My knees are clicking. My back feels rod stiffened. Gary thinks his hips have swiveled inward and stuck. And it’s just sixty minutes into our first couples tango lesson. It will probably be our last, given that we’re driving away from DC in eleven days. But my co-workers figure a private milonga is the one thing I haven’t pre-planned so they pitched in on this coordination-testing farewell gesture. Each step breaks my heart a little. To leave such good friends with no plan B if we don’t reach Argentina.
My parents only made it down the Pan-American Highway as far as Bolivia. I will force that unlovely ending out of my mind and picture this couple instead.
Follow this bonus-material blog and ride along on a one-year road trip that inspired the memoir The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan American Highway. On sale June 13th. Pre order through the buy-the-book links at the bottom of the landing page on my teresabrucebooks.com website or here or here. Like The Drive’s Facebook page and tweet back at me @writerteresa.
Beaufort’s Ex Libris bookclub has been meeting for the last twenty-one years – the young mothers who started it as a sanity-saving break from infants and toddlers now swap stories of their children’s weddings and plans for grandchildren. They’ve been each other’s other mothers and other mothers to each other’s children. They pick their books a year in advance and the menu for their monthly meetings is always the same: M&M’s, bags of popcorn and many, many bottles of wine. But they still have the capacity to surprise each other.
Take this month’s meeting, for example. One of the founding members, Vicki Mix, nominated “The Other Mother: a rememoir” because back in the 90s she used to help Byrne Miller archive programs, press clippings and photographs into giant scrapbooks. We didn’t know each other then, but we both count ourselves among the last generation “collected” by the modern dancer who turned the South on its head. So I wasn’t surprised that another sister-by-Byrne would ask me to talk to Ex Libris.
I never expected what happened next. One of the longstanding members brought a guest to the meeting, someone who had once worked as a designer at WJWJ-TV, and when we went around the room doing introductions she shyly said her name: Deborah Martin. She was holding an 8×10 black and white photo of a group of dancers and pointed to herself, thirty-years ago. The group was the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre and she was one of Byrne’s original dancers!
It gets even better. Not only did Deborah dance for Byrne in the days before the BMDT became purely a presenter of modern dance, she designed costumes for the company.
Byrne was so theatrical, always bedecked in outlandish fashions, that I can only imagine how she must have treasured Deborah’s talents. The sketches she passed around felt like heirlooms – graceful reminders that Byrne’s story was once present tense and active. And that even though Byrne was the star of her own remarkable story there was always a supporting cast. Which included Duncan – Byrne’s husband of 60 years.
The man I was assigned to “cover” as a news story about Alzheimers struggled for the strength to shake my hand and the breath to speak. But Deborah knew a much younger, vibrant Duncan who never missed a single rehearsal.
Deborah knew a different side of Byrne than I would ever encounter – the tough, demanding taskmaster never satisfied until a dance was stage-ready. She wasn’t always the wise, tactful other mother she was by the time I found her. Feelings got hurt but always mended. “We went through a lot together, Byrne and I.”
Deborah left Beaufort and WJWJ long before I arrived to take a job at the same TV station, and she lost track of Byrne’s story. It was only decades later, after she had returned to live on St. Helena Island, that she found out about Byrne’s papers at the Beaufort County Library. But even the giant scrapbooks Vicki Mix had helped archive couldn’t restore a presence as pivotal as Byrne Miller.
“When I saw the newspaper pages, all yellowed and faded, it was just so sad. I couldn’t believe that a life like hers was reduced to artifact.”
I know exactly how she felt. I too, studied those scrapbooks in the research phase of the memoir of my relationship with Byrne. I was never trying to bring Byrne back to life; just to share the greatest love story I have ever known.
Each bookclub that reads “The Other Mother: a rememoir” interprets it in a new way. Ex Libris members shared the perspective of mothers astounded at the selfless love it took for Byrne to nudge me out of her protective nest to start my own career. They loved the ending – the scene where Byrne and I danced a duet of hand shadows in a dark room.
Deborah clutched the book to her chest, close to tears and thanked me for bringing Byrne back to her. And that’s when I realized that for other mothers, there are no endings. Ours are stories that will shape future lives.
For a few years now, I’ve been blogging about Other Mothers. The title of my blog — Womenisms — was a word I invented to describe the spoken wisdoms of my own Other Mother: Byrne Miller. She was a champion of reinvention, something I passed on in my TEDx talk before the book launch. So I think she’d love the fact that I’ve renamed the blog “TeresaBruceBooks” and made it simpler to find on the web. Now all you have to google is teresabruce.me.
Me — my latest reinvention. By way of Halloween and Frida Kahlo.
I’m not alone in long admiring Frida — as much for her fierce spirit as her art — and I always make a pilgrimage to her house in Mexico City whenever we pass through. So when I stumbled upon a stack of vintage, velvet-and-beaded tops in an antique store in Oaxaca I couldn’t resist. It was torture waiting for Halloween, to add the faux jewels I picked up in Milwaukee Goodwill stores and Byrne’s antique poison pendant.
As Frida impersonators go, I’m a white girl without enough hair. But then reinvention isn’t about copying and it’s never permanent. My homage to Frida was a chance to open my mind, to more fully imagine her life and look at mine through her lens.
It wasn’t until I penciled in the unibrow that the transformation, however temporary, began. I, like most self-critical American women, fastidiously shave and occasionally pluck to fit the norms of our society. But flaunting the unibrow was more than liberating. It felt beautiful and defiant — unapologetically earthy.
The costume party I attended as Frida-light was a spectacle of reinvention. Watching all my friends in their creative alter-egos made me realize we all crave reinvention. Hiding behind a mask is actually a chance to parade the inner self. It took a trip to Mexico to make me want to stomp my feet and join in.
Since my new, reinvented blog allows me to insert videos — take a look at this one. Byrne would have loved these dancers — ordinary villagers who reinvent themselves every chance they get. Viva la transformacion!
Today’s the day the whole world can go online and meet Byrne Miller – at least the part of her divulged in “The Other Mother: a rememoir.” Despite the fact that the blurbs on both the front and back cover of my book are male writers (Pat Conroy and Franz Wisner) – most readers, so far, have been women. They’re loving it, which is great since women outspend men on books. And even better, they’re spreading the word and holding Other Mother Soirees because it’s bringing back memories of the important other mothers in their lives.
But here’s what is blowing me away. The few men curious enough to get past the title and the cover photo are sticking with it – even after they realize that Byrne didn’t stay a burlesque dancer and that the sex scenes are couched in elegant dance terms. My husband Gary didn’t have a choice. He was my front-line editor and men who enjoy this book have him to thank. He took each chapter out on the porch with a can of PBR beer and a giant red pen. If I used the word “love” more than absolutely necessary, he scratched it out. “Be more creative,” he demanded. Same thing happened to any mushy, girl-power, coming-of-age moments. And those sex scenes? He told me I was on my own with those.
Pat Conroy was the second man to ever read “The Other Mother: a rememoir.” I knew that Pat has cherished the love of many Other Mothers over the course of his life. We’d had long talks about how re-parenting changed us both. He waxes rhapsodic about Julia in particular, the Beaufort woman who “collected” him even when her own son was killed in a freak baseball accident. But I was nervous to share the manuscript with him because I knew that Pat wasn’t a big fan of Byrne Miller. (I suspect two personalities as big as theirs barely fit into a room.) Instead, he got sucked in by the story of Byrne’s husband of nearly 60 years: Duncan Miller. Pat Conroy knows a thing or two about frustrated novelists, as it turns out, and the tragedy of Duncan’s mental illness poisoning his writing was a side to Byrne’s story that broke Pat’s big heart.
The third man to read the entire manuscript is another major writer, only you find most of his work in the editorial pages of The New York Times. Lawrence and I went to graduate school for journalism together and I knew he’d fall in love with the outlandish free spirit of my star. He was so taken with Byrne that he helped me track down odd bits of New York history to fill in the gaps of her early married life in Greenwich Village. And he introduced me to the film archives at Lincoln Center, where I watched clips of the very same dancer that thrilled Byrne in the 20s and 30s: Harald Kruetzberg.
The fourth man to read “The Other Mother” is my brother-by-Byrne and Navajo elder Ben Barney. His reaction was even more important to me because he gave me permission to tell the most intimate and personal of all the stories of Byrne’s collected children. She was not very good at being an “Other Mother” back in the 60’s – when she bulldozed over his religious and tribal beliefs in an attempt to turn him into a dancer. But now, looking back, he sees her as a powerful and transformative force in his life.
“Chapter brought tears to my eyes so far,” he emailed me. “The section you wrote of me is freed, roaming, rolling and nice. I leave it as is.”
The fifth man to read the book was Larry Lepionka – an archeologist who helped me find where I had buried Duncan’s tormented manuscripts. He’s married to a major character in the book – my Byrne sister Lisa – so I was a little worried when Larry told me to come over and discuss a factual error he’d found in the book.
“My wife has no accent at all,” said this Beaufort native who has lived with his Swiss-German stunner of a wife so long that this statement was only partially a joke. In fact, he loved the book as well. “It’s a story of heroines,” he said. “Byrne, you, Lisa and even Wipeout – your brave and lovely dog.” If this book goes into paperback I’m stealing Larry’s lines for another blurb.
But the funniest reaction from a man came from my friend Terry Stone. Regular followers of my blog know him as the man responsible for my only redfish victory. He’s a regular subscriber to Garden and Gun and when not fishing fiercely defends his other territory: the kitchen.
He was deep into the book when he finally asked his wife Jane “Wait a minute, is this a love story?” He was afraid I’d be offended when she ratted on him, but nothing could make me happier. It is a love story, the most amazing one I’ve ever known. It is not the sort of book most guys willingly pick out of a bookstore (except as gifts for their wives, which I’m discovering they love to do.) And then there’s the dance terminology. “I have to admit,” Terry confided, “I did skip over some of the dance parts. My French is rusty.”
There was more. Terry had a hard time believing it was a true story – that’s how amazing this relationship was. For sixty years Duncan watched Byrne undress each night and told her she was marvelous, even after five spinal surgeries had stolen inches from her glorious height and cancer had carved away her uterus. But it was more than holding hands and quoting Shakespeare that grew their love into what I witnessed. True, Byrne had been a knockout Burlesque dancer but their love story withstood challenges that would cripple others. Instead of divorcing over the stress of a schizophrenic daughter, they lived for a time in an open marriage. Instead of letting one person’s career dominate the other’s they took yearly turns following their passions. And even when Byrne realized that Duncan’s mind was self-destructing she refused to let it erode his identity as a writer. She choreographed a stage, a life, for him even when she was the only one in his audience.
I know not every dude will “get” this book. But it says something that the men I most admire do. So here’s my promise – to any man willing to get past a dancer on the cover and the fact that it’s a love story that happens to be true. Let me get through the national launch, the blog tour and the upcoming Kindle and hopefully audio book and I’ll create a series of videos on You Tube to explain the French dance terms for you. You know – the difference been a plie and a pair of pliers. Deal?
I’ve traveled and worked in dozens of countries around the world, and usually find something about the experience that makes me appreciate the United States all the more when I return. Odd things, usually, like safe building codes and the rule of law. But sometimes traveling shines a spotlight on what needs changing in this country. It took a one-woman performance art show in Oaxaca to make me pay attention to genetically modified foods and multi-nationals like Monsanto. And ironically this Saturday a Chilean friend and former model is organizing a protest march and information session at Waterfront Park in Beaufort. Josefina Blanc isn’t trying to radicalize her new home town; she just wants us to pay attention to a policy and apathy that our country is foisting on the rest of the world. Our ambivalence about genetically modified foods has consequences far beyond the junk we feed our children. I just didn’t realize that until I met a dancer who goes by the name Violeta Luna.
We heard about her show on the street, a flier thrust into the hands of tourists passing by a beautiful Colonial building in downtown Oaxaca. I knew, vaguely, about the tortilla riots in Mexico after NAFTA flooded the market with genetically-modified corn so cheap that local farmers couldn’t compete. Honestly though, it was the chance to sit under the graceful arches and magnificent tile work that motivated me to go inside for her performance. But once the music started, I couldn’t take my eyes off Violeta Luna.
She transformed herself from a beautiful indigenous dancer into what threatens her people most: genetically modified corn. It was a dramatic, shocking, creative representation of what she feels has happened – she “modified” herself on stage, literally injecting herself with water and layering artificial coverings over her body until she almost suffocated. At one point she left the stage and walked to where I was sitting. I was embarrassed, and a little ashamed. It’s my country that is pushing this unnatural process on hers. She knelt before me and patted clay over my legs and feet. I felt conspicuous and yet it was logical that she assumed I had the power to spread the word beyond Oaxaca. But when I looked into her eyes I saw so much more. It was not so much a symbolic anointing of a white woman in a crowd of natives but an offering of protection.
The title of the memoir about my relationship with Byrne Miller is called “The Other Mother” so my publisher is offering a free download of the first chapter on Mother’s Day http://www.jogglingboardpress.com
You would think, based on these photos, that both of my “mothers” were dancers. But my mother’s dreams of dance stopped after high school, when she met my father and started having children. Byrne had a different concept of parenting. Instead of carpooling her two daughters from activity to activity, as my mother did, Byrne reversed the steps. Alison and Jane tagged along wherever Byrne lived and danced around the world. When they did not follow in her dancing footsteps, Byrne collected “dancer daughters” and formed her own company, which is how I met her in Beaufort long ago.
I was in my 20s and Byrne was in her 80s at the time. I love my mother, but I needed the kind of encouragement Byrne’s example provided. I became one of her “collected children” and she became my “Other Mother.”
I am certainly not the first woman to have lucked into such a relationship. I’m not talking about favorite aunts, coaches or mentors. “Other Mothers” are not related or responsible for you in any way. They don’t have a vested interest in your identity. They don’t judge themselves by your successes or failures. That’s why they’re free to offer alternative lifestyles, philosophies, religions or, in my case, the confidence to take risks.
You don’t have to be a modern dance pioneer to become an “Other Mother.” Byrne simply had a way of attracting followers to her exuberant positivity. She spoke in colorful anecdotes and analogies I call “womenisms” in the book, things I couldn’t have heard from anyone but an “other mother.” Who really wants to listen to their actual mother talk about sex, for example? But Byrne could entertain her collected daughters for hours with stories of men she knew and loved and what she learned from each of them. “Every woman should have at least one affair. It builds confidence,” she told us. And “No woman should try to be everything to a man. It’s beyond valiant. It’s stupid.”
Looking back, I think the best mother’s day present I ever gave my mother was having an “other mother.” Byrne’s presence in my life freed my mother. She knew I had someone to pick up where she left off. She could focus on her own life and goals after years of, in a sense, living through me and my sister. She also knew that being a mother didn’t have to stop when we left home and moved far away. She still has lessons and wisdom to share – and I’m sure that there are young women in Mexico (where she lives) who would be lucky to have her as an “other mother.”
Byrne Miller isn’t my biological mother, but I did inherit one of her genetic traits. I’m a dance snob; I admit it. So it was with great trepidation that I agreed to watch the final two episodes this week of “Dancing With The Stars” in Milwaukee this week– a concession to the sweetest inlaws a girl could ask for. Joe and Angie, like almost all of America apparently, love this show and they think, since I’m a dancer, that it’s a natural fit. They don’t know about my aforementioned genetic trait; I like to keep them in the dark when it comes to my failings.
This season, apparently, the point of the show was to bring back all the winners of previous seasons and have an all-star dance-off. Like all reality talent shows on TV, it managed to stretch exactly six minutes of dancing into an hour Monday night and about 15 minutes of dance into two hours for the finale. The rest was filled with hyberbole-laden “judging” and staged, behind-the-scenes rehearsal moments filled with tears, injuries, miraculous recoveries and spats between the celebrity dancers (amateurs) and their muscular, foreign professional partners.
I knew I was in trouble the minute I realized that Shawn Johnson, the former Olympic gymnastics champion with the giggly little voice, was one of the finalists. In the interest of full disclosure, I was a national-level rhythmic gymnast. My “sport” elicits the most vehement arguments against being in the Olympics (I agree) and the contortionist flexibility of rhythmic gymnasts attracts an almost morbid fascination (again, I agree, it’s weird) But what can’t be denied is that rhythmic gymnasts at the Olympic level could write their own ticket to any ballet company or Cirque de Soleil (where many of them end up) By contrast, “artistic” gymnastics – the kind Shawn Johnson dominated – are like little wind-up fire hydrants whose dance skills are more in line with cheerleaders or robots.
Shawn, cute and giggly as she still is, is no ballroom dancer. Splits and flips do not belong in cha-chas and waltzes. It was almost painful to watch, except for her exuberance. The other two finalists were, I think, soap opera actresses and reality TV stars (same thing?)– which turns out to be much better training for “Dancing With the Stars” than tumbling around a gym.
The hosts and mock-experts spent the better part of the finale hinting at rumored romances between the brunettes and their professional partners. They were both rail thin and waif-like, except for the requisite showbiz cleavage. Their mouths naturally pouted and their expressive eyes were expert at producing spontaneous tears. And they both managed to deliver lines about “incredible journeys” and “feeling so blessed” and “no matter what happens I’ve grown personally” like the professional actresses they are.
But lest you think I hated all of it, in the end I found something to love about it. The truly non-dancers (this show featured race car drivers, football players and even Kirstie Alley) actually seemed to glow when their professional partners moved them around the floor. I saw in their faces the same joy that I used to see when I taught dance classes for adults at Beaufort’s Green St. gym. Byrne saw the same thing when she turned Marine Corps sergeants, nurses, teachers, sign painters and architects into modern dancers every Saturday morning at the YMCA (when it was in Pigeon Point Park) That’s why Joe and Angie love watching the show. They don’t care if the quick step is a little less than quick, or if football players don’t all have the hip wiggle of Victor Cruz. They watch it because dance elevates the ordinary, adds a little grace and lift to the everyday and when these “celebrities” go on national TV and try something new they become a little more human. I think even Byrne would begrudgingly acknowledge that. One of her favorite quotes was “First there were people, and then there was dance, because the people just needed to move.”
The Athens, Georgia mechanic you see in this photograph has no idea who Pina Bausch is. Or that dancers everywhere will see an unconscious grace in the gesture he chose to express in front of the camera. But the man who made this photograph knows. I met Carl Martin last month on a jaunt to Atlanta to accompany Gary to a photography portfolio review. And since Gary didn’t really need a Vanna White to turn the pages of his book for reviewers to inspect, I had the chance to wander through the displays of work and meet the other selected photographers.
Carl told me that he takes inspiration wherever he finds it, and lately he’s been captivated by the same German choreographer I’ve been blogging about. Carl is a former architect from New York — not a dancer — and the Wim Wenders movie “Pina” was just a starting point for him. What he’s trying to capture is the intrinsic value and joy of what he calls public gesture. Pina spent years with her dancers, giving them emotional and descriptive cues and then developing the movements her words inspired. Carl doesn’t get as much time with his subjects – mostly working men from around the Athens area, where he lives now, who agree to help him. He lets his subjects come up with their own gesture, and then he stages them against an architecturally interesting background in natural light. The poetry is in the simplicity of the composition and sometimes its contrasts. Not surprisingly, Carl says he gets much bigger, more powerful “gestures” from total strangers than from the friends he’s tried to Shanghai into posing. He doesn’t explain who Pina Bausch is or why he celebrates her in the movements of mechanics, truck drivers or hospital orderlies. He figures their gestures tell the story anyway.
You can check out more about Carl Martin at www.carlmartinart.com – or if you happen to pass through Athens just strike a pose.
Summer slips up on you in the Lowcountry. You have to know how to pace yourself. It’s too hot for doing too much. After a day’s writing, there’s nothing better than sitting on the porch and thinking of summers past. Summers when I would sit on the porch with Byrne Miller, both of us drinking wine and gathering up our skirts way past ladylike to keep cool.
How like a summer’s dream then that I stumbled on a souvenir of my life with Byrne. It came by way of a woman who, had she lived in Beaufort during Byrne’s era, surely would have been one of her many adopted daughters. Byrne would not only have approved of Lisa Rentz’ one-woman drive to publicize the arts in Northern Beaufort County – she would have capitalized on it. And she would have loved the fact that a decade after her death, Lisa left me this note in the mailbox of the house I bought from Byrne.
“Hi Teresa – thought you’d enjoy this. Found it in the pocket of a man’s blazer at a local thrift shop.”
It’s a ticket stub for a performance by the Oberlin Dance Collective – a company Byrne adored so much she convinced them to add Beaufort SC to their tour back in the year 2000. This is a San Francisco-based company that has performed for more than a million people in 32 states and 11 countries. http://www.odcdance.org/dancecompany.php
Their dancers and choreographers have collaborated with artists as varied as Robin Williams and Wayne Thiebaud. Beaufort must have been the smallest town they’d ever heard of, or danced for. They didn’t know the man in the audience wearing the blazer that wound up in a thrift store a decade later.
What they did know was that an amazing woman sitting in the front row set a chain of events in motion that led to that man putting on a blazer and paying $15 to see the one of the best modern dance companies in the world. Right here in a small southern town where summers are so hot you sit on porches with your skirt up and think about these whispers from the past.
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.