Subculture on Main: Mary Grace Wagner

Junior Mary Grace Wagner shows some of her dance moves.
Photo by Dani Massey.

Subculture on Main strives to raise awareness of the diversity of people and important issues on the Lawrence University campus. Care is taken to give equal platform to unique individuals and to listen to their stories with an open mind. Interviews are reflective only of the interviewee on not of their whole group.

Around the world, various ethnic and cultural groups come together to celebrate and share in special traditions. From a young age, Mary Grace Wagner has connected to her Scandinavian roots through dance. She explained her relationship with Scandinavian culture saying, “I’m Norwegian. It’s not a huge part of my ethnic heritage, but by participating in the Scandinavian Fest every year, it’s something that I’m able to identify with a little more.”

Wagner took the time to explain some of the history of her close cultural group. “On Washington Island, Wisconsin, which is the island on the very tip of Door County, there are people who settled there [and they] were Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian, with some Swedes. It was there [that] a bunch of Scandinavian people settled. Since it’s an island, mostly the same families that settled there in the late 1800s [are] still living there. So in honor of their ancestors who came over from Scandinavia, every summer there for two months people from age 3 to age 80 practice these dances that have been passed down through oral tradition. No one’s written them down. People have just learned them and kept them alive for 200 years. Even though I didn’t grow up on Washington Island and even though my Norwegian heritage isn’t a huge part of who I am on a day-to-day basis, it’s something that for two months every summer I get to really embrace.” She talked about how the dances tell stories and have been learned the same way over time — with community building, humor and oral tradition. 

“I didn’t really choose to be part of it,” Wagner explained. Her mother and aunts, she said, had done the same when they were young and continued the tradition. “For me, it’s meant a lot of things,” she shared, “I just developed a passion for it. Being a white person, there’s not much more I can do with my ethnic heritage than eating German food sometimes. My family goes way back that we’re not really connected to our ethnic heritage. It’s really cool to be able to express that somehow in a way that is a bit more nuanced than just knowing that you’re Norwegian or Swedish. It’s given me an opportunity to be a leader.”

She spoke about her experiences in helping teach children how to dance: “If they had an odd number of people, Kari Gordon, our director, would just [ask me], ‘Can you dance with the fourth and fifth graders this year?’” 

 “It has helped me feel like I have a place and somewhere where I can be expressive,” Wagner said. “I’ve developed a really great relationship with Kari. She’s become like a maternal figure to me and that’s been very nice to develop that relationship.” Wagner also mentioned the presence of others who dance on the Lawrence campus. She has developed many friendships this way — on campus and at the festival. 

Wagner concluded with a take-home:  “Two things: community [is] very important and teaching with kindness — letting everyone of all different ages be involved. There’re dances for girls and boys. There’re dances for boys that were written for boys to do. [But] we have girls do them because f— it, it’s 2020. It helps by keeping these traditions alive. We [can] make them our own while still keeping the integrity of their original intent. I think that’s really important to bring old traditions into the 21st century. Just keeping something alive through oral tradition is really effing cool! [We let] everyone participate and it’s just wholesome. It’s totally white people s—, but it’s super wholesome!”

Wagner is a junior and government major. She co-directed the Rocky Horror Picture Show in Fall Term 2019. Her interview was held in the Esch Hurvis Studio on the Warch Campus Center’s second floor where she reflected how skills she learned through dancing translated to directing Rocky Horror (through student organization PEP) in the same space.

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