A sixteen-year-old girl from Beaufort High School bought a copy of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” on the night of it’s launch. Here’s why that makes my heart do a grand jete. It isn’t a YA book about young love, vampires or zombies. It isn’t about a celebrity or anyone her friends tweet about. It will never be made into an app or video game. So why did she part with hard-earned babysitting money to buy a 417-page book about my relationship with a former burlesque dancer named Byrne Miller?
“I danced for Ms. Miller in the Nutcracker when I was four,” she told me. “And I never knew she was so amazing until tonight.”
Almost five years of research, writing, rewriting and planning this book’s introduction to the world was worth it in that instant. Byrne was Other Mother to me and many other former dancers in the audience of the USCB Center for the Arts. We were all drawn to her exuberant positivity and consider ourselves lucky to be her collected children. One of the best parts of writing “The Other Mother” was the reuniting with many of them, telling and retelling the stories Byrne planted in each of our hearts.
But I wrote the book so that the next generation of young women would have the chance to know Byrne Miller too. I told the unbelievably big crowd of book and Byrne lovers that all young women deserve the wit and wisdom of an Other Mother.
I’m a first-timer. I have no other book launches or signings to compare to Byrne’s kickoff celebration. All I knew was that I wanted it to be an event worthy of the woman with a whim of iron who introduced modern dance to the Deep South. I also wanted it to be an homage to my adopted hometown – the place Byrne and Duncan Miller chose, as I did, to live and create. Beaufort is more than a setting in this work. It is a central character.
After sharing some crowd-pleasing passages from “The Other Mother,” I watched from the back of the auditorium as two groups of dancers performed modern and contemporary pieces choreographed in Byrne’s honor. I confess when the idea for making the launch more than a typical book signing first occurred to me, I was worried that the dancers I’d invited would wear the kinds of costumes you see at recitals or that their moves would mirror what you see on music videos. Byrne was an unrepentant dance snob and even twelve years after her death I’m certain she could still summon lightning bolts of judgment.
But the moment the music started I felt my muscles lengthen, my posture correct itself and tears roll down my cheeks. These Beaufort Middle School and High School dancers are the living, breathing legacy of what Byrne Miller started decades ago. On the night of the worldwide debut of a book in her honor, they were lyrical, expressive and as committed as any modern dance company the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre ever brought to Beaufort. And if even one of them loves reading “The Other Mother: a Rememoir” I will be as proud as Byrne surely is.
I was going through old photos of Byrne the other day and found the perfect example of what she meant to her adopted daughters. Lillian was the first of my “sisters-by-Byrne” that I met in Beaufort and she had finally met the man she was supposed to have been married to all along. A little later than she would have liked, but better than never. At the time, I was secretly jealous. I was still years away from finding my Duncan, which is what Byrne wanted for all of us. A man as wonderful as the one she married twice and lived with for sixty years. What distracted me from feeling sorry for myself was planning Lillian’s bachelorette party.
“Have you ever done belly dancing?” I asked Byrne. We were on her porch, drinking a glass of cheap red wine.
“Oh years ago,” she answered. I could picture her shimmying, with a sculpted belly, on some Vaudeville pedestal. There were probably no disciplines of dance she hadn’t tried before arriving at modern. “It’s all about moving different parts of the body in isolation. Very seductive in a come-hither sort of way.”
“What if I gather all the women who love Lillian in one place, the night before the wedding, and you teach us all belly dancing?” It would be the perfect ritual, the bride’s last night with her handmaidens.
Byrne lifted her arms above her head and pressed her palms together. “We could have some costumes made, loads of see-though silks and tassels,” she said. Her neck stretched from side to side, each cheek coming close to an elbow but never touching. “I must search my old records for the music.”
We became a whirl of preparations. Byrne scoured through her record collection, transferring cuts she liked to cassette tape and counting out the measures. I bought bolts of chiffon and gauze and took them to a seamstress. We guessed on sizes, leaving long elastic cords to cinch unmeasured waists, covering seams with long sashes and braided tassels. We scavenged resale shops for bikini tops, halters and lacy bras to decorate with sequence and glue-on jewels. After each costume was finished I modeled it for Byrne. She ran her hands over the fabric and waved ribbons of scarves through the air to judge how they moved.
Finally, the night before her wedding, Lillian untied the blindfold covering her eyes. There were piles of covered pillows tossed around the floor in inviting heaps. Sticks of incense wafted their spicy scent through the air and strands of twinkling Christmas tree lights wrapped around fans and coat racks.
Byrne stood with both arms extended to her harem. Music swirled in front of her like a snake in a medina. Women stripped the clothes from their bodies, dove for the stack of costumes and glued plastic rubies into each other’s belly buttons. Lillian stood next to Byrne, matching her rhythmic movements just as she always had, through years of classes. But in this master class there were no corrections, just hips pivoting in the candlelight. We were vessels, each of us, filling with her spirit.