De Mille’s intention is to break down what she sees as a basic moral prejudice against dance and dancers. Dance, a Dionysian expression of life and the life force, is viewed with suspicion by a fundamentalist social mind-set that reacts against the physical sensuality that is involved. Classical ballet, however, began in the court of Louis XIV as an innocent entertainment, and the steps and positions have not changed much through time. It was this form that originally attracted De Mille’s attention and love. Her major disappointment was her inability to perfect her body and to synchronize it to the dance form. Her secondary interest, folk dance, was sparked by the custom of the great ballerinas of including folk dance as a part of their repertoire. In the course of her study, De Mille evolved the belief that each nation expresses its character through its national dances.
During her college years, De Mille gave up dancing entirely in her enthusiasm for study. Oddly enough, the discipline that is associated with dance and dancers seemed to desert her. She was consistently late to class, whiled away her time in exams until it was nearly time to turn them in, and was filled with great plans for poems, stories, and creative works but postponed writing them until the last minute. Soon, however, her old love for and devotion to dance returned to her fully.
When her parents divorced, De Mille moved back to New York with her mother. She began to study dance again while supporting herself with an allowance from her father. In the meantime, she embarked upon a series of failures that lasted until her mid-thirties. During those intervening years, she sought work and...
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Dance to the Piper was not written for a young audience, yet it is a book that can be highly informative for young readers interested in the art of dance. All types of readers will find much of value in the work, as De Mille deals with the roles of both male and female dancers. Readers will also learn about the history of dance and dancers both in the commercial theater (Broadway and film) and the formal dance theater (ballet and the modernist interpretive movement). Young adults may also be interested in comparing contemporary attitudes toward dance with those of the 1920’s and 1930’s in order to see how society’s response has changed. Readers involved in the early days of film history or in the beginning of Cecil B. De Mille’s career will enjoy the early chapters of the book.
Agnes De Mille’s writing style is somewhat dense and may prove intimidating to readers who are very young. Also, those interested simply in her own story may find her interpolations of discourses on dance history or on the history of a specific company to be distracting and superfluous. The foreword explains that the book was written in bits over a series of years—on letters, napkins, and sales receipts—without chronology or sequence and was arranged by her editor. Nevertheless, the book is valuable if only because it deglamorizes dancers, who are revealed as ordinary human beings who ache, sweat, and complain as everyone else does.