Norma Miller was made of spit, and fire, and grit, and hustle, and truth.
And she would have been 100 years old today.
Known as the “Queen of Swing” to Lindy Hoppers, she died May 5, 2019, in Florida, of degenerative heart disease. She died in bed, surrounded by loved ones, having watched some of her friends Lindy Hop for her, having listened to some of her own recently recorded new songs, as well as the hauntingly sweet song “Stardust.” And, apparently — in the makings of the kind of myths that are passed down through the jazz ages — she died just as “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” was coming on the speakers, as if the waves of Basie’s opening piano tide carried her away.
She was 99 years old.
Most dancers probably know a few famous pieces of her story: She grew up behind the Savoy ballroom. She became a Whitey’s Lindy Hopper and traveled the world and was in Hellzapoppin’. And, oh yeah, wasn’t there something about getting taken into the ballroom as a child to dance in a contest or something?
First off, Norma did live behind the Savoy, but even before that, she lived in an apartment across from the Cotton Club, where she heard the music of Duke Ellington every night pouring from the open windows. Through those windows she could see the stage shows overflowing with chorus girls and comedy acts and singers, and she dreamed of one day being a performer. Her family then moved to an apartment behind the Savoy Ballroom. There she and her sister would sit on their fire escape trying to make sense of the dancing shadows, and listening to the house band, Chick Webb’s Orchestra, along with many of the greatest bands of the swing era. This is the music Norma heard as she drifted to sleep every night.
As a young girl she would be one of the children dancing for spare change outside of the Savoy, and was often run off by the door man. She would spend the money on movie tickets or candy. She was dancing on the sidewalk one Easter afternoon when one of the greatest early Lindy Hoppers, “Twist Mouth” George, asked her if she’d be his partner in the Savoy’s matinee exhibition, even though children weren’t usually allowed inside. He took her in, and for the first time she saw the majestic ballroom, modeled on the grand, downtown Whites-only ballrooms like the Roseland. Twist Mouth put her in a booth and bought her a coke. When they did the exhibition, the crowd went wild at the site of a tall adult man swinging around a little girl, whose feet were barely touching the floor. After the exhibition, Twist Mouth walked Norma right back down the grand staircase and put her back on the street.
It was only a few years later when Norma Miller was one of the best Lindy Hoppers in the world, and was showcased with other Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in the films A Day at the Races. And then, a few years later, Hellzapoppin’. Those are the stories we are told, again and again.
Though these are wonderful stories, they don’t actually tell us much about who Norma was, and what dancing really meant to her. So, as you remember Norma on her birthday, and think back on her over the future years, we want you to remember these stories as well:
Norma was born on December 2, 1919 to a recently widowed mother who had immigrated only five years earlier from Barbados. Though Norma was named after her excited, expecting father Norman, who tragically died of pneumonia shortly before her birth, it was her dedicated and hardworking mother, Alma, that Norma would take after in spirit. Alma was in an unfortunate position — she was a Black woman with two young children to support in a country that did not offer people of Color hardly any upward mobility. But she was strong-willed and driven, and worked hard to give her children the best life she could. She did this by holding multiple housecleaning jobs, depending on her sisters for occasional help, and finding other ways of getting cash, like hosting rent parties.
It was at one of her mother’s rent parties that Norma first saw and learned the Charleston step. After that, the little girl seemed to breathe dance. Despite their poverty, her mother scraped together enough money for Norma to attend formal dance classes. Norma would stay in the studio for many hours after her class, watching other dancers and practicing. And those motion pictures Norma saw with the money she collected from dancing on the sidewalks? Norma mostly went to see song-and-dance pictures, and would stay in the movie theater all day trying to memorize and reenact the dance numbers. Her mother was pleased to know if Norma was somewhere where she could dance, mama wouldn’t have to worry about her getting into any trouble. Soon, Norma was dancing her Charleston and jazz dance in every amateur contest in Harlem, often winning. Norma even learned the Shim Sham first hand from a friend whose mother was a chorus girl at the Apollo Theater.
Norma knew she wanted to have a life in professional dancing before she was a teenager. However, she also knew that, realistically, it was an impossibility — there weren’t any ballet and progressive dance classes available to take poor Black children to a professional level. Then she discovered the Renaissance ballroom — what they called “the Renny” — which held dances with live swing bands specifically for teenagers. This was the first time Norma tried partner dancing, and the astute child envisioned this as her path to making her life about dance.
At around thirteen years old, she and a Lindy Hop partner won a spot to dance in a contest at the Apollo Theater against three of the best couples from the Savoy, and four of the best couples from the Whites-only Roseland ballroom. (And yes, there seems to be an implication that it was a sort of best White dancers vs best Black dancers contest.) The Savoy couples were planning to split the winnings if one of them won, and they were annoyed the children, who were not part of the split, had taken one of their spots.
During Norma and her partner’s spotlight, a friend of theirs spontaneously jumped on stage and started yelling encouragement. Their dancing, and the spectacle as a whole, won them the contest and a week’s engagement at the Apollo. It also won them $25 in prize money and $25 in pay for the gig, at a time when Norma was trying hard to scrape together 25 cents to go dancing once a week. They received cold stares from the losing competitors, and left quickly. The next week, they skipped school to do the gig.
Soon after, Norma and some of her girlfriends were outside a club when Leonard Reed (tap dancer, producer, and co-inventor of the Shim Sham) suddenly came outside and asked them if any of them could do a time step and over-the-tops — he had just lost some of his dancers. Norma did them for him, and she was hired on the spot to be a chorus girl, despite her age. She was prepared to skip school for that, too.
She was beginning to realize what her gut was trying to tell her: if a poor Black girl was going to be a professional dancer, her education was any dancing gig she could get. She thought it might be time to quit school and become a chorus girl. Alas, Norma was discovered and snatched out of the production by a truancy officer before she ever got to perform. Perhaps it was better for the swing scene; otherwise, Norma might never have been a Whitey’s Lindy Hopper.
That’s because after the contest at the Apollo, the Savoy’s floor manager, Herbert Whitey, came to her and asked her if she wanted to come to the Savoy and meet some of the dancers he managed. She did, and after doing a couple swing outs with one of them, she was told to sit in the booth and watch the dancers, many of whom were the competitors she had beaten in the contest. Although she had wanted to dance, Whitey told her she’d only be allowed to watch, and that she was welcome to come back and watch every Saturday. She agreed, and for many weeks she went to the Savoy just to watch and study the Lindy Hoppers. Once she was allowed to dance as part of the group, Whitey quickly realized he could depend on the young girl for a surprising amount of professionalism and dedication.
By fifteen, Norma was a professional dancer. “And I worked ever since.”
We remember Norma best as a dancer in A Day at the Races, and Hellzapoppin’ — after all, that’s where we in the modern scene actually see what the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers danced like. But for Norma, those films were only a tiny part of her experience. Even her Harvest Moon Ball competitions only made up three days of her life. That decade was mostly filled with long days of training and innovating in the Savoy with a group of peers, molding the dance into the one we know and love. They were filled with nights of performing around the ballroom for tourist, celebrities, and show business people who frequented the Savoy. They were filled with months of grueling practice schedules that lead to the exhilarating Harvest Moon Ball competition nights where all eyes and news cameras were on them. They were filled with long tours to parts of the world to perform and travel and meet royalty, opportunities open to hardly any American People of Color, let alone teenage girls. For every day Norma spent dancing for a Hollywood film, there were hundreds, even thousands, spent dancing on wooden stages around New York, the country, and the world. They would sometimes perform the equivalent of the Hellzapoppin’ routine four times a night. And at one point her life was so full of activity she was hospitalized for exhaustion.
In several interviews I watched Hellzapoppin’ with Norma. When she saw her young self being thrown around at high speeds, she would shake her head and say the same thing every time. “My shoulder still hurts from that damn move.”
Around the onset of World War II, Norma and other veteran dancers were having a growing feeling of being exploited by Whitey. Then the war came, and many of the men were drafted, including Norma’s main partner, Billy Ricker. For Norma, that sealed it — she felt it was time to move on from Lindy Hop. After a few more gigs, she left the group, which itself was already dissolving. Norma began studying other dance forms such as Katherine Dunham’s African-inspired dancing, and Martha Graham’s innovative “modern” dance style, and producing shows for some of the most famous clubs in Black entertainment, like Small’s Paradise in New York and Club Alabam in Los Angeles. She even began a career as a Broadway dancer, and was about to sign her first contract, only to discover she had been making much more money as a choreographer and club producer. Without realizing it, she had surpassed her wildest dreams’ pay grade. And she was only in her mid-twenties.
At one point she spoke to Whitey again, and he talked of restarting the group, and offered to let her lead the group, and even put her name on it. But she had decided to take a different path. Already a pioneer in jazz dance, Norma would become one of the few Black female entrepreneurs and managers in show business. Starting in the late 40s, she began creating her own performance groups — first, the Norma Miller Dancers, and then Norma Miller and her Jazzmen — with which she would tour for decades. Knowing from first hand experience that the fast, high-flying spectacle of performance Lindy Hop was only possible to even the fittest dancers for a few minutes, she added singing and a little comedy emceeing to their act. And they specialized not just in the Lindy Hop, but in the chorus girl and jazz dance steps Norma had spent her life storing in her body from the countless street corners, stages, and screens she had obsessively watched. The group was a favorite of Count Basie’s, and would tour with him often.
Norma knew that for Black American women of her generation, the most open path to security was a job in a service industry, a husband, and raising children, children who would take care of them in their older age and give a strong meaning to life in an often unfair time and place. After a few stalled romances, she stopped thinking of that lifestyle — she was going to live her life as an artist, and if marriage happened, it happened. It never would. As Norma would say, she didn’t plan to be single her entire life, it just happened.
In the 1970s, Norma began a new career in stand-up comedy under the advice of Redd Foxx, once again breaking ground as one of the few Black women at the time in her profession. People often think she was mentored by Foxx, but she wasn’t really, except the occasional piece of advice — she learned the art of stand-up comedy mostly by herself. Now, just as she had studied dance from the booths of the Savoy, she studied the great Black comedy greats of the 1970s from the booths of the clubs, until she found her own voice as a comedienne. She made a comedy album, toured with USO shows in Vietnam, appeared as a special guest on the television sitcom Sanford and Son, and co-wrote the book The Encyclopedia of Black Humor with Foxx.
By her own account, Norma as a child and young teenager had not thought much of the racial injustices in American society, despite her own mother picketing and protesting throughout her childhood, and despite being in Harlem during the race riot of 1935. (Coincidentally, the first Harvest Moon Ball happened only months after the riot.) But whether she gave it much conscious attention or not, her personality had always fought against injustice, and she would later recognize that being one of the best Lindy Hoppers in the world helped give her a sense of pride she used as a weapon.
As they toured around segregated America, Black entertainers were often not allowed in hotels, and so instead would stay in bed-and-breakfast-type establishments that were often named after Black historical figures — the Harriet Tubman house, the Frederick Douglass house, the Phyllis Wheatley house, etc. The older, touring teenager Norma began learning about her culture’s history by reading the placards at these houses. She also began noticing race relations and the systematic and personal racism against Black America much more, which began to become a strong force in Norma’s worldview. In her adult life, it would become a major part of her comedy and her activism. And, in her later life, it would be a strong theme when discussing the swing dance and music that was pioneered by African-Americans and then adopted, and in many cases appropriated, by mainstream America.
In the early 1980s, Norma began working with a new generation of Norma Miller’s Dancers, and putting together shows that highlighted life in Harlem and the swing music of the 1930s. Then, a mysterious, niche zeitgeist struck: groups of dancers from different parts of America, England, and Sweden suddenly became fascinated with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers film footage, and wanted to learn Lindy Hop and meet its pioneers. Norma and other Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers like Frankie Manning and Al Minns were sought after to share the dance outside of New York once again, marking a new era in the popularity of Lindy Hop and swing music.
Yet again, Norma toured the world — this time as a speaker and teacher. She published her autobiography, Swingin’ at the Savoy (co-written with Evette Jensen). A children’s book based on her life, Stompin’ at the Savoy, by Alan Govenar and Martin French, soon followed, as did the documentary on her life, Queen of Swing.
In the modern Lindy Hop scene, Norma became known for her strong voice, her lively sense of humor, and her unflinching discussions of race and gender inside and outside of the Savoy, show business, and society throughout the 20th century.
It’s important to know Norma often said that her last few years were her best. She became an artist-in-residence with the Italian Swing Dance Society and toured Europe with the Italian big band The Billy Bros. Swing Orchestra, giving talks and interviews about her life before shows. She recorded two albums with the band, “A Swingin’ Love Affair” and the upcoming “Swingin’ at the Track.”
So, these are the stories you should remember about Norma: How hard she worked for what she wanted in a world that didn’t want to give it to her without a damn good fight. And when it came to her life-long pursuits of dancing — and fighting — she lived by her motto till the end: Never stop swinging.
There are also the stories that peek behind the curtain of the performer. She once drove across the country with two poodles and a cat. She smoked pot with Louis Armstrong. She helped raise the children of filmmaker John Biffar. (And no, she did not have a romantic relationship with him. That was a rumor probably caused by the misleading title of her book “Me and John Biffar: A Love Story” — they were merely very close friends and collaborators.) And even up to her death, she had plans for shows, Broadway musicals, and even a film about a murder that took place at the hotel where Frankie Manning 95 was being held. And all these pieces are essential to truly knowing Norma. At least, as much as someone from today’s world could hope to.
And there are even more pieces, pieces only granted to her closest friends and loved ones. Pieces that only they can hold.
With every death there will come regrets, regrets of what could have been done differently, of how we could go back and change time knowing what we know now. To those who have been part of the scene for the last few decades, we will probably all share at least one regarding Norma: The modern International Lindy Hop scene as a whole did not always celebrate Norma loudly, and sometimes hardly celebrated her at all.
Though it can be awkward to discuss, we still want to, in the true spirit of Norma, who never gave a damn if something was awkward to discuss or not.
The scene seemed to easily raise the upbeat, friendly Frankie Manning over our heads. Overall, many in the scene took his pleasant disposition as their main cue and many even romanticized him as always-happy or oversimplified him to the point of a benign caricature, despite the complexity of his character.
But the predominantly-White scene seemed to sometimes fumble awkwardly when it came to lifting up the outspoken Norma.
Like most people who speak their mind and have strong opinions, Norma was not known for her friendliness. As a teacher, she was direct, sometimes very harsh, and would often have students in her classes crying because of the comments she gave and the expectations she set. This was not because she was simply “mean.” Part of it is that she taught the way professional dance teachers and choreographers taught when she was learning: You are expected to keep up, and if you can’t, you’re not ready yet. Another part of it is that, because of her life in show business, she had expectations based on a century of professional jazz dance — “How can you call yourself a dancer if you don’t know a time step?!?” — And, perhaps most importantly, a third part of it was about respecting the craft.
One time when I interviewed Norma, she had seen a Big Apple done by social dancers a night or two before. In the interview, you could tell Norma was not a fan of how it had gone. As usual, she made it an educational opportunity: “Do not elaborate on the step, until you know how to do it,” she said, in her measured but passionate way of way of saying things, that way of speaking each word, and with her rough voice, so that it cut through to her point like a rusty cleaver. Improvisation is such an emphasized part of Lindy Hop, that it’s easy to take advantage of steps by just “doing what you want to with the step” or faking your way through it and calling it “the spirit of jazz.” But that is also taking advantage of the heritage of the dance. Just because it’s an African-American dance that values improvisation doesn’t mean you just get to make it up as you go along and honor it with the name “Jazz” or “Lindy Hop.” It means you respect its fundamentals and learn them, where it came from and what it costs to bring it into this world, and doing that is the respectful path to changing it, evolving it, adapting it.
We should also give her a lot more credit for the probable source of her personality: The sharp, to-the-point quality Norma was known for was probably essential to making it as a Black woman producer in 20th century American show business. And her giving someone her opinion was a sign that she thought that person worthy of engaging with. (If she didn’t think you were worth it, she wouldn’t say a word to you.) And even with her barbed critiques, she would often follow with either a softened, more uplifting version, or at least with a passionate explanation about the importance of the critique.
A lot of people were so turned off by her sharpness that they missed the many ways she could be enthusiastic, upbeat, and encouraging. (But, as we’ve explained, she would never let any of that stop her from telling you “Your rhythm is shit.”) Almost every person I’ve heard from about Norma mentioned a compliment she gave them that was made all the more treasured because it had come along with the critiques, and therefore could be truly trusted.
She could also be very charming. In interviews and personal conversation, she would purposefully play up a child-like persona, or a shocked-to-death persona, or a crotchety old lady persona, to keep you fully engaged and keep the mood lively. She was a “natural” performer in the true sense — she used performance to communicate almost everything she wanted to say. And she knew how to let her genuine emotions guide that performance. There was a lovely moment in an interview done in front of a crowd at Beantown, when she had just finished watching the Nicholas Brothers perform the near-flawless tap routine in “Stormy Weather,” one of the greatest dance performances of all time. Her face was beaming with joy at seeing a showcase of such incredible dancing skill, and she let everyone see it, so that, in that moment, we all saw the way that little girl Norma must have first stared at her greatest love, dance.
She was also human, and had quirks to her personality. As a natural performer, she loved having all eyes on her. When on stage with Frankie, she would sometimes interrupt his stories numerous times with jokes and comments. It was done the way a smart-ass little sister would, which as far as I can tell was a pretty apt description of their relationship. Sometimes her discussion of race and gender was delivered through the eyes of a 1970s comedienne, and some of the stereotypes she employed seem outdated and racially problematic to modern audiences — the response for many people was to focus mainly on that aspect of her, rather than see her as a complex person who was the product of many different times, and respect the fact that that she otherwise still had many great truths to share and was willing to share them to a predominantly White audience.
Her “sailor’s mouth” was also well-known — multiple speakers at the memorial service in New York mentioned they couldn’t repeat Norma’s words because they were in a church. (Making me miss her presence even more. From what I know of her, she wouldn’t have let being in a church stop her from telling those stories.)
Strong-willed, opinionated, passionate about justice, and colorful in language. Ironically, Norma had qualities we tend to love and admire in our action movie heroes, and yet many of us were turned off by those same qualities when it came to celebrating a Black woman who was a legend of swing dancing.
Unraveling the reasons why we have acted this way will take time and a lot of self- reflection. But there are probably a few obvious ones. The “Swing Bubble” we have built for a few decades convinced us to accept lovingly the good-feeling vibes Frankie Manning exuded, and ignore the often harsher vibes Norma could give off. Another probable reason is the darker one, the deep-seated culture of American racism that still haunts us today, that is so deeply-programmed into the culture that many otherwise progressive people don’t even realize when it happens: people we romanticize as joyful, happy Black people are not threatening to a majority White group, while the people we characterize as “hard,” “angry” Black people are. It may be hard for many to hear, and some readers may even discount this sentiment entirely, but it fits the facts.
We as a scene are doing better at these things, but are still a ways away from correcting them, and desperately need to continue our soul-search. It’s unfortunate that the scene didn’t start down that path earlier, for Norma. Looking back, it seems obvious that Norma was often trying to get us to look outside the swing bubble, before most of us even knew that a bubble existed.
(For Frankie’s part, we never got the impression he wasn’t anything but genuine to himself by being upbeat and kind. Frankie thought a great deal about the way he interacted with the community, knowing how influential he could be and how that was both a blessing and a curse. He was also very opinionated about dancing, whether he shared those opinions with a group or just a few trusted ears. And he sat next to Norma on countless interviews and workshop talks, nodding along in agreement to many of her opinions, showing his support for what she had to say. They also argued a lot about other opinions. Which is a testament to the fact they were both trying to make sure we got the truth of their experience in Lindy Hop.)
We want to stress that there are several promoters and friends of Norma in the international Lindy Hop scene who have always held her up high and tried to make sure she was present in the scene over the last decades. A few that especially come to mind (to this writer who by no means knows all the events that have done so) are Beantown Camp, which has had Norma at almost every year of the camp over the last two decades, Lindyfest camp, Herrang Dance Camp, and dancer Adam Brozowski, who worked to keep Norma traveling and in the classroom, and helped her tour Australia and New Zealand again for the first time since 1956. (I apologize if I have left off any other examples, feel free to mention it in the comments so that proper credit can be witnessed.)
And, over the last few years, the Italian swing scene and especially the Billy Bros. Swing Orchestra supported Norma greatly, joining with her to tour and allowing Norma to spend the last few years of her life doing her greatest passion, performing. We owe them a great thanks for their care and attention.
In recent years, Norma has been taking her place of honor more and more in the scene. And now, with her passing, it’s even more important that we continue her legacy. Though Norma won’t make it to her 100th birthday in body, it is up to us to make sure her spirit is present in full force today, and that it remains in the scene for generations to come.
People of many different identities have been significantly touched by Norma Miller, all over the world. People like this eulogy’s writer, a White, middle-class man in modern America. But Norma grew up Black and a woman trying to pave her way through the 20th century. Try as hard as I can to understand that emotionally and intellectually, there are those who are simply going to understand better, and connect with it more. Norma herself understandably took special pains to reach out and connect to Black dancers in the scene, especially women. So we’d like to turn the story over to some of those Black women whose lives were touched by Norma.
Mickey Davidson was a Norma Miller Dancer in the 1980s and since has followed in Norma’s footsteps, managing groups, choreographing, teaching, and touring with jazz dance and Lindy Hop ever since. She was one of the people closest to Norma.
“I had a 34-year journey with Norma as two hustling artists — Norma, coming from the past into the present, and me, in the present going into the future. Many things Norma did to keep working are things I do to keep working. As Dianne McIntyre said: ‘Mickey reinvents herself.’ Norma did that many times during her 99 years on the planet. I saw America through Norma, as how some things changed and other things have not, but have a different spin to them.
“Norma, like many performers of her generation, are complex people. Few of us get the full picture of who they are from the inside out, the private person, their public persona, and as citizens of these United States. Norma’s life was in the entertainment trenches. Managing her own creative life and creating her own opportunities, Norma took on the role model responsibilities, as did many entertainers of color did, representing her community because few got the chance to see the world the way she did. And for many in the world, seeing Norma was their only exposure to African-American culture.
“Norma lived beyond swing dance, but came back because this generation rediscovered the dance, created opportunities and places where she could work not only as a performer but as a live historian, using her personal life journey as her focus (“How do I know? I was there.”), a mentor for many who became her teachers, as she learned how and what to teach people who live swing dance in a different way from her reality. Norma had to find her own way of reaching, communicating and sharing with the many people she encounter. It took awhile but she couldn’t give up because her livelihood depended on it. Putting many irons into the fire, Norma wove a tapestry of her life that will go on from a variety of prospective. Norma burned bridges and learned to rebuild them. Norma told her story and created a legacy that will be carried forward in many forms including music, dance, comedy and the written word. Now it is my turn.”
Tena Morales, one of the primary promoters of Lindyfest and The International Lindy Hop Championships, had many a conversation with Norma. They tended to either talk about Norma’s past, or the dance’s future. “She always had a way of challenging me to bring about the changes she wanted to see in the community. With Frankie it was always more of a soft statement… with Norma, it was more like your mom telling you what you needed to do. Two grandparents with the different approaches but the same desire. Whenever she would charge me up, I’d always say, ‘yes Ms. Norma.’”
As a Black woman and a promoter, Tena felt she was always held to a higher standard by the dance’s elders like Frankie and Norma. It’s the weight of the tradition-bearer.
“I’m saddened by her leaving, saddened that she didn’t get to 100, which is what she wanted more than anything. And I’m saddened that she’s no longer around to charge me up.”
Alexis Davila is one of the youngest stars in Lindy Hop, an extremely talented dancer from Cleveland who has been a Frankie Manning Ambassador. She first began swing dancing when she was 12. Alexis has been deeply influenced by Norma. “She really made me feel and realize as a young black woman I can literally do anything I want, even with the odds against me. It isn’t just about wanting it, though. I have to work for it.”
Alexis remembers especially the class she got to take with Norma at Uptown Swingout in Minneapolis. “I was a nervous wreck cause I knew she wasn’t going to be easy on us. But the adrenaline I got dancing in front of THE Norma Miller was an amazing feeling. I just hope we can make her proud.”
Shana Weaver, of New York, was a Frankie Manning Ambassador when she first met Norma, who critiqued her social dancing (“as per usual”) but gave her a great compliment when it came to performing: “You’ve got so much character!” Shana remembers the many times spent eating meals with Norma at Beantown Camps and at Herrang dance camp. “I always though Norma would outlive everyone just because the Grim Reaper seemed scared to approach her.” Shana felt her Lindy Hop journey began with Norma, and she plans to continue it with her spirit. “Norma, I love you so much. Thank you for the criticism, the conversations, and the love. You’ve given me so much in the last 5 years I’ve been dancing. I hope I can continue to make you proud.”
International Lindy Hop and Urban Dance instructor LaTasha Barnes first met Norma at Frankie 100 in New York City, which Latasha had attended as a Frankie Manning Ambassador. LaTasha was already a champion House dancer but had only been dancing vintage jazz for a couple years by that time. LaTasha was pushed into the jam circle by legendary Lindy Hopper of London Angela Andrew, and Norma saw LaTasha’s unique urban-and-vintage-jazz dancing from the balcony above. When they met later, LaTasha was greeted by Norma with “Is that her? Come here!”
Norma asked where Latasha was from, and after LaTasha said “Virginia,” Norma assumed she was a hand dancer, a partnered dance created by the Black community in the Washington D.C. area. LaTasha tried to correct her, saying, “no ma’am, I’m not a Hand Dancer.” This seeming misunderstanding happened a couple times, until finally Norma interrupted. “Clearly you know how to dance. And you dance with hand dancers, right?”
“Yes, Ms. Norma.”
“Then you’re a hand dancer.” That’s when LaTasha realized it wasn’t Norma that was misunderstand her, but the other way around. Norma was teaching a lesson about what it meant to do a dance.
Norma then said “Keep it goin’ — you gonna keep dancing, right?”
For LaTasha, the question wasn’t a casual one: “That’s when I moved from being a participant to a tradition-bearer in this dance. I knew there was more for me to learn aside from swing outs and jazz steps.”
Miss Norma’s passing wasn’t only the end of a great presence, it was the end of an era. She was the last known living dancer of the incredible Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. Norma’s impact, however, endures. Her dancing and speaking have reached thousands of people over the last century, both in person and through popular media. Her autobiography, documentary, and the many in-depth interviews she gave will serve as a well of knowledge for future dancing generations. And the 100th anniversary of her life is being celebrated at the International Lindy Hop Championships this year, ending with a special night tonight dedicated to her.
Though the “Queen of Swing” is dead, her legacy will live on.
Long live the queen.
The scene is currently raising money in order to give Norma a headstone deserving of a legend of this dance. Please consider giving Norma one last birthday gift to thank her for all she’s done:Please donate here.
Losing the last great Whitey’s Lindy Hopper, doesn’t mean we’ve lost the last great Harlem Lindy Hopper. After the Whitey’s, several generations of Harlem Lindy Hoppers not only carried on their flames, but also created their own to pass on. We still have Savoy dancers from the post-war, “Spirit Moves” Savoy ballroom floors, such as Barbara Billups, Sugar Sullivan, and Sonny Allen.
We also have many of the great dancers from the next generation after that, members of the Norma Miller’s dancers and Mama Lou Parks Dancers, like Mickey Davidson above. For instance: Darlene Gist (who was both a Mama Lou Parks Dancer and Norma Miller dancer), Maxine Simmons, Chazz Young (who is also Frankie Manning’s son), and Crystal Johnson, (who just so happens to be the daughter of Thomas “Tops” Lee, one of the greats of the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers.)
And there are others.
Please take a moment to watch this wonderful speech by Ryan Francoise where he invites many of the remaining elders of the dance out onto the dance floor at the Harlem Lindy Hop Legacy Day, which took place over Norma’s Memorial Weekend. And also take some time to watch this incredible interview with many of the dancers above, hosted by Barbara Bronx of the Harlem Swing Dance Society.
Don’t let Norma be the last Harlem Lindy Hopper we honor. Let’s make sure to show those that came after her how much we appreciate their legacy. To find out more, visit the Harlem Swing Dance Society.
We’d like to thank Tena Morales, Shana Weaver, Mickey Davidson, LaTasha Barnes, and Alexis Davila for being willing to share their experiences, and Adam Brozwski, Cynthia Millman, and Jessica Miltenberger for their input with this article. Also, the Visionary Project, for their fantastic interviews with Norma.
2 responses to “Long Live the Queen”
[…] Mechanic. The Swungover Quick Guide to Coping w/ Covid R.I.P. Irene Thomas R.I.P Izzy Hignett Long Live the Queen: Norma Miller Tribute (w/ LaTasha Barnes, Mickey Davidson, Tena Morales, Alexis … SoCal Swings (1935-1939-ish) (Balboa/Swing/Bal-Swing/etc.) Lindy Comes to SoCal (1937-ish-1945) The […]
[…] The following recollections were part of a eulogy for Norma Miller published at Swungover in 2019. You can see the full essay here. […]