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.
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?