If it’s too hot to do anything else, dance. You’re sweating anyway, right? Byrne Miller always said sweating is the sign of doing it right, whether “it” was dance or sex. It’s your body’s testimony to the effort, the consciousness of movement. She was always conscious of how she moved, and how dance is the most sensual of acts possible to perform alone.
I became conscious of the latter when she invited me to take a master class from Martha Graham dancers. They were in Beaufort, South Carolina for a week-long residency in the local schools. This was in the early 90s, when Beaufortonians were more likely to follow the Kentucky Derby than modern dance. But she lured them in anyway and created an audience for the brilliant dancers she brought here to perform for the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre.
The Martha Graham master class was the last obligation of the dancers before their performance, and Byrne selected the perfect location. About a dozen students waited for class to begin inside a wooden building that was once a dance hall in the black part of town, the Silver Slipper Club.
From the street, it looked more like a church or a one-room school house, polite in its pretty pinkness. But inside, the floor sagged in spots worn smooth from jiving soles and jitterbug heels. The uninsulated walls let secrets to slip out into the night, like notes from a long-ago blues singer. Fans of Jonathan Green might recognize the building from his painting of a red-headed white woman dancing in the arms of a blue-black partner. Restraint was cast away in the Silver Slipper, like shrimp nets into murky Beaufort waters. Of course Byrne would ask her followers to dance here.
There is no instant gratification or quick release from the monotony of ordinary movement. Dance is a learned pleasure, one that requires practice and sacrifice, years of it. When you can finally make your body obey your will, when every muscle in your arm becomes part of your reach, it is exquisitely satisfying. When your legs can lift as well as thrust, absorb momentum and create it – that is power. When your center can spin around itself, eyes focused on a spot in front of you turn after turn – that is seeing.
In a Martha Graham master class there are no classical poses, balances or fluttering across the floor on tip toes. Hers is a vocabulary at home in the Silver Slipper: violent spasms, trembling and falls to the floor. Graham called her signature contractions the physical manifestation of grief, but to me, pressed against the floorboards of a Gullah dance hall, they were birthing pains of belonging. Beaufort was the place I would later write about, in “Transfer of Grace.” Byrne was the woman who made me fall in love with it.
The class, billed as 90 minutes, swelled into two hours then two-and-a-half before, finally, Byrne moved out into the center of the Silver Slipper and began the chorus of applause. For the dancers, she clapped, for the students, for the spirit in the room and the sultry air that bound us all together one night in a Gullah dance hall.
It’s easy to think this recession is unique. We may indeed be the first generation to lose our houses to banks bailed out by our own pre-layoff tax dollars. But of course economic misery isn’t new, and every time I’m tempted to think it is I am reminded of Byrne Miller.
She came of age in the Great Depression and had to marry her husband twice because of it. The first time in secret, because leaving her father’s household to start her own would mean the family would lose the meager income she contributed. The second wedding was a few years later, when her father found work again. Only then could she declare her love for Duncan Miller in public, at the Manhattan City Hall. Still, money was tight. So she answered an ad in the paper for dancing girls and a career of fifty years began.
“I wasn’t one of the great ones,” Byrne once told me. I had thought her modest, knowing that she had danced in New York, St. Thomas, Santa Fe, Mexico and Ireland before she landed in Beaufort, South Carolina in the late 1960s. It turned out she was anything but modest.
“No darling,” she said. “It was these bosoms that got me noticed. That and legs that wouldn’t quit. It was the Great Depression, remember, men needed a lift.” The troupe, she later told reporters, was called the Sara Mildred Strauss Company. Eighteen or nineteen scantily clad women, many of whom had been prostitutes, made up the ranks. Her job was to stand on a pedestal, wearing two inches of cloth, and waggle her hips.
“Let’s face it,” she told me. “The legs have to be worth the ticket price.” As thousands of Byrne Miller Dance Theatre audience members over the years can attest, those she brought to Beaufort always were.
Leaving Olar at almost seventy miles an hour is not when you want to see a South Carolina state trooper. Especially not one headed back into town, wondering what’s your hurry. His lights flash all they want but still aren’t near as blue as the disappearing sky. There’s no excuse crazier than the truth. The ghosts of Olar are at our back, puffing their cheeks to blow us away.
We try it anyway. The trooper can’t be but twenty-five at most, might not have heard it all yet. No sir, not sure how fast we were going. Too busy talking, for what it’s worth. First time in Olar. Still can’t quite believe how pretty it is.
This Olar? he asks. Stiff hat brim shadows can’t hide his puffy skepticism. No-one stops in Olar voluntarily. He’s behind us now, cross checking our license plate against DUIs on his on-board, patrol car computer. When it comes back empty handed so does he. It’s a warning, he says, but we already know that. Just as sure as we know that we’ll come back anyway.
There is nothing so irresistible as being unwanted. South Carolina plates and a bag of boiled peanuts in the front seat don’t qualify us as been here’s. We’re come here’s, strangers from points East. Doesn’t matter that we aren’t lost, trying to find the interstate or the bomb plant up the road a piece. We’re driving the back roads gussied up by tourism officials as the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor. But deliberately looking for Olar is tantamount to sneaking up on it. Not that any curious locals draw open a curtain or roll down a window as they drive past. With a population 212 and dropping, ten percent a decade, the whole town looks empty, drained. We are trespassing on yesterdays.
Just how many isn’t immediately evident. We pull up to a squat, one-story red brick building with a pole sticking straight out of its bulky forehead. A wood, hand-lettered sign hangs from it, perpendicular to the street. It’s only the last breath of twilight that swings it, gently, nothing sinister. The lettering predates the ubiquitous, commercial Helvetica font of common towns and nomenclature. It is carefully ruler-traced, black on white, the Bank of Olar.
As ghosts go, this one doesn’t seem friendly. The windows on either side of a plain wood door are hung from the inside with faded blue fabric so you can’t see what’s left. Injured pride, maybe, after all these bank bailouts and bonuses. Nobody bothered to save the Bank of Olar. The entrance wasn’t grand enough, a shoe-scuffed concrete stoop only one step up from the cracked sidewalk. Deals died here, along with dreams of keeping farms in the family. It wasn’t until the 1980s that South Carolina officially lost its rural status, and ceding ground is never graceful in the South. There’s a round glass electric company meter stuck to the side flank of the Bank of Olar, still monitoring for a heartbeat. The window sill is only deep enough to lean against, not to sit and kill time.
For that, you walk across Low Country Road, what Highway 64 calls itself when it passes through the eight tenths of a square mile that make up Olar. Stained black timbers form an open-air, triangular shelter, heavy with shade. The Works Progress Administration designation is a “shed” but it looks more like an alien ski chalet without the walls. Maybe the idea for it came down from the North along the “Route of Courteous Service.” Olar was a whistle-stop on the Seaboard Air Line Railway from Richmond to Jacksonville back when Southern hospitality slogans lured tourists to Florida. Maybe that’s what gave the Heritage Corridor people the idea. We came, so you could say it’s working.
If the general store were still alive, we’d gladly contribute to the local economy, buy a can of Cheerwine and a Moon Pie and watch the ghosts of trains go by. But behind the side-by-side screen doors of the Creech Variety Store, established 1938, is a closed sign, like the owner just went out for a cigarette. Back in ten minutes, fifty years ago. The window sills are painted a blue that might be borrowed from a little east of here, on the sea islands. The Gullah people call it “haint blue” and swear it keeps bad spirits from barging in where haints aint wanted.
What color keeps out conjuring, the kind outsiders do when they imagine what could be created here? Adaptations whisper from the arched facades, possibilities rustle through the leaves of Sycamores that shade the sidewalk. Good bones, these brick and mortar relics, capable of resurrections — cafés, dance studios or photography galleries. Screw a new bulb in the lamp clamped above the sign and Drink Coca Cola would light the way to Olar after darkness falls. Crickets begin to chirp, phantom frogs pick up the protest. Something slithers through the grass. Move along changers, the buildings mutter, we are settled in our ways. Gone but not forgotten.
The store windows are clear enough to peer through, to long strips of wood flooring and walls still lined with shelves and cubbyholes. White painted tin squares pucker along the ceiling, high enough for heat to rise and gossip to carry. Who wore what to the horse races up in Aiken. Who got what for their cotton farms when the nuclear plant claimed everything from here to the Savannah River. No wonder the wariness of Olar, outsiders deserve a little suspicion.
Across the tracks it’s just as melancholy. An abandoned gas station stands in the center of a grass lot, neatly mown except for the whiskers of weeds that tickle through gaps in the cement slab. Buicks and Oldsmobiles would have kept them down before, back when this building, out of all Olar’s ghosts, was a sign of progress. It’s stripped bare now, down to the metal knuckle that anchored down the pumps. Rust drizzles from the metal roof, leaving bloody stains on stucco walls. Exposed brick is unintentional. Move along, the walls whisper, nothing here to plunder.
But inside even this most industrial of abandoned buildings there’s a sense of beauty waiting to be remembered. Nothing is destroyed, just left behind. The exhalations of customers no longer breathing rise and fall in an endless loop of captured space. A peaceful current circulates in perpetuity, echoes of an orchestra of life. Panes of windows, ripe for smashing, are eyes staring out at what passes by. They flirt with chance encounters, the curious and bewitched. Look, don’t touch. Listen, don’t speak. We are neither happy nor haunted, alive only in our deadness. Reach back into the past, you strangers seeking heritage, and the ghosts of Olar dance again.
It may sound obvious, that fishing is nothing like dancing, but it wasn’t to me. Until yesterday, when a friend took me out on his boat for six hours just off the coast of Parris Island.
I’d practised, assuming that, like dance, this is what fishing takes. For the past few weeks I took my rod down to the end of our dock around noon, when my mind usually starts to wander away from whatever page I’m writing. Instead of checking Facebook, or even blogging, I practised casting. There was no sense wasting bait; it was just me, the sand gnats, a bobber and a hook on the end of a line that hadn’t been used for a long, long time.
There’s a grace to casting. Dancers are graceful. Ergo, dancers should be good at fishing. I thought it must surely be in the arm and all I’d have to do is learn the port-de-bras of fishing. The problem with learning the port-de-bras of fishing is that there is no mirror on a dock. I couldn’t see how consistent, or inconsistent, my release was or whether I was arching my back too much or too little. I just kept guessing and wondering why I couldn’t put the bait in the same place twice.
I thought perhaps when I got onboard a real boat, with a real fisherman, things would drastically improve. I would suddenly convert the coordination, flexibility and strength I have as a dancer into catching fish. I could not have been more wrong. The bow of a boat rocks beneath your feet. Mylar dance floors do not. So I spent much of the next six hours in a demi-plie just to avoid swimming with the fishes I was trying to catch. Score one for dance training – at least I have strong thighs.
The scenery when standing on the bow of a boat in the Port Royal Sound is quite distracting. Dolphins undulate in the currents. Pelicans fold themselves into descending projectiles. Oystercatchers emerge from rakes of mud and shell with only a flash of orange-red beak to break the camouflage. There is nothing in the environs of a dance class that can compare. It is much easier to concentrate within four walls of a studio, safe from natural splendor.
There are no lyrics in the music of the open ocean, no words to help you remember the steps or phrasing to set the rhythm of your movements. Your body creates the only sounds you hear and they are too loud – fish dart away when a cooler lid slams or when you step down into the center of the boat forgetting to go through the toes and then the ball of the foot.
And then there is the absence of yelling and corrections. Terry Stone, while an expert boater and fisherman, would not make a good dance teacher. He’s a good friend and much too gentlemanly. He cared more about whether I was okay with hooking a minnow through its jaw and out between its eyes. Whether I had enough water to drink, food to eat, sunblock on the back of my neck. When he saw me about to swing a baited hook in his direction, he simply adjusted his position to stay out of my way. A dance teacher would have made me start over. And over. Chin up. Shoulders down. Butt tucked. Stomach sucked.
So, if Terry wouldn’t correct me, I just had to try to copy him. This was daunting. In just over an hour he caught a Spanish Mackerel and four Red Drum – expertly casting to the one spot they all seemed to think invisible, behind a reach of oyster shells, in the ebb of the incoming tide. At least he didn’t make it look easy. There is grunting, sweating, swearing involved. In fact, it looked impossible to me – that degree of accuracy under such unrehearsable conditions. So I gave up. I let Terry cast for me, then took the rod from his hands. And almost instantly lost it. The fish that thought he was biting on a worthy opponent’s minnow drug the bobber underwater in a flash. How a fish only 15 inches long can twist my wrist almost off, in a second, is still beyond me. I wasn’t ready for it. For the fight of it. For the speed of it. For the thrill of it. Of course, the fish got away. But I brought something else home. The certainty that fishing is nothing like dancing. These creatures are not my partners in any sort of art form. Their job is not to teach me anything. It’s to get away from me. And by doing so, lure me back to where I know I’m never in control. Nothing like dance at all.
The Nyanja people of Zambia have a proverb Byrne would have loved: If you are ugly, know how to dance. How telling, when dance is so much a part of a culture that to be able to dance is celebrated almost as much as beauty.
I like to think that dance is on an upsurge again in our own culture, if only as evidenced by popular TV contests like “So You Think You Can Dance.” I’m not sure that dance was ever as central to the North American culture as it is in other places. Maybe the very number of distinct cultural traditions that “blended” here meant no one dance form became as prevalent as, say, Folklorico in Mexico or Ring dancing in African countries.
Native Americans had their own, complex, relationship with dance. Byrne’s “son” Benjamin Barney of the Navajo People explained to me that dance for his people is spiritual, not meant for entertainment. It took him almost a lifetime to convince his real mother to accept his choice to dance for the love of it. He found a way to blend both worlds by forgoing a career on stage, performing and dancing just for the joy it gave him.
Byrne was so proud of Ben’s dancing that she didn’t see the balance he was trying to achieve, at least until much later in her life. By the time I met her, I think she understood. Taped to her refrigerator was the cartoon where Snoopy says something like this: If you can’t dance, everyone at least can do a happy hop 🙂
April is National Poetry Month, and I saw a poem the other day that made me think of Byrne Miller. I never took the time to ask Byrne who her favorite poets were, but something tells me Langston Hughes would have been one of them.
Black Dancers – by Langston Hughes
Who have nothing to lose
Must sing and dance
Before the riches
Of the world
Who have nothing to lose
Must laugh and dance
Lest our laughter
Byrne not only brought modern dance to the Deep South, she brought black modern dance. The most expensive company she ever hired to perform in Beaufort was the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company – she told me she’d take out a second mortgage on her house to bring them here. She not only brought DCDC dancers to a Beaufort stage, but into dance classes at Beaufort public schools for a weeklong residency. The culminating performance was breathtaking. I’ll never forget the exquisite, painful honesty of the great African-American choreographer Talley Beatty’s Mourner’s Bench. One male dancer, sitting on a wooden plank, turning the movement of suffering into poetry. Or Donald McKayle’s Rainbow Round My Shoulder – a modern interpretation of a chain gang in the Deep South.
So, because I never thanked Byrne at the time, I will poetry_poster_small_sizecopy read Langston Hughes Black Dancers on Saturday, at the Charles Street Gallery. At four o’clock in the afternoon, when most of Beaufort is off at soft shell crab festivals, fundraisers and farmers markets, a group of six writers will read poetry to whoever makes the time to listen. I know Byrne Miller will be there in spirit.
Thanks to Byrne Miller’s love of the indecent, ill-mannered, un-reserved, show-offy wild azalea, there is now a shrine to the little-bit-slutty bloom right next to my house. Every day I crawl into the opening of a wild, un-gardened garden just for inspiration.
Byrne’s legacy may be that she is considered the Johnny Appleseed of modern dance in the South. But she started out with dreams of becoming a concert pianist. Her parents, orthodox Jews in depression-era Manhattan, both played. She practised as religiously as a later-acknowledged agnostic could, but it didn’t happen. Still, she loved classical music for the rest of her life. One of her secret dreams was to have an entire symphony at her disposal, a private concert in a grand hall.
When I duck into the un-garden, I know why she left it to its own devices. Big bumble bees buzz from bloom to bloom, so intent on doing what they do that they literally bump into me. I close my eyes and feel Byrne all around me. It’s a bee-symphony. Commissioned by her.