Writing like Dancing

A memoir that entranced me for years was not written by a writer, per se, but by a celebrity, choreographer Agnes DeMille (1905-1993).

DeMille was a groundbreaking and significant reshaper of modern American dance and shaper of contemporary American dance.  DeMille’s influence is evident by listing just a few of the dozens of dances she choreographed:  the musical Oklahoma, both on Broadway and on film; the Broadway musicals Carousel and Brigadoon; the original and uniquely American ballet, Rodeo; Obeah, or Black Ritual, the first full-length ballet created exclusively for African-American dancers; Fall River Legend, a ballet representing the life of Lizzie Borden; and A Rose for Miss Emily, a ballet based on the William Faulkner short story.

In addition to developing choreography unique to the history of dance, DeMille also wrote exceptionally well.  She published memoirs and other non-fiction works, as well as a two-volume autobiography.  Dance to the Piper (1952) and And Promenade Home (1958) read like engaging novels, but are DeMille’s perspective of her childhood, young adult years, and initial Broadway successes.

My favorite of her books is Where the Wings Grow (1978), a memoir of childhood summers in the country.  DeMille’s memories are sometimes idyllic, sometimes shocking.  She observes racism and other bigotry with a relentless eye.Where the Wings Grow

The writing style is beautiful and evocative of those relaxing times. You can almost envision girls and women in white lawn dancing through the woods. DeMille’s voice is distinctive and “of her era.” For awhile after reading the book, I felt compelled to write poems based on various scenes.

In this video you can get a feel for her voice. Also, she talks about how her father kept standing in the way of her ambitions.

A couple of important issues come to mind when thinking about DeMille’s memoir.

The first is how close she was to her mother, even as an adult. Although DeMille’s father was a playwright and her uncle the famous filmmaker Cecile B. DeMille, DeMille’s creativity stemmed in large part to her mother’s artistry with a needle.

Anna George, DeMille’s mother, was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf.  Anna was born in 1877, Woolf in 1882–five years and an ocean apart.  Anna had no financial means independent from her husband.  Her own father was famous political philosopher Henry George.  Throughout her life, she tirelessly campaigned for her father’s Single Tax theory.  Yet, unlike her “scribbling” husband, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a writer, never tried to write herself.  She did not have 500 (pounds) a year or a room with a lock on the door, to paraphrase Woolf.  She ran the household in the days before refrigerators and vacuum cleaners.

Anna was regularly accessible to her children, her husband, and the other people who were temporarily or permanently a part of the household.  Yet Anna managed to produce art from the creativity welling within her, the product of which lasted beyond her husband’s mediocre plays–art which, when she was producing it, wasn’t considered art–merely a woman’s menial labor.

Another important portion of the memoir describes Anna’s aunt and how she and her family lived near DeMille’s family during the summer. The aunt married a Japanese diplomat. This intermarriage was quite unusual for that time period, as was their transracial family. DeMille’s family seems to have accepted the family without question.

Maybe this book will most appeal to nostalgia buffs and those who love women’s history. If you love costume dramas, you might be thrilled at this peek behind the scenes of an intellectual and artistic family in the 1910s.

Forget all that. The reason you will love this book is because of DeMille’s charismatic personality.


Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

35 responses to “Writing like Dancing

    • Such a fascinating woman and life story. And I should have mentioned that although her creativity came from her mother, I’m sure, the honing of her crafts of dance/choreography and writing came from her father’s training and her stubborn response to his discouragement.

  1. I listened to the interview (which because of the length, I hardly ever do) and she was quite an interesting person. I love how she describes herself using words like sullen and occasionally nasty. She doesn’t appear to be full or herself at all. Her books must be interesting.

    • Kate, she’s in the vanguard of so many things, including knowing how to create her own self on paper as a full human being, complete with flaws. Maybe that comes from her personality where she’s able to acknowledge who she is fully. She has really grabbed my imagination with hers.

  2. Gotta love a strong woman (and one who can admit she’s a ‘chronic complainer’ and ‘whiner’)! Thanks for the intro, Luanne – and for fallen arches! Also appreciate knowing about the “Day at Night” restorations – I’m curious what the other 29 interviews are.

    • She was such a strong woman and I would also call her tough, but she also had a sensitive streak as well. Where would the world be if those arches hadn’t fallen?! hah Re the interviews: how about Hermione Gingold! And Ayn Rand, Jonathan Winters, etc.

  3. I love how you bring seemingly obscure memoirs to life, Luanne. I appreciate that Anna balanced art with her obligations and duties. It gives all of us hope who are trying to create amidst the chaos.

  4. Mom

    First off, I love the set on the video. It reminds me of the little game sets on the tables at Cracker Barrel restaurants. I think she must of been a writer very much ahead of her time to have produced so many memoirs! I can totally see where you would be inspired to write poetry after being exposed to her writing. I would like to put on a hat and gloves and ride about in a convertible and speak like her for a couple of weeks! She is flawless!

    • Oh, Mom, I love that image of you riding around in the convertible in your hat and gloves! and talking like Agnes DeMille! Yes! I just know she had the 3/4 sleeve coat with the long gloves :). She was very far ahead of her times. Her voice in her books sounds just like her, too.

  5. Another wonderful review, Luanne! I’m convinced, you must never sleep. What you’re able to accomplish is quite impressive. 🙂
    Agnes is what my late uncle would call, “A tough broad.”

    • A tough broad wearing kid gloves and pointe shoes, though ;). hahah
      Re my sleep. While I’ve learned that a lot of women my age have trouble sleeping, I do not have that problem (except on rare occasions). I fall asleep when my head hits the pillow unless I start watching some dumb TV show hubby puts on. I realized the other day that the reason I’ve read so many memoirs is that I’m so old ;)!

  6. This sounds wonderful! How amazing it must have been to have such fascinating family members.

    • Wouldn’t that be something, though?! On a “related” note: Through my family history blog I was contacted by an ex-wife of the son of my great-great-grandfather’s stepson :). She is a playwright and poet who was friends “back in the day” with big names like Amiri Baraka (Poet Laureate of New Jersey). Pretty darn cool. But that’s how far I have to reach . . . .

  7. I heard Miss DeMille speak at our local college when I was in high school in 1968. I remember our assignment was to write brief syntheses of her talk. A very interesting lady!

  8. I have often thought that women’s crafts (needlework, embroidery, knitting, crocheting, etc) have been undervalued. Such work and the objects made from them often outlast all kinds of “history”. I have knit garments from my mom approaching 40 years old and an crocheted afghan from my grandma that is about the same vintage. Their energy and life is in those creations and are infinitely more treasured for that reason. I love the sound of this memoir, Luanne.

    • I feel this way very very strongly. Maybe it is because my grandmother was such an amazing seamstress, tailor, and dress designer, although she “had” to do it for a living her whole working life, starting when she was a teen working in a sweatshop. S, this is a gorgeous memoir.

  9. “Love” Agnes DeMille’s “voice”;so honest, so matter of fact, slightly poignant when she speaks of her father and her family’s breakup- “he was a mess…” Agnes’ comment, “Marvelous things happens where I am…” is so refreshing and so hopeful. The cadence of her voice is lovely. An intelligent woman who clearly knows her strengths and her limitations. “Fanatics,” “One track thinkers,…” eyes lifting to the heavens~ fascinating!

    Thank you for such a fascinating post! “You know magic…bewitching.” I’m bewitched by this clip! I couldn’t stop listening to her “voice!”

    • Lynne, I too love to listen to her! I would love to have known her. As it is, I feel that I have learned a lot by reading her books and listening to her “voice” on paper.

  10. Two of my favorite arts: literature and dance. Great review, Luanne.

  11. It’s always so interesting to discover how children of the famous make out gor themselves.

  12. This sounds like a wonderful memoir of a really interesting woman Luanne, thanks for introducing another book I must read 🙂

  13. What an absolutely gripping read this post is Luanne. You have opened up a fascinating world by introducing this memoir to us so obviously beautifully written by this talented lady and which moved you so powerfully so that felt compelled to write poetry after reading parts of it 🙂

    • Her memoirs are gorgeous writing. As far as helping with your book, I would say that her books are not my first choices. For one thing, they aren’t the right subject matter and won’t help you with creative choices. For another thing, her way of writing is a bit old-fashioned, which works beautifully with the subject, but I am afraid of falling into bad stylistic habits for my own work.

      • Ahh..that’s very interesting to know Luanne, there is always that thought that crosses my mind about certain books, although sounding like a great read, but not right for the very reasons you state. Thanks again for your always spot-on advice 🙂

  14. Luanne what a fascinating life. Inspired by the creative people around her I am sure her vision for modern ideas in dance grew. Even though she says she was a chronic complainer, I believe its the people who create something new out of disappointments. Love the old set and the fact you can still see these shows. Her books would be interesting for sure.

    • She had good reason for disappointment, although of course she had a privileged life. All the means to success were so close to her fingertips, yet the men kept them just out of reach. Kath, she was an incredible woman. She also was an artist in more than discipline, being a choreographer, dancer, and writer. I love that, and I am betting you do too with your multiple talents.

  15. This is such an interesting memoir post, Luanne. I enjoyed all the details you shared, this family was amazing in their wide range of talents, but seem ‘down to earth’ in their relationships. I love theater, dancing, costume designs and choreography. The fact you were moved to write poetry based on the lovely scenes described through Agnes DeMille’s words, means this was an enchanting book. I will have to at least ‘browse’ through it, since I seem to always be hurrying along in my life! I had 4 grandkids last night, while my son and his wife had a mass camp-out in their yard, for a combination celebration of his 33rd b’day and their #5 anniversary. Smiles!

    • Oh, the mass camp-out sounds like such fun!! You are so blessed to have your grandchildren! Enchanting is wonderful word for this book–that is exactly what it is, as if they were living in a house in the middle of an enchanted forest. I love theatre and dance and all that, too.

  16. How interesting! Do any of her books write about dance as a creative art, the inspiration, process, etc? I love to read how creative artists who are not writers talk about their art. I’m so inspired as a writer by art and music, and would find it interesting to learn more about dance fits in with all that.

    • Deborah, you could check out Dance to the Piper and And Promenade Home. They are “autobiographies,” so like biographies about creative figures, that stuff is all part of the mix of this happened and then that happened. They cover the early years of her career and are fascinating. It’s kind of like reading about how the Beatles got started in Hamburg, etc. Years ago I read a biography of Martha Graham that does some of that but it’s by Russell Freedman, not Graham herself, of course.

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