While growing up in Harlem, Norma Miller first saw swing dancing from the fire escape of her apartment, which afforded a view of the back of the famed Savoy Ballroom. Miller is regarded as one of the creators of the Lindy Hop, an acrobatic style of swing dancing that she says took its name from a headline about Charles Lindbergh’s solo Atlantic flight (“Lindy Hops”).
Too young to enter the club by themselves, Miller and her friends danced on the sidewalk outside. When she was 12, a popular fellow called Twist-mouth George invited her to come inside and dance with him, and she eagerly accepted. A few months later, she joined Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers on a European tour, becoming one of the first dancers to perform the Lindy outside the United States.
From 1937 to 1940, Miller performed with Ethel Waters. During that period, Miller appeared as a dancer in the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races. She formed the Norma Miller Dancers in 1940 and appeared the following year in the breathtaking Lindy Hop sequence in the film Hellzapoppin’. She began working with comedian Redd Foxx in 1963 and became a regular character, Grady’s Lady, on Foxx’s 1970s TV sitcom Sanford and Son.
In the 1980s, with fellow dancer Frankie Manning, Miller began teaching dance at conferences and classes across the country, which she continued. As a choreographer, Miller has created Alvin Ailey’s Opus McShann, the dance scenes in director Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X and Debbie Allen’s made-for-TV film Stompin’ at the Savoy.
Miller told her story in a popular 1996 autobiography, Swingin’ at the Savoy. “Swing music is perfect,” Miller remarked in an interview for Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary. “It’s perfect for the body. It has coordination. I mean, you could swing ’til you’re 90 … it’s no effort to dance. You ever heard of anybody 40 years old trying to do a hip-hop or break-dancing? We all end up swinging. Any time you got a little gray in your hair, when you know that music, you can get up. And today, now that they’re reissuing the great Count Basie’s things and things like that, people are dancing all over the world again. And it’s marvelous, and that was the reason why I wrote my book Swingin’ at the Savoy, to let you know it all started here, right up here at the embryo. It’s a black thing, huh.”
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_____. “Some Good News!” Marketing,April 2004.
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Govenar, Alan. Stompin’ at the Savoy: The Story of Norma Miller. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 2006.)
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Miller, Norma. Swinging at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.) Myers, Ericka. “Swingin’ Then, Swingin’ Now.” Metropolitan Living, April 2001.
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Filmography Queen of Swing, DVD, color, Directed by John Biffar, Dreamtime Entertainment, 2006.
Archical Footage from Hellzapoppin', 2003 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Arlington, Virginia, Interview by Nicholas R. Spitzer, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Clip from the Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races, featuring Norma Miller
Norma Miller answers the question 'Tell me about house rent parties,' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, Interview by Alan Govenar
Norma Miller answers the question 'What music were people playing when you were young?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar
Norma Miller talks about her mother entering her in amateur contests when she was a child, Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar
Norma Miller answers the question 'How did you get started dancing?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar
Norma Miller answers the question 'What was it like working with Redd Foxx?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar
Norma Miller answers the question 'What was your first job dancing?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar
Norma Miller answers the question 'What did you think about the British invasion?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar
Norma Miller answers the question 'Did the Depression affect you?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar
Norma Miller answers the question 'What was it like living in Harlem?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar
Norma Miller answers the question 'Where did you go to dance school?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar