Daniel Walkowitz: Dancing Through History

Historians in the News

Gary Shapiro, in the New York Sun (1-24-05):

New York University professor Daniel Walkowitz loves history and he loves to move. “Any city I go to, I dance,” said Mr. Walkowitz, who has kicked up his heels at folk-dancing events in New York, London, Minneapolis, San Francisco, San Jose, Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, and London, among other cities. He has performed with a Balkan troupe based in Baltimore, led workshops in Scandinavian dance, and is a teacher of English country dance with Country Dance New York, which hoofs it up weekly at a church in Greenwich Village.

His current project manages to combine both his scholarly interest and his personal passion for dance. Mr. Walkowitz is writing a book called “City Folk: English Country Dance and the Politics of the Folk in 20th Century America.” A public television documentary made with support from the Smithsonian’s Center for Folk Life and Cultural Heritage will complement the book.

Mr. Walkowitz said more Americans learn about history from television than from reading.“It’s as much a problem as an opportunity,” he said. It’s important that historians themselves be involved in making shows: History, he said, is too important to be left to filmmakers alone. He has been at the forefront of the field of public history, which trains academics to address a broader public through films and museum exhibitions.

“Why do urban people think it’s fun to emulate the folk and whom do they think they’re emulating?” Mr. Walkowitz asks in his research. English country dance has been in America for a long time. “George Washington,” Mr. Walkowitz said, “was a great country dancer, renowned for his fine form and fancy footwork.” In the 19th century, country dancing lost out in popularity to waltzes and polka — ballroom dances that allowed more intimate physical contact.

America has had two folk revivals. The first occurred around the turn of the 20th century and coincided with the rise of industrialization. As immigrants and rural migrants streamed into urban centers, they romanticized rural life as something natural.

A second resurgence occurred after World War II, and its spirit continues to influence the dance community today. In the 1960s, dancers felt that participating allied them with “common people,” with whom they preferred to identify.They were turning their backs on the materialism of mainstream culture, Mr. Walkowitz said.

Today, folk dancers see it as a way to escape the “speed and greed” of contemporary culture. ...

Mr.Walkowitz met his wife,Judith,at the University of Rochester on Thanksgiving in 1963; they recently celebrated their 39th wedding anniversary. She is a feminist historian at Johns Hopkins University. Their daughter, Rebecca, teaches English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

His interest in labor and social history is evident not only in his choice of scholarly topics but in his family’s cats, Bellamy and Josephine, named for the 19th-century utopian novelist Edward Bellamy and British suffragist Josephine Butler.

Asked what makes good historical writing, he said work that “does not confirm our prejudices but challenge us.” He added, “Thinking begins when people become uncomfortable.”


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