Take one Harlem Renaissance dancer, now 102; one devoted recreation therapist; one long-serving volunteer and his therapy dog; a music historian; a film archivist; and a couple of guys with cellphones. Mix them all together. Watch.
Those are the makings of the remarkable video above. It’s not the greatest quality (yes, it was recorded on mobile phones, as an afterthought) but it’s real – the in-the-moment responses of Alice Barker, now-bedridden, to her first view of herself on film as a chorus line dancer decades ago.
The story starts with recreation therapist Gail Campbell, who was working at the Brooklyn nursing home where Alice lives. According to information posted to YouTube, Gail knew that footage must exist of Alice, who in the 1930s and ’40s had danced at spots like the Apollo and Cotton Club, and with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
With help from David Shuff, who with his therapy dog Katie had been visiting Alice in her nursing home for eight years, Gail kept searching. Eventually they connected with a historian of black women performers, Alicia Thompson; Alicia, it turns out, had been looking for Alice for years.
Through Alicia they found a film historian who had access to three clips from Alice’s past. The rest is all on video.