In December 1941 Norma Miller set sail for Rio de Janeiro with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, a professional dance troupe from the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, who helped make the Lindy Hop a global phenomenon. The group included Frankie Manning and Ann Johnson, Al Minns and Willamae Ricker and Miller’s dance partner Billy Ricker. They had just filmed Hellzapoppin’, the Lindy Hop was the dance of the hour, and their manager Herbert White (“Whitey”) was at the peak of success, sending dancers to Hollywood and to all corners of the globe. Miller was one of the youngest members of the group (she turned 22 during the voyage) and she continued to be an unstoppable force right up to the age of ninety-nine (1919-2019). On this journey Miller would discover the Brazilian Samba and its Carnival, as well as meeting film director Orson Welles. The plan was to spend six weeks performing at the famous Cassino da Urca, one of the most luxurious venues in the world, located on the beachfront in Rio de Janeiro, where stars such as Carmen Miranda and Josephine Baker performed.
Norma describes the Cassino da Urca in her memoir:
“It was just as we anticipated, like a fabulous movie setting. There was nothing in America to compare to this casino. It was on the beach, facing the harbor, and when you stood on the patio looking across the harbor, you had a breathtaking view of the statue of Christ. Rio immediately filled a special place in my heart”. (Swingin’ at the Savoy, p 173).
The casino was magnificent: it had three orchestras, a large ensemble of chorus girls, a mobile stage, several gambling rooms and restaurants, as well as a boat service to cross the bay. The orchestras were those of Ray Ventura and the Carlos Machado Band and the star artist was Grande Otelo. This is where Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers danced every night, and they were a great success.
But on December 7, two days after their arrival, the Pearl Harbor bombing took place and the US was forced to formally enter World War II, which had already been devastating Europe for several years. Going back to the United States by boat became too risky, due to the danger of bombing, so Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers stayed in Brazil: finally they remained here for close to ten months until they managed to get plane tickets home. It must be said, this forced stay was far from an ordeal. Brazil had a lot to offer and they enjoyed it to the fullest. Miller fell in love with the Samba rhythm and took every opportunity to dance it out and about the city’s ballrooms.
The Harlem Lindy Hoppers immediately understood the connection with Brazilian musical culture, with shared African roots, as Miller explains:
“Brazilians have a Swing all their own, but it has the same African roots as American Jazz. Brazilian blacks gave it a Samba beat, and American blacks swung it. The ties were there, and we felt them immediately. Everything about Brazil was swinging.” (Swingin’ at the Savoy, p 173).
Miller was not the only one captivated by the Samba and the rhythm of Brazil’s nightlife. In early February 1942, film director Orson Welles arrived to film It’s All True. Welles had been appointed as a goodwill ambassador to Latin America as part of the war effort. Commissioned by RKO, he put his other projects on hold (among them the “The Story of Jazz”, a film he was working on with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and which was never completed) and filmed in Brazil without a salary but with a budget of one million of dollars. It’s All True combined fiction with documentary and consisted of three parts: “My Friend Bonito”, “Jangadeiros” and “The Story of Samba”, also known as “Carnaval”, which he filmed in Rio. Welles’ goal was to capture the real Brazil and thus strengthen the ties between the two Americas.
He arrived just in time to film the Rio Carnival, “the end of civilization as we know it” in his words. At first he was not very convinced by the subject, but when he discovered the Samba and understood that it was also an expression of the African diaspora, that it was created by the underprivileged Black population, just like jazz, he became enthusiastic. It was the first time the Rio Carnival was filmed in technicolor, an all-absorbing experience of non-stop dancing and partying that went on for days (like trying to film a hurricane, according to the filmmaker).
Welles was also a regular at Cassino da Urca, where he filmed several scenes during the carnivals. Here is where he met Miller, an encounter she describes:
“During our stay in Rio, Orson Welles began filming Carnival there. The casino was used for a film set during the day, and Orson Welles sat in the centre of the room directing the film. He had a voice just like Roy’s. In fact, the first time I heard him speak my heart leaped, and I was sure that Roy was in the room. After we had been introduced, I would sit by his side, just to hear him speak. He would talk to me because I was one of the few people around the set who spoke English. I could listen to that voice and watch the production all day long” (Swingin’ at the Savoy, p 176).
Singer, actor, dancer and comedian Grande Otelo, star of the Cassino da Urca, featured prominently in several scenes in the film. He recounts his experience working with Welles in the documentary The RKO Story: It’s All True (BBC, 1987). Around that time, Grande Otelo also became very friendly with the Lindy Hoppers, whom he invited to enjoy the carnival. The musical hit of the 1942 carnivals, which would also be the film’s soundtrack, was “Praça Onze” by Herivelto Martins and lyrics by Grande Otelo. Praça Onze was the meeting point for the Samba schools in the black neighbourhood, before the square was razed as part of the city’s modernization.
Unfortunately, It’s All True was never finished. There were changes in the RKO management and there was concern about the approach Welles was taking. The portrait he was making of Brazil –filming disadvantaged neighbourhoods, the black population and the chaotic rejoicing of the carnival where black and white people mixed—caused as much upset in the US, where strong racial segregation persisted, as among Brazil’s conservative society. Finally, RKO withdrew its financial support. According to Welles, in an interview recorded for British television programme Arena (BBC, 1982), this was a dreadful blow, and he didn’t film in Hollywood again for many years. Most of the film’s footage was destroyed and it was not until the 1980s that it was possible to recover some images. The documentary It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles (1993), details the failure of this project using recovered footage (a minimum part of the original).
Thanks to this footage we can get an idea of the exuberance and colour of Rio’s carnival celebrations, which the Lindy hoppers joined with enthusiasm. According to Miller “The entire city was dancing in the streets, and we joined right in, having a ball” (p177). Having scrutinised the images on Youtube, I think I have discovered a fleeting glimpse of Norma Miller in the carnival, moving through the crowd between second 0.36 and 0.38 of this party scene from the documentary “The RKO Story”. The possibility is difficult to verify.
The meeting of Swing and Samba, of North American and Brazilian musical culture, represented a special moment in the history of Lindy Hop, and the love was mutual from the opening night at Cassino da Urca:
“We loved Brazil, and Brazil loved us. When we hit the stage with the band, I knew something special was happening. It was wonderful, it was that Samba beat….The house roared, and the band was swinging like crazy. When we finished, the house went wild, everything else stopped. We bowed and bowed, and finally, they let us go. We were a smash in Rio. We knew we had found a second home” (p 175).
The rhythm of Samba is something that Miller would take with her from Brazil and would incorporate in her later work as a dancer and choreographer. Welles dreamt of creating a “Pan-American Carnival” that would unite both Americas and all races through his film. Although It’s All True was never released, the spirit of Samba and Swing came together at that Carnival in Rio and Miller was there to tell it.
En diciembre 1941 Norma Miller embarcaba rumbo a Rio de Janeiro con el resto del conjunto de los Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, bailarines de profesionales del Savoy Ballroom en Harlem que contribuyeron a convertir el lindy hop en un fenómeno internacional: Frankie Manning y Ann Johnson, Al Minns y Willamae Ricker y su pareja de baile Billy Ricker. Acababan de filmar Hellzapoppin’, el lindy hop era el baile del momento y su mánager Herbert White («Whitey») estaba en la cima del éxito, enviando bailarines a Hollywood y todos los confines del globo. Miller era uno de los miembros más jóvenes del grupo (cumpliría 22 años durante la travesía) y continuó imparable hasta los noventa y nueve años (1919-2019). En este viaje Miller descubriría la samba y el carnaval brasileños y conocería al director de cine Orson Welles. El plan era estar seis semanas actuando en el famoso Cassino da Urca, uno de los locales más lujosos del mundo, que se encontraba a pie de playa en Rio de Janeiro y donde actuaron estrellas como Carmen Miranda o Josephine Baker.
Norma lo describe así en sus memorias:
“Era justo como nos lo habíamos imaginado, como un escenario de película fabuloso. No había nada en América que se pudiera comparar con este casino. Estaba a pie de playa, mirando a la bahía, y desde el patio podías contemplar una vista espectacular de la bahía y de la estatua de Cristo. Rio ocupó un lugar especial en mi corazón enseguida.” (La reina del swing, p227).
El casino era apabullante: tenía tres orquestas, un gran conjunto de coristas, un escenario móvil, varias salas de juego y restaurantes, además de un servicio de barco para cruzar la bahía. Las orquestas eran la de Ray Ventura y la Carlos Machado Band y el artista estrella era Grande Otelo. Aquí bailaban los Whitey Lindy Hoppers cada noche y fueron un éxito.
Pero el 7 de diciembre, dos días después de su llegada, ocurrió el bombardeo de Pearl Harbor y EEUU se vio abocada a entrar formalmente en la II Guerra Mundial, que ya llevaba varios años devastando Europa. Volver en barco a los Estados Unidos se tornó demasiado arriesgado, por el peligro de bombardeos, así que los Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers permanecieron en Brasil: estuvieron finalmente cerca de diez meses hasta que lograron billetes de avión para volver. Hay que decir que esta estancia forzada no fue para nada un suplicio. Brasil tenía mucho que ofrecer y lo disfrutaron al máximo; Miller se enamoró del ritmo de la samba y aprovechó cada oportunidad para bailarlo por los locales de la ciudad.
Los lindy hoppers de Harlem entendieron enseguida los lazos comunes con la cultura musical brasileña, también de raíces africanas, como explica Miller:
Los brasileños tienen un swing propio, pero tiene las mismas raíces africanas que el jazz americano. Los negros de Brasil le dieron un ritmo de samba, y los negros americanos le pusieron swing. Los lazos que nos unían estaban ahí, y lo percibimos inmediatamente. Todo Brasil era puro swing. (La reina del swing, p 227).
Norma no fue la única cautivada por la samba y el ritmo nocturno de Brasil. A principios de febrero 1942 llegaría el director de cine Orson Welles, para filmar It’s All True. Welles había sido nombrado embajador de buena voluntad para América Latina como parte del esfuerzo de guerra. Encomendado por la RKO dejaría a un lado sus otros proyectos (entre ellos la «Historia del jazz», en la que estaba colaborando con Duke Ellington y Louis Armstrong y que nunca llegaría a realizarse) y trabajaría sin salario pero con un presupuesto de un millón de dólares. It’s All True combinaba la ficción con el documental y constaba de tres partes: «My Friend Bonito», «Jangadeiros» y la «Historia de la samba», también conocido como «Carnaval», que grabaría en Rio. El objetivo de Welles era reflejar el verdadero Brasil y de esta forma fortalecer los vínculos entre las dos Américas.
Llegó justo a tiempo de grabar el carnaval, “el fin de la civilización tal y como la conocemos” en sus palabras. Al principio no estaba muy convencido con la temática, pero cuando descubrió la samba y entendió que también era una expresión de la diáspora africana, que nacía de la población negra desfavorecida, como el jazz, se entusiasmó. Era la primera vez que se grababa en tecnicolor el carnaval en Rio, una experiencia absorbente donde se festejaba y bailaba sin pausa durante días (como intentar filmar un huracán, según el cineasta).
Welles era también un asiduo al Cassino da Urca, donde grabó varias escenas durante los carnavales. Allí conoció a Norma, que describe el encuentro así:
“Durante nuestra estancia en Río Orson Welles empezó a rodar Carnaval allí. El casino se usaba como plató durante el día y Orson Welles se sentaba en medio de la sala dirigiendo la película. Tenía una voz como la de Roy [Roy Glenn, el enamorado de Norma]. De hecho, la primera vez que le oí hablar mi corazón dio un vuelco, estaba segura de que Roy estaba en la habitación. Después de que nos presentaran, solía sentarme a su lado, solo para oírle hablar. Hablaba conmigo porque era una de las pocas personas que andaba por el plató que hablaba inglés. Podía pasarme todo el día escuchando esa voz y viendo la producción de la película.” (p 231).
El cantante, actor, bailarín y cómico Grande Otelo, estrella del Cassino da Urca, protagonizaba varias escenas de la película y relata su experiencia trabajando con Welles en el documental The RKO Story: It’s All True (BBC, 1987). Por aquella época Grande Otelo se hizo también muy amigo de los lindy hoppers, a los que invitó a disfrutar del carnaval. El éxito musical de los carnavales del 1942, que sería la banda sonora de la película, era “Praça Onze” de Herivelto Martins y letra de Grande Otelo. La Praça Onze era el punto de encuentro para las escuelas de samba en el barrio negro, antes de que demolieran la plaza como parte de la modernización de la ciudad.
Por desgracia It’s All True nunca llegó a terminarse. Hubo cambios en la dirección de RKO y había preocupación por el enfoque que estaba adoptando Welles. El retrato que estaba realizando de Brasil —filmando los barrios desfavorecidos, la población negra y la algarabía del carnaval en el que se mezclaban blancos y negros— causaba tanto rechazo en los EEUU, donde persistía una fuerte segregación racial, como en la sociedad conservadora brasileña. Finalmente la RKO le retiró la financiación. Según cuenta Welles en la entrevista del programa Arena (BBC, 1982) esto supuso un duro golpe y no volvió a filmar en Hollywood durante muchos años. La mayor parte de los rollos de película se destruyeron y no fue hasta los años ochenta que se lograron recuperar algunas imágenes. En el documental It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles (1993) se detalla el fracaso de este proyecto utilizando el metraje recuperado (una mínima parte del original).
Gracias a este metraje podemos hacernos una idea del colorido y la exuberancia del carnaval en Rio, que los lindy hoppers se lanzaron a disfrutar. Según Miller: “La ciudad entera estaba bailando en la calle y nosotros nos tiramos de cabeza a la fiesta, nos lo pasamos en grande” (p231). Tras escrutar las imágenes en youtube me parece haber descubierto un destello del paso de Norma Miller por el carnaval, atravesando fugazmente la multitud entre el segundo 0.36 y 0.38 de esta escena de la fiesta del documental “The RKO Story”. Es una posibilidad difícil de comprobar.
El encuentro entre el swing y la samba, entre la cultura musical norteamericana y la brasileña, representó un momento especial en la historia del lindy hop, y el amor entre ambos fue mutuo desde su estreno en el Cassino da Urca:
«Amábamos Brasil, y Brasil nos amaba a nosotros. Cuando saltamos al escenario con la banda supe que estaba ocurriendo algo especial. Fue maravilloso, era ese ritmo de samba…El público chillaba, y la banda estaba swingueando a lo loco. Cuando terminamos el público se volvió loco, todo lo demás se paró. Salimos a saludar una y otra vez, y finalmente, dejaron que nos marcháramos. Fuimos un bombazo en Río. Habíamos encontrado nuestro segundo hogar». (p 175).
El ritmo de la samba fue algo que Miller se llevaría consigo de Brasil y que incorporaría en su trabajo posterior como bailarina y coreógrafa. Welles soñaba con crear un “Carnaval Pan-americano” que uniese las dos Américas y todas las razas a través de su película. Aunque “It’s All True” no viese la luz, el espíritu de la samba y el swing se encontraron en el carnaval de Rio de Janeiro y Miller estuvo allí para contárnoslo.
My wandering feet (or restless ass, in Spanish!) have brought me to London, where I am experiencing the strangeness of being home and away, somewhere familiar but now “outside Europe”. I also happen to work just a few minutes from London’s West End and Soho, already famous for its nightlife in the 1930s. This is where the Savoy Lindy hoppers, among them Norma Miller, performed in 1935 on their first journey across the Atlantic. And so I find myself looking for the traces of “Harlem in London” (to cite a 1936 Melody Maker article), walking these streets seeking the locations for the theatres and nightclubs Miller remembers in her memoir, like the Piccadilly Theatre, the Nest on Kingly Street, the Shim Sham Club on Wardour Street or the London Palladium. While the date of the first performance of the Lindy hop in Europe may be debated, the arrival of the Savoy dancers was a significant event. Circumstances were not ideal on this first tour, and Miller gives a memorable description of the cool British audience. These are some notes from my wanderings (research is ongoing).
Lindy Hopping the Atlantic
Norma Miller first travelled to Europe in September 1935, when she was just 15, aboard the RMS Berengaria. The Savoy Lindy Hoppers had just won the Harvest Moon Ball Lindy hop division: Edith Mathews and Leon James in first place, and Norma Miller and “Stomping” Billy Hill as runners up. This competition was a turning point for the history of the Lindy and its global popularity, as well as for the professional careers of the Savoy dancers who became Whiteys Lindy Hoppers, in multiple dance team configurations, and went on to perform across the US, Europe, Brazil, Australia, Broadway and Hollywood.
The first edition of the Harvest Moon Ball was in 1935 and it was so popular that thousands flocked to see the dance competition in Central Park and it had to be cancelled and rescheduled to be held in Madison Square Garden on a later date in August. The Harvest Moon Ball held the finals in different dance genres, including the waltz, tango and foxtrot, but in that year the most exciting competition was the latest dance, the Lindy hop. It was the first time the Savoy dancers competed outside the Savoy Ballroom showcasing their own dance, a moment of great pride for Harlem, as described by Norma Miller. Their victory was especially important as the HMB was held following the Harlem riots. The Savoy dancers were also the only Black dancers competing in the HMB, evidencing the segregation still rampant in US society. The Lindy hop broke all the ballroom competition regulations of the day, and in Miller’s words: “the Lindy hop defied the judges’ imaginations”.
The 1935 HMB merits its own article, and Bobby White has already written an incredible series of articles about this competition. In particular, he has analysed the remaining footage and historical sources closely in order to identify the dancers in the newsreels. You can discover this treasure trove here and contribute to his research by donation. (Below left to right, Miller, age 15, and Bill Hill, following the Savoy prelims. Edith Mathews following her victory at the HMB, Daily News, 29 August 1935).
Being a finalist at the Harvest Moon Ball was a turning point in Norma Miller’s life and gave her the opportunity to come to Europe where she toured for nine months: she left school, and embarked on a life-long career in swing.
Miller and the other Savoy dancers (Leon James, Edith Mathews and Billy Hill) were joining a long lineage of Black American artists who had made this voyage to Europe, reaching back to the 19th century minstrel shows and Jubilee singers. Since the 1920s especially, Black dancers, musicians and singers had become very popular stage attractions throughout Europe, from the UK to France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Russia, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and beyond. Josephine Baker’s performance in 1925 in Paris in the Révue Nègre is often cited as the iconic moment for this phenomenon, but it was not an isolated event, and there is a wealth of Black performance history in Europe that has been largely forgotten.
The Harvest Moon Ball winners were not, strictly speaking, the first dancers to perform the Lindy hop in Europe, although they were the first dancers from the Savoy Ballroom. Dancer, choreographer, show producer and all-round top dance impresario in Europe, Louis Douglas, had presented a show with a Lindy hop number in June 1930 in Paris. The show was Liza, which he opened at the Porte Saint Martin Theatre with his company Black Flowers. Here the Lindy hop number was danced by Margaret Beckett. But more on Louis Douglas and Margaret Beckett in future articles. Charles B. Cochran, a British theatrical manager, had also presented a revue in London and Manchester in 1931 advertised as featuring the Lindy hop, although it seems to have had limited impact (see Heinila’s article for more details).
Nonetheless, 1935 was the first time European audiences would have seen the Lindy hop performed live by the Savoy dancers, who had created and perfected this imagination-defying dance in Harlem. Interestingly, there is British Pathé footage of the Harvest Moon Ball released in a September 1935 newsreel, where we can see Leon James, Edith Mathews and Norma Miller and Billy Hill dancing, as well as other Savoy dancers like Frankie Manning and Maggie McMillan or Mildred Cruse and Snookie Beasley.
So British cinema audiences could have had an advance viewing of the Harlem Lindy hop before the troupe’s arrival in October (for footage analysis and commentary see White).
Berengaria, the Ritz of the Seas
The RMS Berengaria set sail from New York and arrived in Southampton on 18 October 1935, as detailed in the incoming passenger record. Norma Miller and Edith Mathews are listed as dancers, age 16 and 21, respectively, and Leon James and Billy Hill as actors, age 22 and 28. Not only were international incoming and outgoing passenger lists maintained at that time, but arriving passengers were reported in the press. The Berengaria stopped in Cherbourg before docking in Southampton, and the arrival of the Lindy hop champions Leon James and Billy Hill was reported thus in the New York Evening Herald, Paris edition, on the 19 October:
“The world of Terpsichore, European Division, had cause to rejoice when the Berengaria, of the Cunard White Star Line, arrived at Cherbourg from New York yesterday carrying Ray Noble, British band leader, absent almost a year from London night clubs, and L. James and B. Hall, winners of the American Lindy Hop dance contest…Messrs. James and Hall, it is understood, although they have launched no campaign plans for their invasion of Europe, will match hops with the best Lindy Hoppers Europe has to offer.”
New York Evening Herald, Paris ed., 19 October 1935
The paper proceeds to list most of the remaining passengers by name, although none receive such high billing.
The RMS Berengaria was the grandest of the Cunard transatlantic float, called “the Ritz of the Seas”, which carried many famous stars between Europe and the US in the 1920s and 30s, until it was decommissioned in 1938. Among those illustrious passengers, none other than Josephine Baker boarded a decade previously, in 1925, to perform in the Révue Nègre in Paris. Norma describes her impressions of this voyage vividly, and there is promotional footage of this transatlantic journey from a Cunard promotional film as well as numerous clips on British Pathé to have a better idea of the luxury of this liner. We also have a sense of the entertainment on board, although Norma describes dancing on the ship as particularly challenging.
The Savoy dancers’ first engagement was at the Piccadilly Theatre, which was reopening as a variety theatre. Located in the heart of London’s West End, next to Piccadilly Circus, this area was the hub of London’s nightlife in the interwar period (see Stephen Hoare’s recent publication Piccadilly: London’s West End and the Pursuit of Pleasure, 2021).
The variety revue opened on Monday 21 October and included the Kentucky Singers and other comedy and dance numbers. There is no recording of the Savoy dancers’ performance, but we can get an idea of the type of show in which they were included from this live recording of the Piccadilly Theatre revue from early 1936 (by then Miller and the Savoy dancers were in France).
The dance troupe were travelling without a band, with only manager Tim Gale, and Miller and the other dancers had already discovered the challenges of dancing away from the Savoy on the boat, where they had performed for the passengers with a band that had a rickety sound and no swing.
“Somehow we got through it, but it was an omen of things to come. We realized we were at the mercy of whatever band we were working with. Dancing the Lindy Hop was a very emotional thing, and a good swinging drummer could make you sail through a routine, you never got tired because everything was in synch. But this, this was a dance trial.”
Her comments highlight how intimately the Lindy hop is connected to its music and the often difficult conditions in which the dancers performed. The transition from a social dance that was created and thrived in a Black community environment like the Savoy ballroom in Harlem, where all the top swing bands played, to the stage, and a white European stage, was not smooth. Miller’s description of the cold British audience at the Piccadilly Theatre is memorable “they looked like a landscape, not living, breathing people”, and the contrast with the Savoy audience, “that did everything but join in the dancing”, could not be greater. The description also underscores how the Lindy hop was not just a partner dance, but a community dance, and the role all participants (dancers, musicians, audiences) played in creating the energy that drove the Lindy hop (CJ Wells discusses these dynamics in their recent book Between Beats).
“The next day we went to the theater, where it was even more intimidating. Unlike the Savoy, it was cold and huge. There would be no friends in the audience to inspire us, there was only the four of us dancers and Tim Gale.[…] Our act followed theirs [the Kentucky Singers] , and it was even worse than on shipboard. The band was in the pit. It sounded a hundred miles away, and didn’t have an ounce of swing. Billy and I danced first. Billy bucked his eyes, and I did my best to make the audience laugh, but they just stared. They looked like a landscape, not living, breathing people. When Leon and Edith swung out, the audience gave them a polite reception. When we retired backstage we were completely dejected. Tim Gale saw us all sitting around in a funk and tried to cheer us up. He told us that the British were different, they just didn’t give in to their emotions the way Americans did. He said he was sure that they really loved us, they just reacted differently. Maybe he was right, we didn’t know. Regardless, it was no help. We were used to an audience who sat on the floor and egged us on, screaming at the top of their lungs. An audience that did everything but join the dancing.”
(Miller, Swingin’ at the Savoy).
They “survived” a couple of weeks, in Miller’s words, thanks to the refuge provided by Ike Hatch’s nightclub, the Nest, which was a meeting point for Americans in London. Soho had become the centre point of Black metropolitan London in the interwar years and there were several nightspots where Black musicians and customers congregated. Ike Hatch was a Black American entertainer who had moved to London a few years earlier, and the Nest was his nightclub on Kingly Street. Miller says they spent every night here, and met some of the famous Black Acts they had heard of back in school, and even royalty. Walking around Soho, it makes absolute sense that the dancers would converge here after their performances, as the Nest is only a four-minute walk from the Piccadilly Theatre. The Nest was located on 23 Kingly Street (according to the Futurecities commissioned project “Carnaby Echoes”), where now there is a Dishoom restaurant.
The history of Black people in London precedes 20th Century waves of migration and the arrival of touring American artists or the later 1950s Windrush generation. I recently visited the exhibition created by Emily Momoh about Black history in the Camden borough (adjacent to Soho), called We Were Here, where she recovers eight biographies of significant individuals of African and Caribbean heritage who lived, worked or studied in the neighbourhood over a period of 300 years. This history is of course closely linked to Britain’s colonial legacy. In the 20th Century London was fast evolving from a capital of Empire into a modern metropolitan capital, and the local Black community included Caribbean and African heritage people as well as American expatriates.
Judith R. Walkowitz has written about the Black clubs in Soho in her bookNights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (2012). In the 1920s the “bottle party” was a popular format to circumvent licencing regulations (effectively, the nightclubs passed as private clubs) and the clubs, which often occupied basements and other discreet locations, tread a fine line between legality and criminality, as Walkowitz and other authors have documented. Originally these clubs catered to the Black working class African diaspora that converged in London, however, increasingly in the 1920s and 1930s the clubs gained popularity and started to attract White as well as Black clientele. The clubs were also jazz music and dance hotspots, with many Caribbean musicians embracing and bringing their own twist to popular American music styles. Among the Black clubs of London were the Nest, Frisco’s, Jig’s Club, Blue Lagoon, the Big Apple and Cuba Club. Walkowitz describes a mixed clientele of sophisticates attending these nightspots, people of “all colours, sexes, and professions”: intellectuals, businessmen, film stars, international Black artists, the press, higher bohemia, prostitutes and criminals as well as political pan-Africanists. According to her, “The Nest was tougher and noisier” than other clubs. Hatch’s club on Kingly Street came to represent the Americanized spirit of hot jazz, and among its patrons was Dizzy Gillespie when he visited London in 1937. It was also popular with West African students, and one former visitor (Azikiwe, later head of state in Nigeria) stated he was attracted to the casual “confraternity between black and whites” there. This type of confraternity would have been extremely rare in the segregated US at the time, where the Whites-only policy of Cotton Club, to name one famous Harlem club, was much more common than the integrated approach of the Savoy ballroom.
Ike Hatch was a well-known pianist, singer, actor, MC and club owner, who had moved to London in 1925 . In the early 1930s he opened the Nest nightclub and in 1935, the year Miller and the Savoy dancers travelled to London, he opened, with owner Jack Isow, the renown Shim Sham Club on 37 Wardour Street (also just a five minute walk from the Piccadilly Theatre). Hatch was recorded on British Pathé newsreels (screened in cinemas), as we can see in this 1938 clip where he performs a spiritual ‘Lawd You Made the Night Too Long’ and a lively song called ‘The Rhythm’s O.K. in Harlem’ .
Shim Sham Time
The Melody Maker, in a 1936 article, “Harlem in London: Year of Advancement for Negroes” features Ike Hatch “doing his stuff as host-entertainer” as the central image for their report. Although they are not specifically mentioned, the Savoy dancers came to London during this eventful 12-month period. This feature highlights the filming of Sanders of the River, with Paul Robeson in a starring role, and the employment it provided for hundreds of Black actors recruited all over England. Another major event was the opening of Aggrey House in Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, a club catering for affluent Black university students in London. Joe Louis’ pugilistic success is mentioned as a feat that reflected positively on Black people in the country, and the 1935 Italo-Abyssinian War is also noted. All of these events are perceived by the author to have contributed to the phenomenal success of the Shim Sham club that opened that year: “The Shim Sham Club represents the new outlook on the colour question.” Ike Hatch is considered central to this success, as is the Shim Sham dance. Interestingly, the article describes the history of the Shim Sham and other Black dances, starting with the Cake walk and reaching up to the Lindy hop and Truckin’ (which were presented by the Savoy dancers in London). While there was no formal segregation in the UK, there were still negative attitudes around racial mixing. The article also touches on some of the controversy surrounding the club and the responses to Black and White people dancing together, which was encouraged at the club and which was both one of its attractions and one of the reasons it came under such scrutiny.
The Shim Sham Club, located on 37 Wardour Street, currently part of the Chinatown area in Soho, was an ambitious project, involving significant investment, as per descriptions of the lighting, sprung-dance floor and decorative schemes for the club. Much of this information is also available thanks to the numerous police reports, as it seems the Shim Sham club elicited outrage among its neighbours due to racial intermingling, same-sex dancing and drug taking, among other purported activities. There were several police crackdowns before the club was forced to close. There are also reports from journalists who marvelled at its décor and the musical entertainment. We even have a clip filmed in a London nightclub in the 1930s which is attributed as the Shim Sham club (I have not been able to confirm this), where we see patrons arriving, the bar staff cooking and Trinidadian drummer George “Happy” Blake playing, as well as partner dancing and some solo jazz dancing.
Miller remembers visiting the Shim Sham Club regularly with actor Henry Wilcoxon. She was under-age and did not drink at the time, and describes a comedic incident where she drank whiskey mistakenly taking it to be iced tea. I have found a report of dancing at the Shim Sham club in December 1935 which makes me think the Savoy dancers also performed, formally or informally, at the venue.
For the Savoy dancers these clubs must have represented refuges from the somewhat hostile environment at the theatre, where they could meet other fellow American artists as well as local Black performers and customers. This aspect of confraternity with the Black diaspora is something that Miller discusses to a greater extent in her account of her stay in Paris.
The publicity for the Savoy dancers’ performances at the Piccadilly and other venues highlighted “Truckin’” as the new dance. It was quite common for the Lindy hoppers to brand their dance in the terms of the latest dancing trends (for example with the Big Apple or Suzie-Q). Truckin’ was also a new 1935 song recorded by both Fats Waller and Ellington (with Ivie Anderson). Truckin’ is described in one newspaper report as “the joy dance” (News Chronicle, 26 October 1935). The journalist explains that “truckin’” is Harlem slang for the strutting walk of someone who has just heard good news. The dance is described as a sliding step with a Charleston-like twist, capable of infinite variation. This characteristic strut, usually with a pointing finger, features in many filmed dance performances of the era. Edith Mathews is interviewed for this piece and quoted saying “But however you dance it, it makes you happy!”.
Another report in the Sunday Dispatch (1 December 1935) describes an exhibition of the latest dance at the Shim Sham Club in the early hours (Truckin’ and the Lindy hop, both terms used nearly interchangeably). The article suggests the Savoy dancers also performed here and this description of their dancing seems to refer to a swing-out: “As danced by these coloured [sic] people for exhibition purposes, it takes up a lot of floor space, as the partners leave each other, do steps on their own, and come back together. It was done to very fast time”.
The London Palladium
Miller also visited the London Palladium on her arrival, to see the Four Flash Devils performing there with Gracie Fields at the time. The line up of the Four Flash Devils varies according to different sources: Sammy Warren, Chris/Charlie Gil, Louis Simms and Percy/Charlie P Wade and Billy Cole, according to the Tap Dance America database. The group’s smooth performance can be appreciated in this clip in Soft Lights, Sweet Music, a 1936 British musical revue.
Duke Ellington had performed here a couple of years earlier, in 1933. When the Savoy dancers (with a different line up including Frankie Manning) next returned to London in 1937 they performed at the London Palladium to great success. On that occasion they were touring as part of the Cotton Club Revue, a more lavish production which included Teddy Hill’s orchestra and several other dance acts. The London Palladium has continued its illustrious history in variety to the present day.
Ballrooming about London
After two weeks at the Piccadilly Theatre, the Savoy dancers started performing in local provincial ballrooms in the areas surrounding London. According to Miller, their experience in these ballrooms was somewhat better, because here at least the bands swung a little. After their performance they would dance with the patrons: the contrast between the formality of the ballrooms and the Lindy hoppers’ style was great, but despite the oddness, Miller says the ladies had fun —and this is how the Lindy hop took off in England. There are many local newspaper reports of these engagements at places like Sherry’s in Sussex (Sussex Express, 6 December 2022).
The next steps
At the end of 1935 the troupe continued towards Switzerland and then Paris, which Miller enjoyed more than London, where they would remain until returning to New York in June. As a member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, Miller would go on to tour the US, Hollywood and later Brazil, generally to more enthusiastic audiences than the Piccadilly Theatre. The Lindy hop was becoming a global phenomenon.
Copyright Karen Campos McCormack, 2022.
Please reference and link this article if you are sharing it. Si te interesa una versión en español contáctame.
Hoy quiero hablar de racismo y baile y las iniciativas que hay en estos momentos por crear un baile más inclusivo.
Muchas han surgido en este último año tan difícil para las comunidades de baile swing en todo el mundo, desde que la pandemia lo cambió todo y frenó en seco las actividades de baile y los festivales, impactando en las vidas y la economía de bailarines, profesores, músicos y locales. Sin embargo, también han surgido nuevas oportunidades para seguir aprendiendo y compartiendo la cultura de estos bailes afroamericanos que nos apasionan: las comunidades se han enfrentado al reto de mantener el contacto en tiempos de aislamiento y han proliferado las actividades y recursos online. No es un sustituto de las personas y el contacto físico, de las sonrisas del baile, pero nos acompañamos en la espera por que abran las pistas.
El movimiento Black Lives Matter le ha dado un impulso a la lucha contra el racismo en EEUU y todo mundo y ha puesto el foco en el racismo también en las comunidades de baile swing. La persistencia de la violencia contra las personas negras (también aquí en Europa y España) hace que no podamos ignorar la historia de racismo en el que se han creado y desarrollado los bailes que disfrutamos. Este año ha sido un tiempo que ha permitido mayor reflexión y debate en torno a temas relacionados con la raza, la apropiación cultural y la inclusividad en nuestras prácticas de baile. Temas que por otra parte no son nuevos para cualquiera que se interese por el swing, pero que ahora se abordan con más urgencia. Como bailarines, organizadores o profesores de escenas mayoritariamente blancas, nos planteamos cómo podemos participar en esta cultura de origen afroamericano de una forma más respetuosa y que no perpetúe estructuras y dinámicas de poder racistas.
¿Cómo sería una escena de Lindy hop realmente inclusiva y antirracista?
En respuesta a estas cuestiones han surgido varias iniciativas interesantes a nivel global además de multitud de recursos. Aquí quiero destacar algunas para las personas interesadas que quieran profundizar en estos temas.
Collective Voices for Change(CVFC) es una iniciativa internacional comprometida en construir un nuevo y justo entramado social en la comunidad del baile Jazz. Su visión es ayudar a transformar la actual escena de baile en una escena y ambiente respetuoso, que todo el mundo pueda disfrutar. Organiza charlas, talleres y otros eventos online y cuenta con grupos o “chapters” en una variedad de países, incluyendo España, Francia, Gran Bretaña, Alemania, Bélgica, EEUU etc.
Collective Voices for Change España: somos un grupo de personas de España y otros sitios que participan y apoyan la misión de Collective Voices for Change. Se organizan foros de discusión en español en zoom y se comparten contenidos a través del grupo de Facebook.
Black Lindy Hoppers Fund: un nuevo programa independiente creado por la Fundación Frankie Manning para apoyar a bailarines, organizadores, investigadores y músicos afroamericanos, tanto nuevos talentos como artistas establecidos, en su formación y desarrollo profesional.
Move Together: el encuentro, que tuvo lugar el 11 de julio 2020, reunió a la comunidad de baile Lindy hop, swing y blues mundial en un foro online con artistas y académicos negros para hablar de temas urgentes como el anti-racismo y la inclusión en nuestras comunidades además de recaudar fondos benéficos para diferentes proyectos.
Integrated Rhythm: en este podcast, copresentado por el bailarín e historiador Bobby White y la profesora y bailarina Chisomo Selemani, hablan de cuestiones relacionadas con los bailes sociales de la diáspora africana con sus invitados. Su objetivo es mantener conversaciones amenas sobre temas incómodos.
Nunca estamos quietos, la escena tampoco, y quizás volvamos cambiados.
Existen muchos más recursos de interés, por favor compartid lo que más os haya inspirado 🙂
“Count Basie had the best swing band ever…It wasn’t that the other bands weren’t good, it’s just nobody was better at it than Count Basie.” (Norma Miller).
It’s been a while since I have written here…this has been a strange year. There has been little dancing and more study these months, so I will share some summer reading I am enjoying at the moment.
William “Count” Basie (1904-1984) was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, but moved to Harlem when he was about twenty and just starting his career. Recently I have been reading Count Basie’s autobiography, Good Morning Blues (co-written with Albert Murray), where he shares his first impressions of the neighbourhood. I was excited to find out the first place he went was the Alhambra –which was a theatre at the time, but later was converted into the famous Alhambra Ballroom, one of the few venues from that era still standing in Harlem. Only last year I attended at a very special event at the Alhambra Ballroom honouring Norma Miller and Frankie Manning’s 105th Birthday. I have walked many of these streets tracing the venues and locations while preparing Norma Miller’s Harlem map — Count Basie’s directions would have come in handy!
His first address was 2150 Seventh Avenue (now Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard), between 127th and 128th streets.
“When we arrived in New York at the end of that summer, Smitty met us at the station and took us uptown. Our first address was 2150 Seventh Avenue, which was in the block between 127th and 128th streets in Harlem. The apartment was on the third floor, and for a few days we didn’t go anywhere. Because we didn’t know where to go…It took us a few days to get our bearings, and the only place I remember going during that time was the Alhambra Theatre, which was only about a block away on the same side of Seventh Avenue, at the corner of 126th Steet. Other than that, the main thing I recollect is how Elmer Williams and I used to come downstairs and out onto the porch where the other tenants used to sit chatting from around dusk dark until late into the night. I remember sitting out there on the railing and on the steps looking at the people strolling along the sidewalk and the traffic moving up and down Seventh Avenue. ” (p 49).
Basie mentions that the Alhambra Theatre was segregated at the time, something common in Harlem despite it becoming the black cultural capital of America (when the Savoy opened in 1926 it was the first integrated ballroom).
“That was the biggest stage show I had ever seen up to that time, and Elmer Williams and I enjoyed it in spite of the fact that the only way you could get in there was through a side entrance for coloured people on 126th Street, and the only section you could sit in was the balcony. I hadn’t expected to find anything like that in Harlem but that is the way it was, and the Alhambra Theatre was not the only segregated place along that part of Seventh Avenue in those days”.
In fact, 126th was on the southern edge of Harlem back then: “Everything stopped at 126th Street. You didn’t go much further down than that. When you came to 125th Street, it was like another part of town.” (p50). Many of the venues on 125th Street were “lily-white”, including the Theresa Hotel, and Basie and his fellow musician Elmer Williams didn’t have much interest in anything further down from 125th Street or going sightseeing in Manhattan –their priority was where they were going to play music and meeting other musicians and people in show business.
After getting their bearings, they decided to explore Harlem, bringing them up to 140th Street.
“Then that next Sunday we decided to get out and go exploring in Harlem. So we checked our landmarks and started up Seventh Avenue. We passed the Lafayette Theater between 131st and 132nd streets and went on beyond 135th Street and came to the Renaissance Casino at the corner of 138th Street, which was kitty-corner across Seventh Avenue from a section of houses known as Strivers’ Row. As I looked around, I figured we must be getting into the main part of Harlem, and later on I found out that wasn’t very far off. ” (p 51).
They end up at a matinee in the Capitol Palace (140th Street and Lenox Avenue) where Basie sees the Washingtonians and Duke Ellington playing for the first time. What a significant musical coincidence! It is also when he hears the famous pianist Willie “the Lion” Smith. Another thing he notes about that matinee is the new dance step one of the dance acts was featuring: “It was called the Charleston and it was just catching on as a ballroom fad because it had made a big hit in a Broadway musical called Running Wild” (p52).
Willie “the Lion” Smith
Running Wild, Broadway show 1923
Count Basie with Katie Krippen, c1925
He stayed in Harlem playing in different venues and returning there between tours (he worked as a pianist with Katie Krippen on the Columbus Burlesque Circuit and later toured the TOBA circuit with Gonzelle White) for several years before settling in Kansas in 1927, where his musical career really took off. He would return to Harlem in 1936/37 with his own band, and play the Savoy Ballroom — an event that Frankie Manning and Norma Miller remember well. But that is all another chapter.
“There was so much going on all around in Harlem during those days. I wish I could get myself together about more of it. But I’ll never be able to do justice to what it all meant to me…Maybe I wasn’t raising any hell, but I was there, and in my mind I was one of them. So when I would get a chance to go on those little out-of-town dates that came up every now and then, I was not from Red Bank anymore. I was from New York.” (p84).
Next time I am in Harlem – and it’s a place it is always worth returning to- I will be sure to visit Basie’s locations.
This is only the beginning of Count Basie’s adventure, if you would like to read more I recommend the book!
Last year I created this map when I was in New York and was able to walk around Harlem tracking down many of the locations mentioned by Norma in her memoir Swingin’ at the Savoy. Born in 1919, Norma grew up in 1920s and 1930s Harlem, round the corner from the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom and many other famous venues that are sadly no longer standing. I have added images, video and other content to the location markers to facilitate a virtual tour, so whether you are lucky to be in New York covering this on foot, or you are touring Harlem at a distance, I hope you find this useful. Just click on each marker for more content.
El 24 de mayo, la comunidad swing, familiares y amigos de todo el mundo se reunieron en la Iglesia Presbiteriana de St James en Harlem para celebrar la vida de Norma Miller (2 diciembre 1919 – 5 mayo 2019).
Nos conmovió la cantidad de gente a la que Norma influyó a lo largo de su vida gracias a su espíritu, determinación y humor. Los que la conocimos sabemos lo afortunados que fuimos. Era única e irrepetible.
En palabras de Adam Brozowski: «Debemos estudiar y continuar el legado de Norma, y no sólo los pasos de baile o copiando clips… las ideas, el significado, la herencia que son tan relevantes ahora mismo en nuestras vidas. Un mensaje de unidad a través de la música, la danza y el amor».
Fue una ceremonia preciosa y, por supuesto, hubo baile y música swing para la Reina.
Ahora Norma descansa en buena compañía en el Jazz Corner del cementerio de Woodlawn. Que descanse en paz y ritmo.
Un día especial en Harlem
Fue un honor asistir a esta ceremonia organizada con tanto amor en su lugar de nacimiento, Harlem, NYC (gracias a Mickey Davidson, la Fundación Frankie Manning y todos los demás implicados).
Algunos de los que compartieron sus recuerdos de Norma fueron John Biffar, Adam Brozowski, Bill Cobb, Darlene Gist, Lennart Westerland, Elliott Donnelley, Jackie Harris y Shirley Duncan. Frank Owens, Tina Fabrique y Melba Joyce aportaron la música y el swing.
Esa tarde la Harlem Swing Dance Society ofreció una velada especial Sugar Hill Swings! en honor de la Reina del Swing de Harlem. El evento incluía charlas sobre la historia del swing con invitados entre los que figuraban algunos antiguos bailarines de la compañía de baile de Norma Miller: Darlene Gist, Crystal Johnson, Maxine Simmons, Barbara Billups y Sonny Allen. Además, Chris Lee presentó una proyección de vídeos inéditos o desconocidos de Norma Miller. También hubo actuaciones, música swing de la mano del Sugar Hill Quartet y mucho bailoteo por parte de bailarines locales y visitantes de todo el mundo que se habían reunido para la ocasión.
Este fue un día realmente especial en Harlem rindiendo tributo a la Reina del Swing.
Algunas reflexiones sobre la Reina del Swing
Ahora que nos ha dejado Norma, todo ha cambiado. Era la última de los Whitey Lindy Hoppers que nos podía contar cómo fue realmente crecer en Harlem en los años veinte y bailar en el Savoy en su apogeo. Nos podía contar cómo, y en qué duras circunstancias, se creó este baile que tanto amamos; conocía el valor de su legado cultural y sabía que esta historia merecía ser contada (siempre adelantada a su tiempo). Hemos perdido tanto. Y, sin embargo, somos tan afortunados por haberla tenido aquí durante 99 años, por todo lo que ha compartido con nosotros a lo largo de su carrera en swing, humor, conocimiento y perseverancia. Ahora tenemos que pensar en cómo continuamos su legado, cómo «seguir swingueando», haciendo honor a su lema.
En los últimos años vi a Norma Miller en persona en dos ocasiones, sin embargo, he pasado muchísimas horas con ella: leyendo sus palabras, traduciéndolas, revisando y releyendo, en inglés y en español. Han sido largas horas en su compañía y pensaba conocerla bien (¡saberme la cronología de su vida mejor que la mía!), pero desde que nos ha dejado me he dado cuenta de que hay muchísimo más que aprender de ella. Estoy descubriendo ahora lo realmente excepcional que fue Norma Miller –ya sea en el ámbito del baile, la coreografía, la escritura, la música, la comedia o cualquier otra de sus múltiples facetas—, fue una pionera y su creatividad no supo de límites, a pesar de las adversidades a las que se tuvo que enfrentar como mujer negra en el mundo del espectáculo. Aún sigo investigando y sigo aprendiendo.
En lo personal, le estoy agradecida a Norma Miller por muchos momentos de felicidad, en particular en los últimos meses con la publicación de sus memorias en español. Me alegro de que publicáramos a tiempo de que ella se enterara y tuviera una copia del libro en sus manos. Después del trabajo solitario de traducción, hacer las presentaciones del libro ha sido una experiencia increíble, una oportunidad de acercar su historia a nuevos públicos. Ojalá hubiera tenido la oportunidad de hablarle de estos eventos y de todas las personas que se interesaron por sus memorias en lugares tan distantes como Santiago, Vigo, Madrid, Barcelona, Granada e incluso Finisterre (el fin del mundo). Sé que le hubiera encantado visitar España. Desbordaba tanta energía que cuando la vi en diciembre pensé que celebraría su 100 cumpleaños con ella.
Hace un año aproximadamente estaba preparando un artículo biográfico, y apunté esta nota: «750 palabras. Sólo 750 palabras para contar la vida de Norma Miller…que sigue, sigue y sigue siendo ella misma a la edad de 98 años –en el fondo, el mayor logro al que podemos aspirar–». (A propósito, 750 palabras no fueron suficientes y 1000 llegaron justitas). Tengo la sensación de que Norma era tan ella misma a los 99 como lo había sido siempre, conservaba el mismo carácter, el mismo swing, el mismo entusiasmo…se mantuvo fiel a sí misma y a lo que quería en la vida hasta el final. No se me ocurre nada más inspirador.
«Todo en esta vida tiene un ritmo. Cuando andas por la calle tus pies suenan al ritmo…¡Dame el ritmo!» (Gimme the Beat, por Norma Miller).
Norma, gracias por casi un siglo de swing. Te echamos de menos.
El 2 de diciembre se cumplirá el centenario del nacimiento de Norma Miller. La Fundación Frankie Manning recoge en esta página Homenaje a Norma las diferentes formas en las que podemos participar en esta celebración y honrar su memoria.
On 24 May the swing community, her family and friends from around the globe gathered at St James’ Presbyterian Church in Harlem to celebrate the life of Norma Miller (2 December 1919-5 may 2019).
We were moved by how many people Norma touched throughout her life with her spirit, determination and humour. Those of us who met her know how lucky we were. She was one of a kind.
“We must study and carry on Norma’s legacy”, in Adam Brozowski’s words, “And not just the steps or copying clips… the ideas, the meaning, the heritage which is so relevant right now in our lives. A message of unity through music, dance and love.”
It was a beautiful ceremony and of course there was swinging music and dancing for the Queen.
Now Norma rests in good company in the Jazz Corner at Woodlawn Cemetery. May she “Rest in Rhythm”.
A special day in Harlem
I was honoured to attend this ceremony in her birthplace, Harlem, NYC, which was so lovingly organized (thank you Mickey Davidson, the Frankie Manning Foundation and everyone involved).
Some of the speakers who shared their memories of Norma included John Biffar, Adam Brozowski, Bill Cobb, Darlene Gist, Lennart Westerland, Elliott Donnelley, Jackie Harris and Shirley Duncan. Music and swing were provided by Frank Owens, Tina Fabrique and Melba Joyce.
That evening the Harlem Swing Dance Society hosted a special Sugar Hill Swings! event honouring Harlem’s own Queen of Swing. With guest history panels featuring some former Norma Miller dancers: Darlene Gist, Crystal Johnson, Maxine Simmons, Barbara Billups and Sonny Allen, and a screening of rare (previously unseen by me) footage of Norma Miller presented by Chris Lee. There were also performances, swinging music by the Sugar Hill Quartet and lots of dancing by locals and visitors from around the globe who had come together for this occasion.
This was a truly special day in Harlem honouring the Queen of Swing.
Some thoughts on the Queen of Swing
Now that Norma is gone, everything has changed. She was the last of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers who could tell us what growing up in 1920s Harlem and dancing in the Savoy in its heyday was really like. She could tell us how this dance we love so much was created and in what difficult circumstances; she knew the value of her cultural heritage and that this was a story that needed to be told (well ahead of the curve, as usual). We have lost so much. And yet we have also been so lucky to have had her for 99 years, for everything she has shared with us throughout her career in swing, humour, knowledge and perseverance. Now we have to think about how we continue her legacy, how we “keep swingin’”, to follow her signature motto.
Over the last few years I met Norma Miller twice in person, yet I have spent so many hours with her: reading her words, translating, proofreading and re-reading, in English and Spanish. These have been long hours in her company and I thought I knew her well (knew her life chronology better than my own!), but since she left us I have found there is so much more to learn about her. I am realizing now how truly exceptional Norma Miller was –whether in dance, choreography, writing, music, stand-up comedy or any other of her multiple facets– she was a pioneer and her creativity was not limited by any bounds, despite the adversity she faced as a single black woman in show business. I am still researching and still learning.
On a personal level, I am thankful to Norma Miller for much joy, in particular in the last few months thanks to the publication of her memoir in Spanish. I am happy we did publish in time for her to know about it and hold a copy in her hands. After the solitary translation work, doing the book launches has been an incredible experience, an opportunity to bring her story to new audiences –-I wish I had had the chance to tell her about these events and all the people who were interested in her memoir in places as distant as Santiago, Vigo, Madrid, Barcelona, Granada and even Finisterre (aka “the end of the world”). I know she would have enjoyed visiting Spain. She was so full of energy when I met her in December that I had expected to see her at her 100th birthday.
About a year ago I was preparing a biographical article and I wrote this note: “750 words. Just 750 words to tell the life of Norma Miller…who keeps on, keeps on going and keeps on being herself at age 98 –which I guess is the greatest achievement anyone can aspire to!”. (Incidentally, 750 words was not sufficient, 1000 was tight enough). I feel Norma was as much herself at 99 as ever, with as much character, as much swing, as much joy…She remained true to herself and what she wanted in life. I cannot think of anything more inspiring.
“Everything in Life’s got a beat. When you walk down the street your feet tap to the beat…Gimme the Beat!” (Gimme the Beat, by Norma Miller).
Norma, thank you for nearly a century of swing. You are missed.
2nd December will be Norma Miller’s centenary. There are several ways in which you can honor the Queen of Swing and join in Birthday the celebrations, find out more on the Frankie Manning Foundation Norma page.