'The Other Mother' recalls Byrne Miller, Beaufort's modern dance era

lisa@beaufortcountyarts.comSeptember 5, 2013 

Once upon a time, modern dance thrived in Beaufort because of Byrne Miller. Now, Beaufort resident Teresa Bruce is making literary history with "The Other Mother," a "rememoir" about this era.

"Byrne was all modern dance -- plot-less, earthy, leading from the torso instead of pointed toes and fluttering fingers," Bruce writes. "Her sheer magnetism could persuade people who cast shrimp nets and drove pickups into attending cutting-edge modern dance concerts."

Miller began her career in the 1930s as a burlesque dancer. From 1969 to 2000 she made dance happen here with her "whim of iron." One such whim: when she managed to bring modern dancer Mark Dendy to Beaufort, a city councilman objected to the guest artist and threatened to cut the grant supporting their work in the schools. "Dance helps the muscles lead the mind," she said about working with handicapped children.

Since "a whim of iron rejects rejection," Miller planned a dance parade to cancel out any outrage.

"More than a hundred children made their way down Bay Street," writes Bruce, "in wheelchairs, walkers and red wagons, with balloons on their wrists. Dendy called out cues: 'Now we're wide, wide as the Beaufort River!' ... shoppers streamed out of the storefronts... onlookers fell in step behind the wheelchairs..."

"Everyone gets a chance to be marvelous," Miller summarized, "I want this generation to learn how to imagine and create. In this, we are all of equal promise."

Bruce chose well in the term "rememoir" for her book. This biography turns novelistic in the scenes of Miller's life that Bruce, 60 years younger, reconstructs. She puts you in the room with Byrne and Duncan Miller's muse-to-each-other lifestyle.

"There has never been a happy marriage in the history of my miserable family," said the man from Charleston when Byrne proposed. "Well there has never been an unhappy one in mine, so that makes up for it," she assured him.

Bruce weaves together the strands of Byrne's career, Duncan's literary ambitions, and her own move to the Lowcountry while being in an unfortunate, but not untypical, romantic situation and starting her career in broadcast and film.

These three strands are tightly stitched together by the artistic processes that Bruce maps out: how Byrne spent her lifetime becoming a dancer, choreographer and quotable philosopher, how Duncan endured decades of rejection from publishers, and how Bruce's serious childhood training in the performing arts informs her literary ambitions. She writes that she stands "with my feet in fifth position, trying to keep my legs from shaking," when she gets bad news, and glissades and jetes are metaphors.

"Byrne's black felt tip marker crossed out one company's required stage dimensions, another's dressing room preferences and replaced with what was available in Beaufort, within her budget.

"'That, my dear, is how you handle unacceptable demands,' she said. All of this had been her way of steeling me...

"'Teresa,' she said. 'There is not a contract on earth, let alone between a man and a woman, that cannot be rewritten.'"

Every coffee table in the Lowcountry must have the glamorous book cover photo of Byrne Miller leaping across it. It's an excellent read for people who want to introduce their long distance friends to Beaufort, and for dog lovers -- Wipeout, the big white dog has an important role. For artists of all art forms it is a primer in fortitude and creativity. Bruce illuminates Byrne's "aha!" moments, the connections that allowed the dancer to progress. In the fallout of another rejection letter from a publisher:

"Duncan, darling, you've inspired me," she told him at dinner that night. "All this time I've been teaching students the choreography of others ... but I have never created a full-length performance piece myself."

Duncan reached for her hand. "Every time you walk into a room, it is a dance," he said. "But I admit it is rather criminal of me to hoard such talent."

"The Other Mother" launches Sept. 21 with a performance and celebration at the University of South Carolina in Beaufort, visit www.teresabrucebooks.com for details.

Lisa Annelouise Rentz is the transmedia publicity leader for ARTworks, the community arts center in Beaufort, and the author of the "Pencils, Words & Kids" app. She can be reached at lisa@beaufortcountyarts.com.

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