Thursday 24 October 2019

Obituary: Norma Miller

The 'Queen of Swing' who popularised the Lindy Hop in dance halls across the US and Europe

QUICK-FOOTED: Norma Miller with one of the Norma Miller Dancers, Billy Ricker
QUICK-FOOTED: Norma Miller with one of the Norma Miller Dancers, Billy Ricker

Norma Miller, who died last Sunday aged 99, was a Harlem-born performer who helped to popularise the expressive, quick-footed Lindy Hop in dance halls across pre-war America and Europe.

As an energetic 12-year-old, she had got her big break imitating the steps which she glimpsed at the Savoy, a club and ballroom that was a cultural hub for black Harlem - and, in the days of segregation, one of the few places where black and white clientele could mingle freely.

Too young to be allowed in, Norma Miller would congregate with her friends on the fire escape to listen in to the likes of Duke Ellington, Chick Webb and Cab Calloway. Jazz was in its heyday and its freewheeling spirit extended to the dance floor, where performers were developing the shim sham, the shimmy - and, above all, the Lindy Hop.

Influenced by the Charleston and by tap dance, the Lindy Hop also incorporated the movements - spins and slides, flips and kicks - of African-American dance traditions. According to legend, it took its name from aviator Charles Lindbergh's 1927 "hop" across the Atlantic.

By her mid-teens, Norma Miller had graduated to dancing inside the Savoy, and her horizons swiftly expanded.

She performed in Miami and Rio de Janeiro, appeared in an apron and baker's hat in the 1941 film Hellzapoppin', and - together with her troupe of fellow Savoy stars - introduced the Lindy Hop to ballrooms across Europe. She thought of the dancers (male and female) who took their inspiration from her as her "children", and later spearheaded a revival of the swing tradition that began when she was in her 70s.

She was born on December 2, 1919 in Harlem, New York, the child of Barbadian immigrants. Her father Norman died of pneumonia shortly before her birth and her mother, Alma, supported her two children by cleaning homes and working as a laundress. Keen to encourage her daughter's ambitions, she enrolled Norma in dance lessons. "Harlem was becoming the entertainment capital of the world," Norma later recalled. In the evenings, she would listen in on the Duke Ellington band as they played at the nearby Cotton Club, recreating the dancers' footwork at home with her older sister, Dot. When, in 1929, the family moved to another part of town, Norma was soon drawn to the Savoy, which happened to be situated directly behind their new apartment.

Aged 12, she was spotted dancing outside the club by "Twist Mouth" George Ganaway, commonly considered the originator of the "twist" step that the follower (usually the woman) does on counts one and two of the Lindy Hop.

He invited her to dance in a competition at the Savoy, and by her early teens the Savoy's own dance master, Herbert "Whitey" White, had hired her, along with a troupe of other talented amateurs.

Whitey's Lindy Hoppers - as the troupe became - rose to national attention, performing to a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York and touring with the acclaimed blues signer Ethel Waters. In 1936, the troupe featured in the Marx Brothers comedy A Day At The Races, and in 1939, they performed at the New York World's Fair.

The outbreak of war called the male members of Norma Miller's troupe away to enlist, forcing her to forge another path. She founded a 12-person troupe, the Norma Miller Dancers, who played the Apollo Theatre in New York and toured with Count Basie.

In 1956, hers was the first all-black show to play at the Beachcomber Hotel in Miami Beach. Despite some racial tension the show was a great success, and it provided Norma Miller with an opportunity to try her hand at comedy, with a "Rock'n'Roll Romeo" skit starring her and the jazz singer Cab Calloway (the latter in a pair of fluorescent yellow tights).

The group remained in Miami Beach until 1959, after which Norma Miller decided to shift her focus from dance with elements of comedy to comedy about dance. The Norma Miller Dancers slimmed down to become Norma Miller and her Jazzmen, featuring Chazz Young, Billy Dotson, Raymond Scott and Billy Ricker.

In Atlantic City they played with Sammy Davis, Jr, and in Chicago they opened for the stand-up comedian Redd Foxx. It was here in 1963 that news reached them from Birmingham, Alabama, of attacks on Martin Luther King and his followers. "Everyone in the show was upset," Norma Miller recalled.

"We tried to do something to help - we sent contributions and, later, blankets for the folks who marched on Washington and were living in those skimpy tents - but we were hundreds of miles away from where the really courageous people were making a stand."

As the 1960s drew to a close, money became tight, and Norma Miller was forced to disband the group. After completing a solo tour of Vietnam she returned to the US and met up with Redd Foxx at his eponymous club in Los Angeles. He taught her the art of comic timing; she began opening shows for him, and together they wrote The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor (1977).

To her dismay, Foxx later renounced his association with her and the book, and they parted ways in Las Vegas. In 1982 she returned - "healthy, sexless, still single and broke", as she put it - to her mother's home in New York.

The following decade saw a resurgence of interest in the Lindy Hop, with camps dedicated to teaching it in Spain, Russia and the US. The seaside village of Herrang in Sweden emerged as the unlikely Mecca of swing, home to an annual gathering of 3,000-4,000 dancers from more than 40 countries. There, Norma Miller was a guest of honour, alongside a handful of other survivors from swing's heyday.

From 1990, Norma Miller made her base in Las Vegas and began to dabble in film.

Her credits included work as a choreographer on Malcolm X (1992) and a role in the Swedish film Dansa forst (2018) - a musical comedy-drama in which swing dance played a crucial part, and which played in English-speaking countries as Feel the Beat. For Stompin' at the Savoy (1992), a television film inspired by her childhood, she received an Emmy nomination.

The revival of the swing tradition found her busier than ever, with a schedule of lectures, interviews and writing commitments that befitted her title as Queen of Swing.

Though she had a long-term relationship with Roy Glenn - a fellow performer on Hellzapoppin' - Norma Miller never married.

"I sacrificed a life [with] children and a husband," she observed. "That was my life, and it was a hard life."

© Telegraph

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top