Dancing Queen

Chowing down in Cave Creek with the choreographer to the stars.

So what does Deedee Wood do all day in Cave Creek -- when she's not having lunch, that is?

"My friends in L.A. ask me that," says Wood as we wait for sandwiches. "They say, 'What do you do out there?'" The answer isn't complex. "I have a big house I have to take care of. I have lots of plants to water. I get up in the morning, I have my Cave Creek Coffee, I sit and look at Black Mountain, contemplate my day, contemplate my week coming up, feed the dog, feed the cat, visit with people. I read a lot, and I love film; I go to movies all the time."

Sounds pleasant, but it's understandable that her friends might wonder if it was too sedate a retirement for Wood -- her career kept her on her toes. After years on Broadway as a dancer and an assistant to no less than Michael Kidd, Wood became a top choreographer in her own right, staging dances for such classic movie musicals as Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, and later winning an Emmy for her TV work.

We're at Cave Creek Coffee Company, the airy, comfortable caffeine emporium where Wood buys her morning joe, just before the lunch rush. The pilgrimage to the far northeast Valley isn't one I make often, but Wood has promised me that the sandwiches we've ordered will make it worthwhile. In the meantime, she gives me her bio.

Born in Boston, she grew up in Connecticut, and came to dancing comparatively late, in high school. "But once I started, you couldn't talk me into doing anything else," she says. "I got a scholarship to Jacob's Pillow, which is a dance camp up in Massachusetts, started ballet classes in Westport, Connecticut, started traveling to New York on the train, to the American School of Ballet, moved to New York and started studying jazz at the Katherine Dunham school, which is Afro-Cuban. I started auditioning for Michael Kidd, who I later assisted. My first show was Guys and Dolls, was in that for over a year, then I went into Can-Can, was in that for over a year, then I assisted him and was a lead dancer in Li'l Abner, and then Destry Rides Again. And from there, we got asked to stage a television show because Michael Kidd was not available, so he suggested us."

The "we" isn't editorial; it refers to Wood's husband, Mark Breaux, with whom she collaborated on most of her earlier choreography jobs, as well as two kids. "He lives in Palm Springs," says Wood of Breaux, "and we're still married, and we're very good friends, but the marriage is perfect, because he lives there and I live here." She chuckles.

The couple broke into movies through a TV acquaintance. "They called us to stage a number for Dick Van Dyke on The Jack Benny Show. And [Van Dyke] was in negotiations for Mary Poppins. He told Disney about us, and we went up and met Walt, and boom, we got the gig."

The sandwiches arrive, and Wood isn't wrong. Mine, the Palomino -- pastrami, pepper Jack cheese and raspberry chipotle on sun-dried tomato basil bread -- is the best sandwich I've had in a very long time.

Wood phased out performing when she and Breaux started choreographing. Asked if she missed the thrill of performing, she notes, "Well, when you choreograph . . . like, I would do Julie Andrews' part. I made the most of that. And you know, I was one of the penguins in Poppins."

Beg pardon?

"Three of our dancers and myself, they filmed us doing the penguin dance, and then the animators took the film and the music up to the animation building and then drew the penguins from us."

Actually, there's a third for lunch -- Wood has brought along a penguin cutout that was used in the film to help Van Dyke look at the right spot while he danced soft-shoe with the animated birds, which would be added later.

"I love my penguin," Wood says of this unique souvenir.

Poppins, she admits, was a high point in her career. "[Disney] was one of the best places to work, 'cause when we did Poppins, he was alive, and he came every single day after lunch." The "he," almost religiously intoned, refers to Walt, of course.

After Poppins, Wood and Breaux choreographed two more family classics, The Sound of Music and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. They worked on other films and shows, together and separately. "Then Mark retired, and I kept working." She received an Emmy nomination for her work on Cher's TV show, and she staged dances for the Bette Midler film Beaches, but she came to specialize in large-canvas works -- many Super Bowl halftime shows, and her magnum opus, the closing ceremonies for the three-hour special for the centennial celebration of the Statue of Liberty. "I got my Emmy for that," says Wood proudly. "It's on top of the TV." She remains a member of the judging board for choreographers for the Emmys. She's also keeping her hand in by working on Celebration of Dance, a concert in honor of National Dance Week featuring various Arizona dance troupes, slated for Sunday, April 29, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts.

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