Dancing Bishops

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 It took me longer than I expected to finish Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” I am not a fan of priests, nor do I have any history with the American Southwest. The only connection I have to Santa Fe, where the novel is centered, is borrowed from Byrne Miller. She lived there in the 1960s, a hundred years after the priests that so intrigued Cather. I wonder what they would have thought of Byrne: a modern dancer from Manhattan, Jewish, uninhibited, radical and experimenting with open marriage.

I suspect they would have been no more astonished than the Native American students Byrne took under her wing. Here came a tall white woman who walked even taller, confidently aware of her shapely legs and jutting breasts. She wore cat-eye glasses and scraped her jet black hair under silk scarves, except when she posed for publicity photos – wild-haired and wilder-eyed.

When she guest-lectured for a class called “Man and his Arts” at the Navajo Community College, students wrote thank-you letters about how she made them aware of their posture. When she taught dance at the Rock Point Community School, the Title IV Coordinator would later become one of her adopted sons: Benjamin Barney. Her class consisted of nine adults, two little girls and five onlookers – probably their mothers. Ben’s own mother might have been among them; she was deeply suspicious of dance as entertainment. Which might explain why in her journals, Byrne wrote of showing dance films, leading improvisations like “walking through phone booths” and emphasizing movement as a “teaching tool.”

I always found it odd, maybe even a tad imperial — the thought of a modern dancer from New York, teaching dance to a people whose very religion celebrated it. Dance came long before the priests in Willa Cather’s novel:

“The Bishop stood watching the flowing, supple movements of their arms and shoulders, the sure rhythm of their tiny moccasined feet, no larger than cottonwood leaves, as without a word of instruction they followed the irregular and strangely-accented music.”

I wonder if, at the time, Byrne watched as much as she demonstrated. She could be terribly intimidating, as my brother-by-Byrne attests. Ben was one of her best dancers but dance, in his culture, is a vehicle of faith. Movement is literally transformative. Byrne wanted him to wear tights and perform on stage – for strangers. She choreographed a role for him in a piece she called, ironically, “The Walls Between Us.” Against his mother’s wishes, Ben danced for Byrne.

It still haunts him. He writes letters to me, helping with the memoir I am writing of my own time with Byrne. “The performance happened, even when I felt bad about it.”

It circles back to Cather and her Bishops, the novel that made me slow down and study the rhythm of the words. Byrne’s journey was no different than that of any outsider.  The bishops had to pay for their awakening in years of travel – by horse, or burro, through Mexico new and old. Understanding wasn’t a souvenir.  Byrne was much luckier. She collected children who grew to love her, faults and all.

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