SOMEONE YOU SHOULD KNOW
America’s Queen of Swing, made history, recalls thrilling dance era
Right in the heart of the 1930s and the Golden Age of Swing in Harlem, Norma Miller was an African-American girl who loved to dance. Eventually joining Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, the “Queen of Swing” is the lone survivor of the acrobatic dance group. Now, at age 96 and living in Fort Myers, she is a witty, inspirational woman with exciting stories about dancing and her many friendships with legends such as Redd Foxx and Sammy Davis Jr.
THE ERA I came out of was the dancing world. That’s what everybody did in the '30s. In 1926, a new ballroom opened in Harlem, the Savoy Ballroom. It was in the midst of the most racist time in America, which was segregation. But when a ballroom came to the center of Harlem, race didn’t matter. They didn’t care what color you were. When you got music in a ballroom where you got people coming, they respond to what they hear and dance. That dance became the Lindy Hop. It was a dance
that was spontaneous. Up until then it was restricted how you danced; you danced the waltz, the foxtrot, and here come a dance where you can abandon everything, which made it popular.
I LIVED right in the back of the Savoy. I’d hear the music every night and sit there in the window and watch them like I’m watching television. I used to watch the dances and would try to copy them in the living room.
IT ALL STARTED accidentally because we were there. There was nothing planned. I would be dancing outside the Savoy because kids weren’t allowed inside. I was just a kid who could dance. When the Apollo Theater had its first Lindy Hop contest at the Savoy Ballroom, Twist Mouth George [George Ganaway] asked me to dance with him―and we won. All of a sudden somebody saw a value in what we did, and that was the man with the name Herbert White. He began organizing us. I was the youngest member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers [the crème de la crème of swing dancers]. By the time I was 12 years old, I was a professional dancer. That’s all I did. I never did anything else.
I DANCED every day. While some kids went to the Boys and Girls Club, our Boys and Girls Club was the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. This was beyond dancing school. This was something I lived right in the midst of. I saw what they were doing and I did it. You didn’t have to be taught; it was everywhere. It was the way the world was. Everybody in America was hooked on this new sound, which was swing dancing.
LIFE GIVES you tension. Dancing was, I think, a great relief. Sometimes life plays tricks on you. It has nothing to do with you making a wrong decision. We flounder. You either straighten up or you fall. I just never fell because I refused to fall. When we were at the top of our peak, the war came. All of a sudden we didn’t have dance partners. This is how we made a living, now what do you do? Then decisions come. I went and formed my own dance group. When I left Whitey, I went on my own because, I think, I got to be on my own anyway. I formed a group, called Norma Miller & Her Jazz Men, and went into comedy with Redd Foxx.
TODAY I’M not in love with the dancing as I used to be. After Frankie died, I never danced again and I never missed it all. First thing, the bones don’t move. [Frankie Manning was a famous swing dancer and lifelong friend who died at age 94 in 2009.] I still go around the world and talk about swing dance and write books and songs. You write because there’s nothing else you can do. I think the mother of invention; you do what you know. I have knowledge up here, so what I knew I began putting it on paper. And that’s how I began writing books. I wrote a book on dancing, on comedy and different events all around the world called Swing, Baby Swing!
Norma Miller and Frankie Manning performed together for decades. Manning died in 2009. Miller lives in Fort Myers.
Norma Miller became the Queen of Swing at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. She continues to inspire at age 96.
Frankie Manning and Norma Miller helped commemorate the Savoy Ballroom in May 2002. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers (below) performed in A Day at the Races, a Marx Brothers's film.