Why I’ll never watch Dancing with the Stars without thinking about Beryl de Zoete

One of my many weird and wacky obsessions is “Dancing with the Stars.” I can’t get enough of it. I love watching the way that celebrities are taken out of their element and transformed by the way that dance can affect them. I think it is simply beautiful. Also, Bruno simply cracks me up.

The new all-athlete season premieres on Monday and I am so beyond stoked. I have had to wait far too long. All my friends have had to hear about it and many respond that it’s just a popularity contest and that, unless someone really effs something up, it’s impossible to critique a dance. But I believe you can tell when someone is a better dancer than someone else, even if they perform all of the steps impeccably. When the music takes you over, there is just something extra in your dance that can’t help but capture you. I love watching and waiting for contestants to get to that point.

I feel like our topic today, Beryl de Zoete, would agree with me. She was the world’s first global dance critic but, more than anything, she believed in the power of feeling in dance.

Beryl was born in London on August 17, 1879 to middle-class Dutch parents. She was the second of four daughters, all of whom grew up listening to their Uncle Edward tell stories from his voyages around the world. He also had a deep interest in Bach, an interest that rubbed off on Beryl and would teach her how to read and appreciate the expression of music.

Image Credit: Marian Ury

Beryl was fluent in French, German and Italian and received an English degree from Oxford University in 1901, quite the feat for a woman, considering women were ordinarily not granted degrees prior to 1920.

A year later, she married Basil de Sélincourt, a journalist, essayist and enthusiastic amateur musician. The two agreed that the marriage should remain celibate and should be based on a vegetarian diet, devoted to completely to the study of music and literature. However, as time passed, Basil began to spend his nights with another woman and “switched over from milk and vegetables to beer and beef steaks,” as a friend described it. Their marriage, subsequently, lasted less than a decade.

During the marriage, Beryl began her writing career, authoring two works, “Homes of the First Franciscans” and “Venice.” She also translated Guilio Carotti’s “A History of Art Volume 2” from Italian to English.

When she wasn’t writing, she spent her time working as a dance instructor for Dalcroze eurhythmics. Your mind may go straight to Jane Fonda and step aerobics and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, considering the dancers did wear tight leotards and tunics. However, there was far more to this art form of musical aerobics.

The system of training was originated by Emile Jaques-Dalcroze with the explicit goal of promoting a more natural technique by feeling the emotion of the musical content as opposed to the mechanically precise styles of performances taught in the conservatories. The “irresistible little professor,” as Beryl called him, believed that the emotion within music had to be expressed and experienced by the entire body. The classes often relied heavily on improvisation. Beryl began to write about dance during her experiences teaching and, by the time she turned 30, she had established herself as a dance critic.

Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery

A couple years later, Beryl met Arthur Waley, an English Sinologist, beginning a strong relationship that would last until the end of Beryl’s life. The two fell in love with each other but remained completely platonic, promising no marriage, children or home together. The two, however, would hit the town, often the first to arrive at parties and the last to leave. They wrote numerous letters to each other with some of the craziest pet names like “Twinkles” and “Darling Pet Baboon.” Each sparked an elevated level of creative freedom in the other and Arthur’s interest with the East piqued Beryl’s desire to see what dance was like beyond Europe.

Image Credit: Atlas Obscura

She began to embark on long research trips by herself all over the world, to Java, North Africa, India, Sri Lanka, Libya, Spain and so many more. She would move from village to village to watch the dances of each for hours and hours. She recorded the movements of dancers, down to the twitch of a finger or the glance of an eye.

She was somewhat self-conscious of her writing, noting, “I am not at all good at being learned, but everything I speak of I have seen with my own eyes and felt with my own heart.” By focusing on feeling, her notes began to take on a poetic quality, even for the most mundane things as bird poop: “the branches spread very wide over the lawn and over the tea-table, so that it provided—beside graceful shade—a generous scattering of bird-droppings, which fell mostly on me.” Delightful.

She would describe these dance performances and send articles to publications like “Ballet” Magazine, “The New Statesman,” “The Daily Telegraph” and “The Spectator,” furthering her acclaim as a dance critic.

Her most memorable trip was in 1935 when she visited Bali. At the time, Bali was a gathering-place for only the most elite scholars, celebrities and millionaires. The guide for such people was Walter Spies, a filmmaker and an artist. He worked with Beryl to produce their book “Dance and Drama in Bali,” still referenced today for knowledge about traditional Balinese dance and theatre.

Image Credit: Horniman Museum and Gardens

Beryl was particularly captivated by Bali and continued to push back her scheduled trip to go home, staying for several additional months. In her writing, she worked hard to capture the place so that her reader might be able to see exactly what she saw. She looked not only for dance but for anything that might allow her to experience an open imagination, which included an all-night exorcism ceremony.

After writing two more books on South and Southeast Asian dancing, her traveling had to come to an end when World War II begun, during which time she worked as the dance critic for “The New Statesman.” She gave refuge to Kurt Jooss and his Jooss Ballet when they were forced to escape the Nazis after refusing to fire all Jews from the company.

In 1951, Beryl traveled to Italy and went through her first attack of Huntington’s disease. A couple years later, a series of episodes sent her to a psychiatric home. However, until her death in 1962, she continued to travel when she could and explored all the high expressions of art and dance that she could manage.

Portrait of Beryl by Ray Strachey / Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery

I know it will seem quite insulting to compare the life and legacy of a cool lady like Beryl de Zoete to a reality dance competition show, but for me, Beryl represents what I love about watching Dancing with the Stars. She was one of the first people to vocally praise the expressive side of dance and, by doing so, was one of the major forces in moving the art form into what it was today. She also was one of the first women to embark on exploratory expeditions on her own, quite remarkable when you think about the restrictive Victorian age which she came from.

So put that in your pipe and smoke it when you are watching Adam Rippon and Tonya Harding take on the foxtrot and the tango on Monday. It can’t come soon enough.

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