Life's a Dance
Writer Amanda Christmann Larson
For many, life is about taking the right steps. Go to the right school, get the right job, eat the right food, pick the right mate, live in the right neighborhood, and so many more “rights.” But in order to dance in life, one must also step left, and as Cave Creek resident Dee Dee Wood can attest, it is the dance that makes life worth living.
There is little in life Dee Dee has not danced through. From her first plié in high school to Broadway to Hollywood, she has choreographed her own life, and many of our own childhoods, through the sprightly agility of a chimney sweep in “Mary Poppins,” the grace and patience of a mischievous nun-turned-governess in “The Sound of Music,” and the sweet imagination of two children, a socialite and a quirky inventor in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
Like most storylines in the work that gained her fame, Dee Dee’s life has been a mix of hard work, creativity and fearlessly following her dreams. She’d never laced up a pair of ballet slippers until high school, when she took her first dance class. She connected with the expression of movement and synergy of movement and music. By losing herself in dance, she became herself.
Passion for dance encompassed her life. She talked her mother (who was ever-supportive) into allowing her to pursue her dream in New York by attending the Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theater, which was, at the time, one of the only schools in the nation with teachers from Haiti, Africa, Jamaica and other places whose styles were just beginning to influence the feel of dance in America. She cleaned toilets and swept floors to earn her keep until she was finally accepted on merit as one of the first scholarship students ever admitted.
From there, she went on to Broadway, performing in “Guys and Dolls,” “Can, Can,” and “Destry Rides Again.” Dee Dee impressed choreographer Michael Kidd, who asked her to be his assistant for the stage production of “Li’l Abner.” He remained on Broadway while she went on to choreograph the film version of the musical.
It was also on Broadway that she met Marc Breaux, who would become her working partner and husband soon after. They soon became dancing’s behind-the-scenes power couple in Hollywood, choreographing unforgettable scenes like the dance of the chimney sweeps and the jolly holiday in the park in “Mary Poppins” and Rolf and Liesel’s innocent coming-of-age twirling in the shelter of a rain-misted gazebo in “The Sound of Music.”
Always, she says, there was laughter. “It was fun,” she says matter-of-factly, her eyes smiling behind her trademark large-rimmed glasses and fashionable cap. “I never thought about doing anything different. It was always fun to go to work.”
Dee Dee’s favorite memories are working with Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews on the set of “Mary Poppins.” “They were so talented,” she says, looking back. Creativity was flowing in abundance, and the nearly palpable energy on the set left no limits to what could be done.
When Dick Van Dyke brought his young daughter to the set, he laughed with the rest of the crew as she stumbled and waddled through her first steps. Realizing the genius of the moment, a new part was created for him – as an old bank manager – just so that he could walk that silly walk on film. A big section of bank set was modified so that he could take a step down, in perfect comical imitation of his toddler, onto a step.
Another creative innovation scene in that forever-classic movie was the Jolly Holiday scene as Van Dyke and Andrews danced and sang through the park. Poppins’ trademark parasol made the scene difficult to dance through, so Dee Dee came up with the idea of hanging it on a fence post. Wouldn’t it be great, she thought, if the parasol could follow the couple? Walt Disney, who came to the set nearly every day, took the challenge to his animation crew, and within a day, the scene was edited to capture the imagination of millions as the parasol magically danced along.
The list of stars and stories she’s collected is impressive. Julie Andrews, Bing Crosby, Billy Crystal, Cher, Michael Jackson, Robin Williams, Bob Hope, Bette Midler, Danny Thomas, Carol Burnett, George Burns, Dolly Parton, and Tina Turner are among the many notables. Despite her success, she remains approachable, unimpressed by fame and tuned in to life’s smaller moments.
It’s that good-natured attitude that led Dee Dee to Cave Creek in the early 1960s. A handful of Hollywood’s “who’s who” had found a peaceful refuge in the desert mountains of Phoenix. She and Marc had casually browsed properties in the hills of Cave Creek while visiting friends.
A short time later, while Dee Dee was working in London, Marc came back through the area to find one particular bungalow with a spectacular view of Black Mountain still listed. It was a place where they could be themselves without worrying about appearances or recognition. Within a single phone call, Dee Dee approved of the purchase. Since 1972, no matter where her work took her, Cave Creek has been home.
It was Dee Dee’s work with Dick Van Dyke that was the highlight of her career, and together the two shared a love for the Cave Creek desert. She was responsible for Van Dyke’s family moving to Arizona. He loved it so much that he talked CBS into filming “The Dick Van Dyke Show” at his own Southwestern Studio in Carefree.
Life imitates art, and art imitates life. Like many other passionate people before her, Dee Dee’s work has been very much a part of her life – so much so that it would be difficult to separate the two. She choreographed “Beaches” with Bette Midler and used her talents to create scenes for many television shows, including “Cher,” “John Denver and Friends” and “The Love Boat.”
She blazed a new trail for women by tackling three Superbowl halftime shows and a Fiesta Bowl show featuring Michael Jackson. She also earned international recognition for her work in choreographing the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, followed by a well-deserved Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography for her work in the 1986 “100th Anniversary of the Statue of Liberty” widely acclaimed television special. Today, she is a noted Emmy Award judge, holding a coveted vote for current choreography award-winners.
Among her other impressive achievements, in 1998 she received a life time achievement award at the American Choreographers Awards ceremonies.
The Cave Creek community is fortunate to benefit from her talent, as well as her humor and sometimes larger-than-life personality. Though she no longer makes time for the big stage, she still finds time to direct musical productions for our own Desert Foothills Theater.
Besides the many stories she holds tucked away in her heart, Dee Dee most cherishes the legacy she has left for future choreographers and dancers. It was her work, and that of her contemporaries, that has paved the way for new levels of creativity and expression. She once learned from Walt Disney, “There are no limits at Disney,” … or anywhere else, for that matter. Sharing her dancing, her joys, her early challenges and the passion she continues to fuel for the art that has made her life whole is one of her greatest achievements.
That message is simple. “Do what you love,” she says with a gentle smile. And that is exactly what she has done all along, with a lot of right steps, a lot of left steps, and an occasional pause or kick while the music of life plays on.