Amer­ica’s Queen of Swing, made his­tory, re­calls thrilling dance era

RSWLiving - - Department­s - BY KLAUDIA BALOGH

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.

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