Senior Thesis Spotlight: Dance in Colonial America
A senior Community Adviser and Ebony Singers soloist, Dan Bloom ’10 is also a two-time University wrestling captain. Oh, and he dabbles in dance, as well. This year, Bloom combined his eclectic interests to write a history thesis and devoted his year to study the formation of early American identity, while simultaneously defending his title as a New England wresting Champ. The only athlete to complete a thesis in the history department this year, Bloom took some time out of his WesBurlesque rehearsal to talk to The Argus about his project.
Argus: What is your thesis about?
Dan Bloom: My thesis is about dance in colonial America. I argue that dance played a significant role in the formation of an early American culture and identity.
A: How so?
DB: Dance was not simply a social event or a means of entertainment, it contributed to the way early colonists and early Americans lived their lives. Dance became this significant through two major facets: dance masters in early America and early American theater. Dance was something recognizable to everyone, and that common language gave people from different regions something with which they could connect.
A: What is your favorite part of your project?
DB: My favorite part of my thesis? Hard to say because you really need every part. Isn’t that the point? The thesis in its entirety is what makes it work.
A: If you had to choose…
DB: I am not sure. There is this one quote that I came across while researching that I love. This academic tutor who lived in Virginia in 1776, he wrote “Virginians are of genuine blood: they will dance or die!” It’s very extreme, but a very nice quote that proves dance is as pervasive in American society.
A: Who was influential throughout the writing process?
DB: My advisor, Courtney Fullilove [Assistant Professor of History] was amazing. Colonial dance is not her area of expertise, but she always had great suggestions for articles to read and she was great at helping me to articulate what was going on in my mind that sometimes struggled to find its way to the paper.
A: What was your favorite part of the process of writing a thesis?
DB: My favorite part of writing a thesis was when I found evidence that supported my theories. I had ideas about dance’s importance to early American life, but there were a few moments when my primary sources drove my thesis home. It was really exciting to make 225 year-old documents come to life in my own way.
A: And the hardest part?
DB: The research. There is so much material that needs to get looked at for such a big project. Hours and hours of reading and analyzing sources made first semester and winter break seem like it would never end. I also really struggled with the editing process. It is hard to keep rereading your own work, especially when it means having to read multiple 20 plus page chapters. And I might be the slowest reader to come through this fine institution.
A: How did you choose your topic?
DB: I chose my topic as a way to combine my love of early American history—a thank you to Professors John Ruddiman and Kirk Swinehart—with my interest in dance. I just started wondering what kinds of dances were being done at that time and how/if these dances were pervasive in the society. The rest, I suppose, is history.
A: What other topics were you considering before you settled on your final project?
DB: I had another topic that I did a lot of research for. It was about the representation of the American Revolution in textbooks. I wanted to use these documents called “petitions for pensions” that every American Revolutionary vet had to fill out to get their stipend after the war ended. They had to document all of their experiences in the war: where they were, their job, descriptions of the conflicts they were a part of, etc.
A: What would your argument have been?
DB: I wanted to argue that this was the real history of the American Revolution, not the glorified rhetoric of the founding fathers, which is stressed in popular American textbooks.
A: Why didn’t you go through with it?
DB: It was shot down by one of the guru professors here at Wesleyan who told me it was unoriginal. Oh well. And that was that.
A: What do you think of dance here at Wesleyan?
DB: I’m not a huge fan of modern dance. I grew up seeing Broadway productions, so I have a thing for people moving together, [just] not abstractly. I think that there is a ton of talent and that it’s a great department, I just don’t like the emphasis on modern/post-modern dance.
A: Are you a dancer yourself?
DB: I am kind of a dancer. I became interested in dance while at Wesleyan. I have had no formal training, I just find dancing fun. It is just such a unique form of expression and exercise.
A: How is it unique?
DB: It challenges individuals to use their minds and their bodies together—figuring out rhythms, counting to beats, learning steps, moving in sync with other people, or not. I just started taking dance classes here at Wesleyan and never stopped.
A: That sounds a lot like wrestling. Did you research wrestling in colonial America as well?
DB: I did not research wrestling in colonial America. But I have no doubt that people were wrestling in colonial America. Abraham Lincoln was a wrestler. I know that he came much later, but people were definitely wrestling—it is pretty much the oldest sport around.
A: Did the history department support your athletic commitment as well as your academic one?
DB: I think that the history department did accommodate me in a few minor ways, but all the tutorial times for the department were from 4:30 to 6:30, at the same time reserved for varsity sports to have practice. I was told I had to miss practice because Wesleyan is first and foremost an academic institution.
A: How do you think writing a thesis is different for a varsity athlete?
DB: I think being an athlete put me at a disadvantage from many other thesis writers. Wrestling is a harder sport than most because on top of the physical exertion. We have to monitor our weight every day. Sometimes that meant having to wake up early and get in extra workouts in the morning. I know that everyone has lots of obligations and everyone is busy and focused on other things other than their thesis, but being an athlete involves practices during the week, extra work outs, competitions and traveling during the week and on weekends. It is really hard to read and write on a bus or in a van. I want to be clear that I know people are very active on campus and writing a thesis is not easy for anyone, I just think the demands of a varsity sport are rigorous and create a great challenge for those who do both.