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Davis, California

Monday, February 26, 2024

‘Abacus Wizard’ factors Renaissance into the equation

While some use dress as an extension of self and individual personality, others may use it to make external statements and social critiques. Casey Davis stands somewhere in the middle.

Aside from being a big guy with a large beard and long pulled-back hair, there’s a certain air about him that is neither austere nor modern. He simplifies things as he couples a pair of ordinary blue jeans with a fair burgundy button-down, but as a teal cape and wide-brimmed Australian leather hat hang to his immediate left, he complicates them again.

“While I’m making my way around campus, I’m aware of the attention that a man wearing a cape may draw,” Davis said, hands folded in his lap and with a smile.

Davis is the Student Academic Success Center’s newest physics/math specialist. His formal tone, style and gestures mirror a man of a different period, a time period he incorporates into his teaching philosophy.

Having earned an undergraduate degree in math with a minor in philosophy at UC Davis, he’s no stranger to the campus.

“I moved around to Fairfield and Napa for a few years teaching high school math full-time and junior college level math part-time, but I wanted to move back closer to Davis,” Davis said. “All my friends were still here.”

He met many of these friends during his undergraduate years as he searched for his niche and outlets for a passion in music.

“At some point during my freshman year, I remember being on the Quad and seeing people in Renaissance-style dress dancing to canned music,” Davis said. “I asked them if they’d be interested in a musician and they said, ‘Sure, come to our meeting Thursday night.’ Little did I know I’d be dancing, too.”

The group Davis joined was called the English Country Dance Club. Having had a long tradition of attending Renaissance fairs with his parents for his birthday as a kid, growing up in a household big on Irish folk music and playing it in high school, he was quite familiar with the scene.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the history of the time period,” Davis said.

The allure is evident as he is still an active member of the club, with his Elizabethan-style cape and wizard-esque brown hat serving as commonplace and baffling many students who frequently spot him on campus.

“I figured he was one of those people obsessed with Harry Potter,” said Carla Ortega, a junior human development major. “I’ve always found it kind of strange, but cool at the same time because I’d never have the guts to pull that off.”

Davis sticks to his conventional cape and hat wardrobe just about every day, if the weather permits.

“I wear the hat every day unless it’s raining and the cape every day unless it’s too hot,” Davis said. “I have a heavier cape for the winter months. People should know that capes are ridiculously comfortable! You can wrap up in one when it’s cold or let it flutter when there’s a nice breeze. They look really cool too.”

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Davis is his ability to merge what would otherwise seem to be distinctly unrelated interests: Renaissance dance with math and physics.

“The way I make sense of the dances is to think of them geometrically,” Davis said, drawing patterns with his fingers on the table. “The geometry of motion for the individual dancers and the pattern they form as a group makes more sense to me personally. Plus explaining the dances to new members is good practice for teaching.”

Davis also uses his interests in the Elizabethan arts to provide a historical context for math and physics, so students can have an understanding of the time periods in which these two disciplines were being developed.

“As a teacher, I’ve gradually come to the idea that the human brain isn’t naturally good at math,” Davis said. “I think the human brain is naturally good at remembering and understanding stories, though. If I can give students a story of the early mathematician, the story has a better chance of latching on, and then the actual equations may latch on afterwards.”

At Renaissance Fairs at which the English Country Dance Club performs, Davis wears a 16th century-style scholar’s outfit and pulls people off the street to set up human solar system models. He has one person stand with a sign that reads “sun,” another with one that reads “moon” and a third that reads “earth.” He then has the earth stand still and have the others go around it, illustrating the accepted theory of the period.

“Leaving people with a better understanding of history is part of the entertainment,” Davis said. “I figure if I’m going to be playing this role it might as well be someone who’s involved in something I do in real life.”

In addition to performing at Renaissance Fairs throughout Northern California, the Country Dance Club also performs at campus events such as The Buzz and Student Activities Fair.

“The performances are much different from the performer perspective than from the audience perspective,” Davis said. “As a performer I know what’s going on everywhere and I have a more behind-the-scenes look.”

The “Abacus Wizard,” as he calls himself, is equally omniscient from his office, according to David McGee, a first-year neurobiology major.

“He’s just so thorough with his explanations,” McGee said. “I went to get tutoring for math and there really wasn’t a question he couldn’t answer. He presents it in a way that’s hard for the student to forget as well. I walked in being very intimidated by him, but left knowing I’d be back.”

“Trick them into learning with a laugh,” the unofficial motto for the Dickens Christmas Fair Reenactment in which Davis participates, is something he stands by wholeheartedly. Behind the cape and often-furrowed brow there’s a gentle giant looking to express himself while helping others.

“I dress this way because it makes me feel good and enables me to constantly live out my passions,” Davis said, rolling his fingers over the abacus positioned on his desk. “I’m a walking history lesson.”

ISAIAH SHELTON can be reached at features@theaggie.org.


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