild, but I almost don’t count that experience since it is a new unit, which is based on the living history tenets that Stephen and I share, that I certainly did not get as a result of participation in other units. Besides, it is a 16th century unit, European history, not American history.

I know there are probably folks out there that are jealous of all the wonderful experiences that I have, and I certainly would not give them up. But some day I will have to join a well established unit, portraying the civil or revolutionary war and see what that experience is like. Maybe then I will feel like a more rounded reenactor, or maybe I’ll just find a new experience to set my sights on… SCA member, experimental archaeology, what else am I missing? Read this entry on entry page

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Dancing my way to History

When I was a teenager I attended several contra dances with my parents’ friends, but that was a long time ago. Since moving back to New Hampshire in March of last year, I’d been attempting to get to a contra dance, now I’ve been to 2.

For those of you who do not know, a contra dance is a line dance, but not the country western type. It is a bit like a square dance, but without the funny clothes. It is a bit like English country dancing, but totally based in New England. These pages do a better job than I at explaining it: Wikipedia, YouTube Videos.

Contra dancing interests me at this point in my life for the same reasons it did as a teenager: dancing is fun and it is a cool thing to do in the evenings; but it also interests me for its regional and historical significance.

Celebrating Regionalism
Since college I’ve lived in Massachusetts mostly, but last winter we bought a house in New Hampshire. It was not a big move geographically, but it felt big since we were buying a house, in another state, and in the state where I grew up. As part of the whole “settling down” thing I feel like I should get more involved locally but I have very little desire to attend any school board meetings, and making friends in a new region is a slow process. As part of the process I decided to look up local contra dances since I remember it as one of the fun local winter activities. Besides, contra dance attendees are friendly, local folks, who are a little quirky, just like me.

When I mentioned to my mother that I was looking for a contra dance for Stephen and I to attend she talked to a contra dancing friend who highly recommended the dance out in Nelson, NH. She said it was very authentic and a good place for beginners. I looked at a map and thought: Nelson is in south western NH and I live in south-central NH, how far away could it be? It turns out it is over an hour away, up twisty country roads, long past cell phone service, where cable television fears to tread. Stephen and I drove there on the second Saturday of December (Nelson’s weekend dances happen on the second Saturday) not long after a snow storm. The roads were still icy, and it was dark dark while we were driving since the dance started at 8 and the sun had gone down at 4:30.

The GPS drove us past the hall once, but on the way back we found the building, attached to the town library, all lit up with a few folks just going in. The hall is a quirky little hall, where the floor slopes away towards one corner, so folks all night end up dancing downhill and everyone ends up squished into the bottom corner. The band was doing a sound check as we arrived, it was two younger men on a guitar and a fiddle that had no problem filling the hall with music. We got there early and got to chat with some of the organizers, then got a quick lesson in the basic steps by the night’s caller.

The way contra dances work is that there is a series of steps that make up all of the dances. These include a lot of swinging one’s partner, things like do-si-dos, and moves to change places up and down the line. At the beginning of the dance the caller will explain which steps this dance will need, in their proper order so folks can walk the pattern once. Then once the music starts the caller will call out the moves just before you do them, so half way through swinging your partner the caller will say, “now hold hands and circle round” so the dancers remember what comes next. It all started coming back to me as we started dancing, and Stephen had very little problem catching on because we’ve both danced English country dances, which are the grandparents of contra dancing. Besides, all the other dancers were happy to steer us around to make sure we ended up in the right place if we ever messed up on a step.

The most fun thing about the dance was definitely the people that we met. There were folks of all ages and dancing ability, everyone was super friendly, and interested in us since we were new and also friendly. If ever there was someone sitting out a dance because they did not have a partner, someone, probably a complete stranger, was sure to ask them to dance the next round. Everyone was that concerned abut keeping everyone involved and having fun.

What I had failed to mention to anyone at the start of the dance, was that I had had pretty bad allergies in the morning so I had taken a strong decongestant. By 8 in the evening I was still all fuzzy headed and having trouble focusing. Needless to say all the spins and swings made me incredibly dizzy, so I had to sit out every other dance just to get my bearings back. But Stephen was having fun dancing with new people and the dances were fun to watch even if I had to sit out. We did not stay too late, and I was incredibly miserable and car sick the whole ride home, but it was totally worth it.

The Connection
Why is this entry in a blog on Living History? Because contra dancing is a grand tradition that goes back to the founding of the United States. The hall in Nelson had hosted similar dances since the early 1800s, and similar dances had been danced in Nelson since before it was a town. Technically this falls more under a living tradition that living history, but to me it is the connection to the past that is important. That there is a dedicated group of folks, that there are tons of these groups all over New England, who keep an old-fashioned type of dancing alive, and make it their own, is magical to me. The folks I talked to were all aware of their participation in a longstanding tradition, and of that tradition’s place in the history of their region.

This past Friday Stephen and I participated in a “contra” dance even closer to its historical roots. A Massachusetts rev war reenactment group holds a 12th night celebration at an old tavern and inn. The festivities include a 12th night cake, a flag ceremony, a crowning of the king and queen, and tons of dancing. It is open to the public, we got there through a friend of a friend and could not pass up the opportunity to both gussie up our colonial outfits and do some more contra dancing.

The inn was fantastic, all the rooms were restored beautifully, and the hall just fit everyone in. The dancing was an older style, somewhere in between the English country dancing we did at faires and the modern contra dancing we’d experienced last month. The dances were still done in lines, and there were a few swings and do-si-dos but there was more variety of moves, and the dances were all slower in tempo than at the contra dance. I was glad that there were 6 of us there who knew each other so we could switch up partners, since this group seemed a little less inclined to ask strangers to dance.

Everyone was still friendly, and Stephen ran into some friends he had not seen in well over 10 years. It was different dancing in big skirts and restrictive tops. The dances that I sat out I spent a lot of time watching the different styles of colonial footwear spin past. One of the most striking parts to me was knowing that this reenactment group had been celebrating in this hall for the past 40 years; so there was triple history: the history of12th night dances in the American Colonies, the history of the inn, and the history of the reenactment unit itself. I am glad we were able to make new connections there too. Read this entry on entry page

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Importance of Volunteering

You’re not going to get paid for some of the most important things you do in your lifetime. I’ve re-learned that lesson this week, and I’m glad because it is an important one.

In today’s society we do all need money to get along, for all those basic things like food, shelter, health, etc. so we spend a lot of time and energy focused on money. But a lot of the times that I have done work that did not come with a salary I have gotten other needful benefits like community, companionship, and knowledge. I hope that society, or at least the community I was doing the work for also benefited, but I find that much harder to quantify. I am not on the outside looking in so I’m not sure how much perspective I will really be able to gain. Besides, sometimes the simple things are easier to keep in mind when I’m staring at my checkbook wondering how I’m going to pay to get my car fixed.

My parents and school instilled the volunteer spirit in me from a very young age, but it was not until I got to choose my own volunteer experiences that the worth and the meanings really came alive for me.

One volunteer experience with a lot of quantifiable benefits was when I called up Plimoth Plantation and volunteered to spend a few hours working in the gardens each week. I came up on a Friday afternoon and by the end of my three hours of volunteering I had a job. I almost hesitate to give that example because the obvious thing I got out of it was money. But more important for me than the money was the chance to work for an institution that I admire, even if it was only on the edges (or the floral borders as it were.) Also, I got to learn: about a time-period I knew less about, about new plants and how to better care for them. I got access to a very cool library with books I never otherwise would have found, and I got to spend a sunny summer and autumn outdoors in beautiful spaces.

A friend of mine recently shared a even better story. A friend invited Norah to volunteer in her colonial clothes for a local historical society, and a few months later she and the Society worked out an even more beneficial arrangement, Norah would volunteer some of her time, energy and knowledge, and the society would let her live in one of their historic properties. Norah got a home, and a lovely one at that, while the museum and the entire community benefits from her boundless energy and great historical knowledge.

When I was not far out of college and struggling with grad school and my job I decided to refresh my historical and theatrical sensibilities by volunteering at the Vermont Renaissance Festival. I gained a lot of similar things there and at subsequent faires and festivals as I had at Plimoth: a chance to work out of doors in interesting settings, knowledge of a different time-period (and in this case a different continent), eventually I even got paid a little. I also met my love at the faire, an incredibly important benefit!

The year that is so recently over saw Stephen and I undertake two ambitious new historical ventures. We started a historical guild portraying many aspects if the life of a band of mercenary soldiers from the Holy Roman Empire in the year 1530: The Guild of Saint Morritz. In less than a year it went from a seed of an idea that germinated in an airport in February, to a group of 13 folks with clothes, props, tents, furniture, and skills of the Landsknecht performing 4 weekends at the Connecticut Renaissance Faire. We did not get paid, we bought and made our own costumes etc., we did our own research, and learned and grew as a group. What we got in return were some great new friends, we also got to bring some history back to the renaissance faire, and we got to teach the visitors of the faire as well as the other participants all about an interesting time and place, and that the folks back then were different and they are the same as us.

Our second project, only recently launched, and definitely in the growing stages is the Living History Podcast. While on a basic level it is Stephen and I sharing what we know about the art of historical interpretation, on a deeper level it is a new way to connect with even more folks in the living history and reenacting community. We get to share our knowledge, interview interesting folks in different circumstances, meet folks who listen in, and be an active part of the ongoing dialogue about the future of living history. This is not a paid undertaking, but the opportunities that we are hoping will spring out of this endeavor will make it all worth it.

I do wish that I was paid for the things I love to do, not because being paid would assign a value to the work, but because then I could devote more of the time that I now spend earning money to the activities that I feel reflect my proper place in this life. (I really do love my job, it is fantastic and I am so happy to have it, it is just not my dream job.) But in the mean-time I’m not going to complain that I spend a lot of daylight hours earning money, instead I’ll be thankful that I do have a job that I really enjoy, plus in my spare time I get to learn and play in history among interesting individuals and good friends.

I can’t wait to see what the new year will bring! Read this entry on entry page