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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.

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