Written by J.M. Wasko
It’s the Summer of Hamilton at the New-York Historical Society, and we are celebrating every weekend with Living History Summer! This weekend, we welcome Living Historian Janice Wolk from Heard’s Brigade of New Jersey Militia on Saturday and again on Sunday with her dance troupe, North River Historical Dancers.
Believe it or not, Janice grew up in Queens and actually disliked studying the past until she learned about the amazing history of New York in college. To learn about dance in Hamilton’s heyday, we sat down with Janice to chat about her fascinating hobby and to learn what makes the North River Historical Dancers a special living history program that you won’t want to miss.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: How did you become a Living Historian?
Janice Wolk: It wasn’t until I moved to New Jersey that I learned about living history. In 2004 I met two reenactors who were portraying George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette at a living history event at the Hermitage, a historic house that Washington visited and at which Aaron and Theodosia Burr were married. Soon after that, I bought Harlow Giles Unger’s biography about Lafayette and there was no turning back; I wanted to know everything about the American Revolution!
In 2006 I joined Heard’s Brigade of New Jersey Militia to begin reenacting. I found myself more interested in how people socialized in the past than the battles, so I tried out 18th-century dancing at different reenactments. Eventually I met enough reenactors who enjoyed dancing to start an English Country Dance class with Steve Tichenor, Chairman and Founder of North River Historical Dancers. In 2009 we opened the class up to the public and have been running it ever since Ridgewood Community School. Much to our surprise, many new people who have never reenacted join our class, get swept up in historical dancing, and then want to get dressed up and reenact at historic sites themselves!
DCHM: Besides teaching dance instead of reenacting, are there other ways in which the North River Historical Dancers are different from other Living Historians?
JW: Most of the time, living history revolves around battle reenactments, but I believe it is crucial to show how people lived and socialized in that time period, not just how they fought. Our organization is also unique in that we portray individuals from several different eras. Our dances mainly cover the American Revolution, but we are equally fascinated by dance from as early as the late-17th century to as late as the American Civil War in the mid-19th-century. This way, we see how some dances evolved into other, newer moves. Over time, couples dances became the norm, and in the 19th century dancing became more inclusive.
DCHM: What is the best part of dancing through all of those ages?
JW: All of it is rewarding for a few reasons. I find that the dancing from any era can teach us what people thought was important. For example, dance partners [from certain eras] did not interact too closely, and this allowed them to show each other respect. They also did not dance on their own, but as a group working together. I also enjoy the theatricality of historical dancing. Although I do not portray any specific person from the past, I act and move differently. I feel ‘in the moment,’ as if I’ve stepped into my favorite movie or novel about the past. It is like time travelling every time! Finally, English Country Dancing has a lot of patterns that creative people enjoy. Because I am a caller—a person who teaches everyone the steps of a dance and calls out their movements—I have to remember a lot of patterns. This has made my memory much stronger! Dancing is also healthy and can help us live longer.
DCHM: What should families who visit you on Sunday expect to enjoy?
JW: Obviously, this style of dancing is nothing like that of today. Our goal is for people to understand history by jumping into the past’s most popular form of entertainment. We also make it easily accessible to all levels of experience so that anyone can join us. As a result, it is actually impossible for us to dance in a way that is 100 percent historically accurate. For example, there were no callers in the 18th century. In the past, everyone learned how to dance at some point and knew exactly how to conduct themselves on the dance floor or would follow the lead of the first couples dancing. At balls, the guests of honor decided on the first dance and would work their way down a line of other couples showing them the dance. No one danced until the very first, special couple came to them as a form of respect. When the North River Historical Dancers perform today, we let everyone dance at the same time so that everyone can get involved right away!
We are so grateful to Janice for taking the time to chat with us and for bringing dances of the American Revolution to life! The North River Historical Dancers hope you will stop by the New-York Historical Society and get dancing this weekend as part of Living History Summer.