The elegance of her bearing makes a striking impression, as does her nearly 6-foot stature and classic beauty. At 85, Marilyn duBrisk has been called inspirational, magical, joyful, passionate and a positive force in the community, among other things.
The most her humility will allow her to claim is her self-proclaimed designation as a kind of benevolent pied-piper. That title does perhaps hint at the charisma, energy and influence she seems totally unconscious of possessing. Pied-piper also accurately describes her ability to draw children around her through dance.
duBrisk’s own love of dance began in childhood. Born in England to Scottish parents, duBrisk never thought about dancing or acting but rather just always did them naturally.
“When I was about five, I used to dress up with my girlfriend and go to people’s houses. We’d knock on the door and I would pretend to be a gypsy and then do my Carmen Miranda act — ‘Ay ay, ay, ay …’” duBrisk says, laughing as she remembers her childhood imitation of the Portuguese-born entertainer known as the “Brazilian Bombshell.”
duBrisk’s parents moved to Nyasaland, now called Malaway, in Central East Africa when she was 11-years-old, after her father, who had been in the British Air Force, returned from the Middle East. The British children living in the area often met together to put on plays. That was also where duBrisk got her first nudge toward dance.
A former ballet dancer married to a tobacco plantation owner in Nyasaland began giving duBrisk ballet lessons when she was 13. Later, while babysitting for a family friend named John Foot, duBrisk’s dramatic flair caught his eye.
“I was stretching out to pick some bananas and of course I considered myself very dramatic,” she explainss, demonstrating with a sweeping movement of her arm. “‘You should be a dancer,’ he said. I said, ‘Oh, I’d love to be but my parents will never let me.’
“Well, about a week later, they came into my bedroom after a party and woke me up and said, ‘Marilyn, we had no idea that you were wanting to be a dancer! Darling, if you want to do that, we’ll send you to school!’”
Her parents quickly sent her off to London where she studied dance and drama.
“I got to come home only on the summer holiday, which was tough,” duBrisk remembers. “But it teaches self-reliance. I had lots of wonderful relatives there and I made friends and spent holidays with them, so it wasn’t lonely.”
Although her parents were supportive, the rest of her relatives didn’t approve at first.
“We’re talking back in the 50s. Young ladies didn’t necessarily go on the stage. ‘Life upon the wicked stage ain’t nothing for a girl,’” she sings, punctuating the phrase from the musical “Showboat” with a ripple of laughter.
duBrisk, who attended a total of seven schools as a child, graduated from Grandison College of Dance and Drama before going on to the Royal Academy of Dance. Her education was hard won as her stature — 5-foot-113/4-inches, to be exact — proved an obstacle. One of the most painful challenges she faced came when she took the ballet exams at the Royal Academy of Dance.
“The first time I walked in there were three examiners,” duBrisk remembers. “At that time, we wore tutus. The two girls that were taking the exam with me were tiny. I felt like an elephant.
“A lady named Noreen Bush looked at me and said, ‘Oh, my God! Look at those thighs! What’s she doing in here? How ridiculous! I’m not even going to mark her!’
Bush, true to her words, didn’t mark duBrisk, causing her to fail the exam. duBrisk decided to take classes at Bush’s dance school so Bush would be disqualified from examining her the next time she tested.
“Well, she knew why I was there and she made fun of me the whole time I attended her class,” duBrisk says. “Oh I wept and wept during that time because I had to take classes with her for six weeks.”
The experience taught duBrisk to be sensitive to the feelings of others and never knowingly humiliate anybody. Her resilience, sense of humor and positive outlook helped her through that difficult time.
“I always see the donut. I don’t like the hole,” she says.
duBrisk went on to find her niche in modern dance, earning a scholarship to work with Katherine Dunham’s prestigious dance group, darkening her skin when she danced with the company.
As duBrisk continued to dance and choreograph, she met a creative partner who became her life partner. After spending 58 years together in 28 different homes as they travelled the world, an unmistakable glow still lights her eyes when she speaks about Wes duBrisk.
“I was doing choreography for a United States Air Force production of ‘Guys and Dolls.’ He was the only one that could dance and so we became friends,” says duBrisk.
After one show, duBrisk was invited to a party at the bachelor officers’ quarters. As a single girl in Germany who wanted to keep her name “squeaky clean,” she asked Wes, to escort her. When the party started to get “a little rough,” they decided instead to go see a mutual friend and spent the remainder of the evening chatting over hot chocolate.
“That was how our friendship really began,” duBrisk explains, adding that she often helped him with his girlfriend problems.
Over time, they realized their affection for each other had outgrown a platonic relationship.
“In those days, you didn’t go steady until you were engaged,” she adds. “You went out with people and dated but you didn’t jump into bed with them. I have no trouble with saying that because in my youth you just didn’t. You held hands and got sweaty in the movie house and did romantic things like that and kissed but no further.”
As their relationship deepened, Wes proposed to her a number of times but she turned him down at first, not wanting to rush into marriage. When she eventually accepted, they married in London at Pemlico Church and honeymooned across Germany and Austria, travelling, as duBrisk puts it, “by the seat of our pants.”
“It was such fun!” duBrisk says.
As duBrisk tells it, she became a “legalized camp follower,” moving with her husband as he went from one overseas duty assignment to another. She loves traveling and feels fortunate that her husband worked in radio and television, a career that took them all over the globe.
“We had these incredible assignments — Thailand, Greece, Portugal, The Azores, just all over the place,” she says.
In spite of the challenges military life and travel posed, duBrisk says it also may have helped to strengthen their bond.
“We moved around so much, that probably caused us to be closer than couples that are in one place and secure to branch out. We just always have had fun together.”
Don’t ask her which assignment she liked best. She finds it impossible to choose a favorite country, saying that all the places she’s lived presented “fantastic opportunities.”
“Having favorite countries is like having favorite friends. You love them all for different reasons,” she quips.
A closer look reveals not so much that opportunities presented themselves to duBrisk but that she’s a crackerjack at finding and creating them. Take the time she lived in the Azores, an archipelago of seven small islands nearly 1,000 miles off the coast of Portugal in the mid-Atlantic.
duBrisk’s husband was stationed at the U.S. Air Force Base on the island of Terceira during the late 1960s. American dependents were not allowed to work but, since she didn’t have American citizenship yet, she applied for work permit and began teaching Portuguese and American children to dance and arranging programs that incorporated dance for tourists.
“I’d go with my Portuguese and American students and we would do a demonstration of the seven islands,” she explains. “It was so funny because you could hear the tourists, when they looked at the American kids from the base, say, ‘Oh, look at that Portuguese child! Isn’t she beautiful? She looks so Portuguese.’ And I was thinking, ‘Well, she’s from Texas.”
duBrisk found an opportunity to make a foray into television production and screen writing on Terceira. Television programming for children on the base had been canceled. Not wanting the children to be deprived, she created a show called Morning with Marilyn, using music, dance and Wes’s puppeteering talents. With dubrisk as host, the whole base participated and, because it was an island, the whole island got to see the broadcasts.
“We couldn’t go anywhere on the island but the Portuguese children would be dancing and saying ‘Morning! Morning! Hello Morning!’ duBrisk reminisces. “We visited there just a few years ago and as we went through customs there was this great big man in a uniform. He looked at my suitcase and he looked at me and then he said, ‘It’s Morning with Marilyn! I used to watch you when I was a little boy all the time!’
In 1970, she was chosen as the American Wife of the Year for the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command in Europe for her work with children and introducing ballet to the island of Terceira.
duBrisk received numerous honors throughout her career including the Tennessee Governor’s Award for the Arts, Tennessee Art Academy Lifetime Achievement Award from the Nashville Arts Academy, and the National Alumni Recognition Award from the Tusculum College Alumni Association.
In the early 70s, when Wes was sent on remote duty to Southeast Asia for a year, Marilyn remained behind in upstate New York. From 1971 to 1973, she worked at the New York State School for the Deaf, where she established performing groups.
“That was a challenge!” she says, explaining that she directed the deaf dancers, who could neither hear nor feel the music, like an orchestra conductor. “I put together dances and people would come to the shows and ask, ‘Which ones are deaf?’ I would tell them all of them were. Then they would ask if they were feeling the vibrations of the music through the floor. I told them no, if it was turned up that loud, the audience would go crazy.”
The second time Wes received an assignment for Southeast Asia, duBrisk made up her mind that she was going with him.
“I didn’t really go with him. I went on my own and ended up in the middle of Bangkok, Thailand, which is a very romantic, gorgeous place,” says duBrisk, noting that it was also the most exotic of all the places she and her husband traveled to. Wes rented a car, an old Dodge, so he could drive to see her. He’d arrive at midnight and the two would stroll through the streets of Bangkok.
It’s unlikely her decision to travel to Bangkok on her own came as a surprise to her husband. duBrisk developed independence and a love for adventure at a young age. She says Wes was ever intimidated by her independence but rather enjoyed it. In fact, their individual strengths may have allowed them to support each other more fully through the years.
“We’ve always backed each other,” duBrisk says. “We’re definitely a good partnership. We’re always involved with what the other one is doing.”
While in Bangkok from 1975 to 1976, she prepared choreography for Levi Strauss and Mary Quant and produced “The History of American Dance” for the Red Cross. She also taught at Chulalongkorn University, founded by a son of King Mongkut, who was made famous to American audiences in the Rodgers and Hamerstein musical “The King and I” and later made into a movie. duBrisk counts herself lucky to have taught at the university, even though she is a “round-eye.”
She was also approached with an offer for a Thai television show. duBrisk choreographed the shows, while teaching a group of young girls to dance. Filmed at the top of a 33 story building in a rooftop garden complete with running water and birds, the Hawaiian themed show became a hit, though it didn’t result in dancing careers for the girls.
“Within six months those girls were married off to rich men or became their mistresses and I had to train a new group to keep the show going,” she explains, adding, “Anyway, it certainly helped the girls further their romantic careers. And, oh, it was fun!”
duBrisk and her husband returned to the U.S., living for about six months in Ogden, Utah, where she created a theater arts program for at-risk girls. Then it was on to Wichita, Kansas, where she served as a cultural affairs advisor to the Strategic Air Command and lectured at Wichita State University.
She returned to Europe in 1980, where she created a baccalaureate program in dance for Deree College at the American College of Greece. They crossed the Atlantic again in 1983 to Lubbock, Texas, where she worked with the Texas Arts Commission and conducted outreach with women in the community.
They arrived in Greeneville in 1984 where Wes took a position at Tusculum University, known as Tusculum College at the time, and duBrisk became Artist-in-Residence for the Greeneville City School System. In that role, she developed the “Growing Up in Greene” program to foster community history learning through essays, poetry and visual arts.
She also founded Great Literature Alive, Well, Playing In Greeneville, Tennessee, also known as GLAWPIGT. The program creates opportunities for third- through -12th-grade students to experience the arts.
In 1991, duBrisk became Artist-in-Residence and director of Arts Outreach at Tusculum College, also lecturing in the Niswonger Scholars program.
“I have been accused of being a Pied-piper because everywhere I’ve gone I’ve worked with other people’s children,” duBrisk says. “I have none of my own but I’ve had the luck of being able to work with other people’s children.”
duBrisk credits her accomplishments to luck and falling in love with the right man.
“I have been so fortunate to manage to be in the right place at the right time and have the right husband,” she says. “I don’t do anything by myself. I’m very good at finding people who are better at everything than I am and getting help. It’s always a team.”
duBrisk’s life hasn’t been all luck and adventure. A head-on collision in 1987 broke three vertebrae in her neck.
“My surgeon said, ‘Well, you may have to change careers.’ I said, ‘You first,” she says, laughing. “They wired me back together again and my surgeon told me later that he wouldn’t have given a plugged nickel that I would ever walk again.”
“The body is an incredible thing. I am limited but the body adjusts,” she adds.
duBrisk admits she felt terrified at times during the uncertainty of the long rehabilitation process. During her worst moments, she found solace and inspiration in looking at the artwork that plastered her ceiling, gifts made for her by the children she taught.
The accident gave her a deeper appreciation for life and for things people often take for granted. She’s also learned throughout the course of her life that there is good in everybody and that joy and fulfillment are found in service.
“I’m accused of looking at the world through rose colored glasses and if I do, I think it’s a fortunate attribute,” she says.
duBrisk announced her retirement earlier this year. She said she’s getting signals that it might be time for her to slow down a little and she wants to spend more time doing things with Wes.
But don’t expect her to stay idle. She plans to stay in the area and work to help create more opportunities for children in theater and check off a few things on her bucket list, including travel and reconnecting with old friends.
“I’m not going to just sit and twiddle my thumbs all the time,” she says with a twinkle in her eyes.