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The Legacy of Norma

December 2, 2020

Happy Birthday Norma!

The following recollections were part of a eulogy for Norma Miller published at Swungover in 2019. You can see the full essay here

Norma grew up Black and a woman trying to pave her way through the 20th century. It was very important for her to connect with Black people in the swing scene, especially women. In honor of her struggle and the legacy she passed on, here are some reflections of only a *fraction* of the many Black women whose lives were significantly touched by Norma.

Mic & Normajpg.jpgMickey 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.”

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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 and norma.jpgAlexis 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.”

Norma & Shana.jpgShana 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.”

 

59840069_10157250802224700_1717380748190679040_nInternational 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.”

flourish 

We’d like to thank Tena Morales, Shana Weaver, Mickey Davidson, LaTasha Barnes, and Alexis Davila for being willing to share their experiences.

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