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.
Byrne Miller liked to compare azaleas to the other spring flowers that grace Southern gardens. Take the camellia on her front bluff, overlooking the Beaufort River. “Pink Perfection” is no exaggeration. Its petals are demure, obedient. They present from the bud like a corps de ballet, each one in its place.
Not so the wild azalea. In Byrne’s world they are modern dance. Luscious, vivid, almost shocking when they burst upon the season. Each petal is almost see-through, scandalous, fluttering for attention in the breeze. The colors are crimson and fuchsia, all the better to entice the eye. Honey bees have room to wiggle, squirm, roll around inside.
So, of course, she loved them. Wouldn’t think of trimming or pruning any of the wild bushes that still surround her little house on the Beaufort River. “The azaleas I leave to their own devices,” she said. “They’re utterly indecent already. Show-offs, just like me.”
Tonight is the Beaufort Art Walk – where our little city’s outsized collection of galleries stays open late for buying browsers and just people who like a free glass of wine. When I get ready to go out, I’ll undoubtedly look through my jewelry box for something to wear. And more than likely, I’ll pick something that Byrne Miller gave me.
She gave away all her jewelry before she died, to her adopted daughters. I asked her why, once, and she said “Because when you step out, heads should turn.”
I’ve been thinking about why that means so much to me. Byrne was utterly unmaterialistic, yet she wanted her “daughters” to share the few possessions she did have. She passed down everything – from the silly costume earrings that dangled on either side of her impossibly long neck, to tiny strings of pearls her own mother wore. She didn’t wait until she died to decorate her “daughters” with these treasures, she wanted us to wear them while she could enjoy the stories of where they went – balls, dinner parties, operas, first dates, weddings.
I’ve been writing an essay about “re-parenting,” how it is possible to find the parents you need in their complete opposites, and somehow I keep thinking of Byrne’s mother’s pearls. Her gift of them to me made her history mine. She mingled her story with mine. So that I would feel connected. She didn’t have to ask, but somehow knew that this was not a tradition my own mother understands.
The mother I was born with doesn’t have roots. She and my father are grown-up runaways. She has never passed down any pretty jewelry that she loves, not because she’s selfish or petty, but because she doesn’t save any. There isn’t room in her life for remembering. The past is something you survive, not celebrate. She looks squarely forward, as if roots and connections will drag her down. It worries me, but it’s her choice. Byrne Miller gave me another choice. So if you see me tonight, wearing something spectacularly odd around my neck, go ahead – do a double take. It’s exactly what Byrne would have wanted.
I was reading an interesting blog by Jane Friedman today, on whether shutting out negative and combative media is good for you. I’ve been considering doing the same, in the light of all the hypocritical, racist and anti-feminist language in the health care debate, and it made me think of Byrne.
She was quite selective in what and whom she listened to for entertainment and information (never missed PBS but hardly watched anything else) but surrounded herself with people who discussed all viewpoints. Where she was utterly unegalitarian was art. To get Byrne Miller’s attention, art had to be serious. No “loving hands at home” attempts at any art form – dance, music, painting, literature – made the grade.
I tend to agree with her but I wonder if disregarding community-level art creates an audience shortage for the greats? Do we need to experience “making art” ourselves at some level to appreciate and support the fine arts? Is the danger only when we congratulate ourselves too much for effort, without serious critique?
What an interesting week. Got notes from my agent on the Byrne Miller Project. It’s wonderful when her team tells me they want to know more about Byrne! Specifically, her intellect. She offered so much love and artistic insight to all her “adopted children” that it’s easy to focus on the emotional. And I do. Still do. Even though she’s been gone nine years.
But there was so much wisdom behind those strengths that she passed along. I started jogging my memory about philosophers she quoted, books in her library, records on her turntable and – of course – reached out to my brothers and sisters by Byrne.
They came through! Dennis Adams – some of you know him as the guru of the Beaufort County Library – was one of Byrne’s extended family. He helped me decipher one of the strangest phrases Byrne dropped into everyday conversations: hoi polloi.
Turns out it’s Greek – describing the masses or commoners. Of which she was definitely not. In the book, here’s the quote I’m now adding:
“Physical pain is something I have learned to accept. All dancers do. To fear pain is for hoi polloi.”
At the time, I didn’t ask her what it meant. I was too distracted by seeing, for the first time, the scars of five different spinal surgeries. Some of you might know, as she did, that a back injury ended my Olympic gymnastics quest. She had listened to my story many times, never “one-upping” me with what must have been ten times worse. Five spinal surgeries! Never an “organ recital” in the years that I knew her.
Dennis has his own theory – which he emailed me the other day. He thinks she used language like hoi polloi intentionally – she was a stoic, as if from some ancient other culture that valued stoicism in contrast to “hoi polloi” – or the Anglo-American way of complaint and excuse. True Dennis, so true.
Just to get things started, here’s one of my favorite photographs of Byrne. She’s posing for some publicity photos, in the early days of the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre. None of her adopted “children” know exactly where it was taken, but we all love the fierceness of it. Don’t you agree?
I promised myself that I would start blogging about my silver muse, Byrne Miller, by the end of this week. (the previous two entries were trial runs by my talented web designer Carla Holzer) And now it’s Friday – time is running out. I’ve been procrastinating, nursing a cold as an excuse. And then I remembered the person I’m blogging about. Nothing so plebian as a common cold would have held her back.
In fact, the one saying I remember most of all was one I didn’t fully understand for years.
“Life is hard to bear: but do not affect to be so delicate! We are all of us fine sumpter asses and assesses.”
I had never heard of Neitzsche, let alone his writings. This 80-something-year-old modern dance pioneer had to explain that sumpter asses was another term for beasts of burden. She used those words to bolster her confidence and take on challenges that would have crushed most ordinary people. She fought on through her daughter’s mental illness, her other daughter’s death by a drunk driver, her husband’s Alzheimers, and her own physical battles with cancer, spinal injuries, blood clots and finally blindness. Life was indeed hard, and she was never delicate.
It’s not that she didn’t notice or care about setbacks. And she certainly made time to comfort others when they needed comforting. It’s just that she had so much to get on with! I couldn’t even fit it all in one book, the memoir I’m writing about my relationship with her. So “Womenisms” is a chance to fill in the gaps, give you the backstory. If anyone reading this knew Byrne, please share your comments. She’s priceless and timeless.
This can be erased but I wanted to see what it looked like to have more than one post. Looks good!