To Dance the Light Fantastic: RIP Maxine DeBruyn [1937-2020]
Updated: Dec 19, 2020
She didn’t have to do any of it. She could have spent her life lounging on a sunny beach, eating bon-bons and gossiping over martinis with the girls. But she chose a different path, all for the love of dance….and Bob. I can only imagine how she felt when she, a wealthy east Michigan – Boston woman of good education and patrician family, came to this provincial Bible belt of the northern woods with her new Harvard educated-onion-farmer husband, to be met with suspicion, shame and ridicule for her practice of the art she loved. But her father raised her to believe in herself, and she had a true passion for dance. Whatever anyone else thought, assumed, or judged, her belief in the power of dance to make the world a better place was steadfast, and she dug in, with all the determination of a pixie bulldog, to grow opportunities for dance in the most unlikely of soils.
In the 1960s, the only dancing permitted in Holland, MI was done in wooden shoes by high school girls for Tulip Time. Any other dancing was flirting with sin. Hope College, a small Christian Liberal Arts institution in the middle of Holland, didn’t have “Dances” – they had “Foot Functions.” The legend has it that Max, teaching in P.E., believed all four arts needed to be part of a well-rounded liberal arts offering – not just Music, Visual Arts and Theater. She forged alliances and offered a dance class, which quickly became “classes.” Hope paid her in art for two years because they couldn’t bring themselves to pay someone for teaching DANCE feel the flames of hell!. She had a serious art collection. Part-time instructors helped grow the offerings, but also offered challenges. An early power struggle was quickly followed by a succession of faculty who were recruited and left, until I showed up in 1983. By this point, Max had wisely, tenaciously established the DeLong Endowment, thereby securing dance programming. Then Max took her show on the road, serving in numerous leadership roles with state, national, and international dance education organizations,* cultivating Hope’s reputation. She had a vision for a program that would prepare “the well-rounded dancer” – a program that reflected its Liberal Arts context. “If you want to dance, we have a place for you.” And it was true. Hope’s Dance program was – and is - a success story, largely thanks to this tireless, hard-working like a dog with a bone gentleman professor. That’s the legend.
I worked with Max for 37 years. For the first three years, I looked for Max’s car every time I came in to work, just to prepare myself to meet her – inevitably – in the hallway – where a rapid fire one-sided “conversation” would happen. It could be a chastisement, a check in, or a gruff “thanks a million for….” More than once she called me at 7am, already half-way through “our” conversation when she realized I should be included. Given her experience with previous faculty, her trust was slow to secure. The only ones she truly trusted were those she forged a special bond with: her students. She absolutely, hands down, prioritized the creative education and welfare of her students and alums. In so doing, she inspired them, changing their lives for the better.
Formidable as she could be, deep down she was caring and compassionate. She saw the potential in people “if only they would listen to me and do what I told them to do- they’d be happy!” I was so grateful she was my Chair when I struggled through a difficult divorce - she was understanding, non-judgmental and supportive but never intrusive. As years passed and she gained confidence in the security of the department, she blossomed into our Queen Mother.
The Queen Mother hosted the BEST parties at her lake house home, drove a series of sports cars – typically equipped with TWO radar detectors on the dash- and adored her restored Triumph convertible, “perfect!!” because she “liked to lean back and go fast.”(Bob). She loved traveling, small animals and children. “I always felt seen by her, even as a very tiny being.”(Molly). One early Monday morning my colleague and I noted that she looked a bit tired, and she was wearing pearls!!?? …because she’d taken the red-eye from Washington D.C., where she and Bob had attended- by invitation - President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. She cherished a golden invitation to the 50th wedding anniversary of one of her mentors, Ted Shawn, and his wife, Ruth St. Denis. Yup- THAT Ted Shawn and Miss Ruth. She studied with Martha Graham. Paul Taylor was a personal friend. “KINKERS!!”
At her core lived a dancer’s passion. Max was a solid choreographer – whatever one might think of the artistic message, her works were always well crafted. She delighted in bright colors, creative props, cheerleading lifts, electronic music, and, much to her dancers’ dismay, unitards “show the line!” She couldn’t count her way out of a paper bag, but possessed an instinctive kind of musicality. Her brutal mispronunciation of names and words formed the basis of a renowned “Max list” with her Dance History students [i.e., the French “Beauchamps” was “Bo-Champs”]. Nothing brought her greater joy than taking students on that “zig-zag-ZING! It’s a journey! Now PERCH!” Umm….fish? Pose like a parrot? “YES!!”
And she had courage – she’d knock on anyone’s door to get done what needed to get done. She didn’t take breaks - her one “sabbatical” was a 6wk trip in January. She struggled with the idea of no longer leading the beloved program she developed. At the worst, she’d quafflecopter to cover up lack of knowledge, take credit for something someone else had done, and explode with erratic outbursts of defensive anger. These rare occasions were perhaps symptomatic of the insidious illness growing within.
I’m not sure when the diagnosis of Parkinson’s became official, but given that her mother died of it, it had to be terrorizing for Max at first. She knew well the progression of this savage illness. But with typical Max get-her-done courage, this breast-cancer survivor dove into Parkinson’s research and found that dance was one of the most effective therapies to allay its progress. She began to offer classes. Retiring in 2006, (I became Chair fall 2004), Max continued to teach as needed. Too soon, I was tasked with the painful job of removing her from instructional contact with students as her illness noticeably progressed. But for 3 summers we still had good times. Our little dance faculty met on Thursday evenings at a local bar/restaurant for drinks and socializing. Initially begun as a way to engage with guest faculty teaching for May Term, we enjoyed the get-togethers so much that we decided to meet weekly for the entire summer. Bob joined us for these memorable hygge evenings. “I’ll have the Cabernet.”
In the fall of 2009, Bob died unexpectedly. Max, shocked and devastated, suffered a rapid deterioration. She began to struggle with her vision. No longer able to drive, the beloved lake-house was sold; she continued to teach community classes, evolved an informal coffee group at JP’s, travelled and got together with friends even as she moved to assisted living. Then Covid-19 hit. This September, she was moved to hospice. “2020 is a BAD year!”
On Wed. Dec. 9, 2020, around 1:30pm, I went to visit. As I neared the cracked door, I could see that the light was on and heard voices. Deep-sleeping Max was surrounded by her daughter Marg, plus Nicki, Amber, Tunni, and tasty snacks! Max always did give the best parties.We laughed, told stories, shared photos- the room lit up with a warm conviviality; it was a time of hygge.
Nicki left, then Amber, and around 3:35pm I left just as Myrna joined Marg. Tunni left about 15min. later.
And Max left shortly after 4pm.
*Hope is a charter accredited member (1982) of the National Association of Schools of Dance, it never lost its accreditation status, and was recently reaccredited for the 5th time under the leadership of the Department’s third Chair, Matthew Farmer. For more information about the Dance Department Max founded, please visit: https://hope.edu/academics/dance