If Byrne Miller played Julia Roberts’ role, the movie would be called “Eat, Dance and Love Duncan.” Not that I could have convinced her to see the movie after reviews summing up the plot as “me, me, me and more me.” Byrne’s entire being was a partnership with the one man she loved so much she married twice. She was always part of “us” and “we,” never apart until her beloved Duncan died. He’s the one who took this photograph of her bathing, when they lived on a mountainside in Connecticut without electricity or running water.
Not that Byrne took any issue with self-indulgence, whenever possible. She once told me that the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre was just an excuse for her to get to see the best modern dancers in the world. She happened to live in a small town in the Deep South, but that was no reason not to expect the world to come to her. And come they did. Beaufort, South Carolina was the smallest venue on the First Freedom Tour of the International Glasnost Ballet – not to mention modern greats from Mummenshanz to Martha Graham and Paul Taylor.
“I’m selfish,” she bragged, “And I have a whim of iron.”
Her kind of selfishness, though, benefitted everyone who crossed her path. She, like the Julia Roberts character, knew romantic heartbreak. Duncan was not the first man who wanted to marry her, nor was he the last. When their oldest daughter spiraled into schizophrenia, they distracted themselves with other lovers to keep the stress from overwhelming their love. I’ve blogged about how she had to use reverse psychology to keep beautiful models away from Duncan when he was at the center of Advertising’s Mad Men days. She comforted dozens of adopted “daughters” dissolving in the drama of marriages gone bad. She understood and cheered for all of us, even encouraged us to have affairs to build back our confidence.
Byrne and Duncan traveled the world together, living everywhere from Manhattan to Santa Fe to St. Thomas. She danced in Ireland and Mexico, from Vaudeville burlesque troops to the very first companies of modern dance. She didn’t spend her life trying to be someone more worldly, centered or spiritual – she trusted that she was all that already or Duncan would never have fallen in love with her.
“You can never be everything to a man,” she always told me, “Nurse, lover, cheerleader, confidant, mother, conspirator, mentor – there are a thousand roles you can kill yourself trying to fill.” Somewhere there will always be a woman more beautiful, or more intelligent, perhaps more poised or even more independant than you feel you are. Her solution was something she shared with all her adopted daughters. Don’t try to compete. Don’t bother with jealousy. “Trust that you are the unique combination that the man you love cannot live without.”
I’m sure she would cheer the movie’s permission for spiritual growth, or how it encourages women to find themselves. But she would take it one step further. Share what you learn and what you love. She did in a thousand ways. When she arrived in 1960s South Carolina, she found public schools where children were classified as “handicapped” and incapable of dance. By the 1980s, she was teaching 700 of them a week – in their wheelchairs, with their hearing aids, from their dancing souls. She taught dance to military wives at Parris Island, Gullah-speakers at Penn Center and nurses at Beaufort Memorial Hospital. Every woman can move. Every woman can feel beauty.
Long before I even met her, she gave an interview to a Savannah newspaper. “Let’s face it, I’m a very ancient biddy. I never expected to live to 86, and here I am working until one o’clock night after night. No one told me you weren’t supposed to work that hard when you got that old! But you know, when it’s your own thing, you do it because it needs to be done.”
Eat, Dance, Love – not necessarily in that order.