Washington’s Birthday Dance Challenge

This is a guest post by Megan White, Visitor Services Specialist at the Library. 

Three sketches of partners dancing

A cotilion [sic], Kingsbury, W. H., S. W. Fores, London, 1788, Music Division

Presidents’ Day started in 1800, a year after Washington’s death, as an informal day of remembrance. As the decades rolled by, the mournful tone shifted to a patriotic celebration of Washington’s life. In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes legally made Washington’s birthday a federal holiday in Washington, DC, and in 1885 it joined New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas as a national bank holiday.

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which President Nixon signed into law in 1971. This law moved several holidays to Mondays and combined the celebration of Washington’s Birthday (February 22) and Lincoln’s Birthday (February 12) into one holiday on the third Monday in February, which was meant to celebrate the lives of all Presidents. While the federal holiday is still officially known as Washington’s Birthday, we informally know it as Presidents’ Day. You can read more about this on the Library’s “Wise Guide” or on In Custodia Legis, the blog from the Law Library.

If you or your children (especially teens) are interested in investigating the lives of the Presidents, you can get to the heart of the story with primary sources. The Library of Congress holds the papers of 23 Presidents from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge, and it has recently finished a decades-long project to fully digitize the collections.

But if you and your family need a research break, we’re here for you, too. In the Library’s “Today in History” project, the entry for George Washington’s birthday mentions a letter among Washington’s papers from Comte de Rochambeau who wrote of his intention to host a ball to celebrate Washington’s birthday. The entry continues to suggest using the essays and manuals on baroque and late eighteenth-century social dance in our collections to learn about dances that would have been popular at Rochambeau’s party.

In the spirit of the TikToc sea shanty trend, I would like to challenge you and your children to remix one of the dances that could have been featured at any of the Presidents’ birthday parties into a meme-worthy dance. Get inspiration from the American Ballroom Collection’s Video Directory (a good starting point is the Scotch Reel, which can be done solo or socially distanced, and also these demonstrations of 18th century dances). Then make your dance your own. Good luck and have fun!

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