Aging with Attitude: Queen of Swing Norma Miller

“I walked into an airport lounge, and everyone had their heads down in their phones, so I screamed, ‘Aaaaaah!!’, and everybody looked up. I said, ‘I see you got faces!’ It’s modern life, and I’ve got to get used to it.”

Norma Miller has been a swing dancer for just about as long as swing has been a dance.

Her discovery reads like a Hollywood story — except it takes place in Harlem. As a child perched on the fire escape of her mother’s apartment in the 1930s, she would watch the dancers at the legendary Savoy Ballroom doing a new dance to music by big bands like Count Basie’s. Too young to enter the ballroom, she would imitate the dancers on the sidewalk in front of the building.

At age 13, Miller was invited to join the professional swing dance troupe Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. She was the youngest ever to join, and at 97, she is now the group’s last surviving member.

Here’s an iconic dance scene she performed in the 1941 movie “Hellzapoppin’.” Miller is the dancer wearing the large chef’s hat.

Known in the dance world as the “Queen of Swing” (that’s also the name of a 2006 documentary about her by John Biffar), Miller has traveled the world performing, teaching, speaking, choreographing and, all the while, fiercely protecting the history of Lindy Hop and sharing her passion with everyone she meets. Miller turned 97 last month and has never stopped traveling to promote the dance she loves.

In 2003, Miller was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts through a National Heritage Foundation Fellowship for her role in creating and continuing to preserve the “acrobatic style of swing dancing, known as the Lindy Hop.” Sadly, she’s never received royalties from the films she was in nor the performances she gave.

But, thanks in part to Miller’s enthusiastic advocacy, the Lindy Hop craze continues to this day through classes, social dances, competitions and swing dance festivals held worldwide.

Miller spoke with Senior Planet from her home in Florida before leaving for an appearance this month at a Lindy Hop event in Milan, Italy.

Why did you make it your mission to share Lindy Hop with the world?

The Lindy Hop was a dance that was done with feeling. It was a dance done without restrictions. So consequently, the freedom of the dance made the dance popular. The world wanted to learn it. It’s the music that’s great, the music doesn’t change. It’s still a thrill to hear Count Basie Big Band music.

Swing was the greatest movement in this country, and it still is! You can go to any of the four corners of the world and you’ll find swing dancers. It’s what’s amazing, encouraging, and why I travel around the world.

As Duke Ellington said, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.”

And it ain’t changed.

Do you still dance?

Oh no, I don’t dance anymore. I don’t because I used to always dance socially with Frankie Manning, but I haven’t danced since he passed in 2009 [Manning is known as the Ambassador of Lindy Hop]. But I’m a consultant. I’ve been initiating jazz into the swing world, and that’s what I’m teaching now.

How hard was it to sustain a career as a black woman in the entertainment industry at a time when the industry wasn’t as inclusive as it is today?

Listen, you can’t be black and not face discrimination. From the time we were brought here to America, we were discriminated against. Discrimination is not new at all. From the instant a black kid is born, they know discrimination.

Remember, we live in a racist country. It’s white, it’s black. It’s a part of life. But it’s never been an issue though for us dancers. You’ve got to understand we were the people that everybody wanted to be around, because we were the people in swing. We were the creators of it.

We didn’t have problems, because we created something that everybody wanted to dance. We were always inclusive. That’s why you’ve got more white people dancing swing today than ever, because they want to learn it. We worked everywhere. And everybody was coming to the Savoy Ballroom, where we were.

As far as the career’s concerned, we were always the best. We never got involved in feeling denied.

Since Lindy Hop brings people of all ages and races together, do you think it could be a buffer against the divisiveness in our nation now?

We’ve always been a great country and we’ve been great because you’ll always have diversity here. You can’t be too worried about it. We fought a Civil War, we fought World War II, we fought in Korea. We haven’t stopped fighting, period. Has anything changed? This country can take goddamn good care of itself.

We were surprised to learn that you’re a comedian, too. You worked in the 1960’s with Redd Foxx at his comedy club and later joined him as a standup comic, actor and choreographer on his TV series “Sanford and Son.” Can you tell us about that? 

I came up with comedians — Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and Redd Foxx. These were the guys I was thrown in the mix with. They were my mentors.

Whether you’re an old black woman not married or a young single lady, you’ve got to find a way to make a living and pay the rent. It’s just one of those things. I’ve always done what I’m doing, and I’m still doing it.

Do you ever think it would be nice to slow down and not travel so much?

Well, it’s what I do. I don’t know if I’m happier one way or the other. Traveling is what I’ve always done. I come home and I’m alone – that’s when I do my thinking and my writing. But then I go back out and I’m stimulated, because I love seeing the joy we bring to people from what we do.

What do you think of Facebook?

What’s the difference between Facebook and email? See, I don’t know the difference, so to hell with both of them. I’m still in the 20th-century computer world. And look what happened to Hillary, all of the trouble she got because of some goddamn email.

I read Facebook, but it allows a lot of people to waste time on their cellphones. It’s become a fanaticism, because it allows people to be in company when they’re all alone. It’s sad to me — people have nothing to say, but they’re on their phones almost 24/7. I walked into an airport lounge and everyone had their heads down in their phones. So I screamed, “Aaaaaah!” and everybody looked up. I said, “I see you got faces!”

But it’s modern life, and I’ve got to get used to it. And I love to see the progress.

On your Facebook page, you say the election set our country back 50 years. Would you care to comment further?

Trump is a rich man, and I question anybody that has his power. Why would he want to be President? He already has everything – he’s got more than the President can have, and he’s not taking a salary, so what are you doing there? I want to see how Donald Trump is going to keep up with all his promises.

This country will change you for the better or the worse. America is a country that’s built on freedom, you can’t change that. This is the greatest country in the world. Everybody can come here and be whatever they want to be. They can do whatever they want to do, as long as it’s not illegal. That’s how it is, baby.

What does “Aging with Attitude” mean to you?

That I don’t give a fuck, one way or the other.

Watch an Excerpt from  “Queen of Swing”

 

Top photo: Joe-Mabel_Century-Ballroom, Wikimedia Commons

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