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.