Above: A Calico Indians mask designed by Angelo Vizcarrondo for the Calico Indian Dance Showdown. Photo via Todd Whitley.
During the 19th-century Anti-Rent Wars, poor tenant farmers rebelled against their rich patrician landlords across the Catskills, relying a mix of politics, armed uprisings and subterfuge to dismantle the semi-feudal system that remained in the region.
In the 1830s and 1840s, rebel farmers disguised themselves in calico dresses and faux-"Indian" masks and roamed the countryside, organizing rebellion.
Left: Awake! Arouse! Dance! An 1839 poster supporting the Anti-Rent movement in Nassau, New York. From Wikimedia Commons.
The story is like something out of the musicals “Oklahoma” or “West Side Story.” Just replace farmers versus cowboys or Sharks versus Jets with “Calico Indians” versus wealthy aristocratic “patroons.”
This summer, a coalition of Greene County arts organizations is doing just that.
“As soon as the director of the Zadock Pratt Museum said, ‘There’s this story about poor farmers with their backs to the wall dressing up in calico and sheepskin masks,’ I was in,” said Fawn Potash, the director of Masters on Main Street at the Greene County Council of the Arts. “It’s just too crazy. We had to do something with it.”
Thus was born the Calico Indian Dance Showdown, which may sound like an odd indie band name but is actually a festive historical reenactment coming to three Catskills towns this summer thanks to Mainly Greene, a coalition of Greene County arts organizations that includes the Catskill Mountain Foundation, the Greene County Council on the Arts, the Prattsville Art Center and Zadock Pratt Museum.
The first of three dance performances will debut this weekend in the Greene County town of Catskill on Saturday, July 4 at 8 p.m. at Dutchman's Landing Park. Two others performances are scheduled for August 15 in Haines Falls and August 29 in Prattsville. (See below for more details.)
Potash and her colleagues at Simply Greene turned to Todd Whitley, the co-creator of the Hudson Valley Dance Festival and a Greene County resident, to choreograph a dance based on the Anti-Renters.
Above: A dancer in a mask for the show. Photo by Todd Whitley, via Facebook.
“I choreographed a celebration, taking a fragment of the story and telling it as sort of a mini “Oklahoma”-style ballet,” says Whitley. “Different characters have different signature movements. There’s a sequence in which every character is introduced: Indians threatening wealthy landowners, the sheriff coming in to break it up, the Indians instructing the villagers … I threw in some side drama like a love interest between an Indian and a wealthy landowner girl. I wrote in a bunch of solos, to leverage the local talent and give everyone interested an opportunity to shine.”
All are welcome to join Whitley’s epic as performers, not just as audience members.
“There’s a really accessible level where you can roll up five minutes before the show and jump in,” Whitley said. “I’m kind of evangelical – I believe dance is good for everyone."
Some teams are in rehearsal – Potash says they could use a few more “somewhat athletic” adults to play Indians – and there are local dance schools participating in the more intricate moves.
Whitley and Potash say that the history of the Anti-Rent Wars are more relevant than ever today.
“Some Anti-Renters contested the idea that the Livingstons, Van Rensselaers and other patroons had legal title to the land," write Potash in the press release promoting the dance event. "Some wanted to apply the rent paid toward ownership. Some just wanted the opportunity to buy the land where their families had lived since arriving in the new world … They organized into regional groups, with younger men joining a Calico Indian ‘tribe,’ pledging a secret oath to never reveal the members’ identities."
“And this has a lot of relevance for the Catskills," Whitley said. "Questions like who controls the land and resources and the feeling that a lot of the people who live here have no voice, those are fresh issues. It seems odd to us that they were using art to rebel with 170 years ago. Or is it? I don’t know. I do know the dance school kids are excited.”
It’s an excitement that organizers hope will be contagious.
“This is about how we identify ourselves and how to move forward,” says Potash. “I want people to realize, ‘I do have a voice, and I can use it creatively.’”
The Calico Indian Dance Showdown. Three performances are scheduled: Saturday, July 4 at 7 p.m. in Catskill during the town's Fourth of July festivities at Dutchman’s Landing Park; Saturday, August 15 at 4 p.m. in Haines Falls during the Mountaintop Historical Society’s Local History Day; and on Saturday, August 29 in Prattsville during Prattsville’s Mudfest. The Showdown is part of AMERICAN MASQUERADE, a series of workshops, exhibits and events celebrating the history of the Anti-Rent War that includes an historical exhibition at the Zadock Pratt Museum and a contemporary exhibitions at the Prattsville Art Center. For more information, visit www.mainlygreene.org or greenearts.org/american-masquerade.