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Date Posted: Monday, May 06, 02:00:59pm
In reply to:
Dead at 99
's message, "Norma Miller, Dancer, actress" on Sunday, May 05, 11:59:25am
Norma Miller, Lindy-Hopping "Queen of Swing", Is Dead at 99. ...
by Robert D. McFadden / NYTimes
May 6, 2019
Norma Miller and Billy Ricker, of Norma Miller¡¯s Dancers, in a publicity photo taken in about 1940. With her troupe, she joined early fights to undermine segregation in the nightclubs and casinos of Miami Beach and Las Vegas.
Norma Miller and Billy Ricker, of Norma Miller's Dancers, in a publicity photo taken in about 1940. With her troupe, she joined early fights to undermine segregation in the nightclubs and casinos of Miami Beach and Las Vegas.
Norma Miller, who danced the Lindy Hop on Harlem sidewalks as a child, and as a teenager dazzled crowds on international tours in the 1930s and early '40s doing the same kicks, spins and drops that had made it a Jazz Age jitterbug craze, died on Sunday at her home in Fort Myers, Fla. She was 99.
Her longtime manager and caretaker, John Biffar, announced her death.
Among the cultural prodigies who arose after the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh¡¯s ¡°hop¡± from New York to Paris in 1927 hence the dance's name. Ms. Miller, known as the "Queen of Swing", was the youngest recruit and last survivor of the original Lindy Hoppers, the all-black Herbert White troupe that broke in at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom and popularized the Lindy Hop with Broadway shows, tours of Europe and Latin America and Hollywood films.
In the movies, she danced and sang in memorable black-cast numbers in the Marx Brothers' "A Day at the Races" (1937) and in the madcap Olsen and Johnson comedy "Hellzapoppin¡¯ " (1941). She later thrived as a choreographer, comedian, television actor and author, and was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2003 as a conservator of the Lindy Hop.
With her own black companies, the Norma Miller Dancers and Norma Miller and Her Jazzmen, she joined early fights to undermine segregation in the nightclubs and casinos of Miami Beach and Las Vegas, where black entertainers ¡ª even stars like Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. ¡ª drew big crowds but afterward had to leave through the kitchen and stay in segregated accommodations.
Twist Mouth George Ganaway as she flashed her moves on the sidewalk outside the Savoy, a blocklong rhythm factory on Lenox Avenue between West 140th and 141st Streets. She was only 12, too young even to get into the swanky, mirrored emporium of swing that Langston Hughes called "the heartbeat of Harlem".
"I was a precocious youngster," Ms. Miller said in "Queen of Swing", a 2006 documentary on her life. Mr. Ganaway spotted her performance and gave her a Coca-Cola. From inside the Savoy, a swing band¡¯s hard-driving sound beat its way to the sidewalk, and there she and Mr. Ganaway danced.
"He swung me out," she recalled. "I don't know if I ever hit the floor. He just flew me all around".
Ms. Miller in 2018. In her later years she traveled widely to appear at swing and jazz festivals and give talks on her dancing days.
Ms. Miller in 2018. In her later years she traveled widely to appear at swing and jazz festivals and give talks on her dancing days. Norma, wiry and nimble, already knew some Lindy Hop moves: the swing out, the hip-to-hip, the side-flip, the sugar push. Mr. Ganaway was impressed. He took her into the Savoy, ignoring the technicality of her age, and they were soon captivating the regulars with through-the-legs slides, over-the-head flips and acrobatic aerial lifts.
...Miller, seen here with Frankie Manning (1914–2009), the master of
swing-era dances, who was the inspirational coach of the Lindy Hoppers.
What followed over the next few years was the professional education of a dancer: the wider world of hard work and the excitement and grind of travel to faraway places, of dancing in Broadway shows and on a seven-month tour of Paris, London and other European cities, then performances across America with Ethel Waters and a girl's first adventure in Hollywood.
She was not quite 18 when she met the Marx Brothers, Allan Jones and Maureen O¡¯Sullivan on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot and made her film debut in "A Day at the Races". She danced and sang with the Lindy Hoppers in the well-known black-cast barn scene number, "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm", which featured Ivie Anderson and Duke Ellington's orchestra. The Lindy Hop sequence was nominated for an Academy Award for dance direction.
Ms. Miller and the Lindy Hoppers were showcased in the Broadway musical revue hit "Hellzapoppin'" in 1938 and in 1941 appeared in the Hollywood version, both of which starred Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson and Martha Raye. It was a slashing satire of show business, with slapstick mayhem, horned demons, collapsing staircases and fun house slides that led straight to hell.
In a sequence widely regarded as the best example of the Lindy Hop on film, four couples in backstage-workers¡¯ get-ups swing out, one after the other, into acrobatic shines at a frenetic tempo. Ms. Miller and Billy Ricker, dancing in chefs caps like animated rag dolls, execute breathtaking flips, slides, kicks, splits, lifts and lightning moves that seem to defy gravity and human speed limits.
Cab Calloway and a 48-member all-black cast, drew huge nightly audiences for months. But it also stirred racial unrest, as had been anticipated: Every cast member was given an identity card issued by the police, and after each show had to retreat to a "colored" hotel.
"We were to be the first all-black show to play the Beachcomber in Miami Beach," Ms. Miller recalled in "Stompin' at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer" (2003, with Evette Jensen). "During rehearsal, racial tensions surfaced. The day of our big dress rehearsal, there were headlines in The Miami Sun telling Murray Weinger" a Miami nightclub owner "that they didn¡¯t want his colored show on the beach."
Ms. Miller lived in Las Vegas for much of the 1960s and ¡ä70s. She did comedy routines in clubs with Redd Foxx and taught children's dance classes. In 1972, she entertained American troops in Vietnam. She had roles in three of Mr. Foxx's NBC sitcoms: "Sanford and Son"in 1973-74, "Grady" in 1976, and "Sanford Arms" in 1977.
Besides "Queen of Swing", John Biffar's documentary on her life, Ms. Miller appeared in at least nine other documentaries on dance, black comedy and other subjects, including Ken Burns's PBS series "Jazz" (2000). She was the subject of a children's book by Alan Govenar, "Stompin' at the Savoy: The Story of Norma Miller" (2006). Her own books include "Swing Baby Swing" (2010, with Darlene Gist), a chronicle of swing dancing over her century.
Ms. Miller, who never married and left no immediate survivors, had a long-term relationship with fellow Hellzapoppin¡¯ performer Roy Glenn, who died in 1971. She traveled widely to appear at swing and jazz festivals and give talks on her dancing days. "The Savoy was our community", she told Bobby White in one interview in 2016, ¡°and the dance floor was the place we found freedom."
In 2018, Ms. Miller appeared at the Herrang Dance Camp in Sweden, an annual gathering since the 1980s of Lindy Hop lovers from around the world. "A place like this is unbelievable,¡± she said. "It's like Brigadoon" the musical about a Scottish village that magically reappears once every 100 years.
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