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Norma Miller

Dec. 2, 1919

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Norma Miller began Lindy dancing at the famed Savoy Ballroom in Harlem as a girl and went on to a successful career on stage and in films and on television. “Swing music is perfect,” she says. “I mean, you could swing ’til you’re 90.” New Orleans, Louisiana, July 31, 2008, photograph by Alan Govenar
Norma Miller, New Orleans, Louisiana, July 31, 2008, photograph by Alan Govenar
Norma Miller, New Orleans, Louisiana, July 31, 2008, photograph by Alan Govenar
Norma Miller, New Orleans, Louisiana, July 31, 2008, photograph by Alan Govenar
Norma Miller, New Orleans, Louisiana, July 31, 2008, photograph by Alan Govenar
Norma Miller, Arlington, Virginia, 2003, photograph by Alan Govenar
Norma Miller, Arlington, Virginia, 2003, photograph by Alan Govenar
Dorothy Miller, age 5 (left), and Norma Miller, age 3, courtesy Norma Miller
The Horse, as danced by Norma Miller, William Downes and Joyce James (front to back), courtesy Norma Miller
From left: Mickey Sayles, William Downes, Norma Miller, Billy Ricker, Willamae Ricker, Al Minns,  Ann Johnson and Frankie Manning  rehearsing on the *Hellzapoppin'* set at Universal Studios in 1941,  courtesy Norma Miller
The original Norma Miller Dancers, ca. 1953. Back, from left: Joe Noble, Frank Kilabrew and Billy Dotson; middle: Curtis, Geri Gray, 'Pudgi', Priscilla Rishad, Scotty and Raymond Scott; front: Leona Laviscont and Barbara Taylor, courtesy Norma Miller
Billy Ricker and Norma Miller dancing at the Roxy Theater, 1952, courtesy Norma Miller
Norma Miller and her Jazzmen opened with Sammy Davis, Jr., at the Latin Casino, 1963 courtesy Norma Miller
Norma Miller, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Norma Miller and Billy Ricker dancing at the Village Gate, New York, 1984, courtesy Norma Miller
Norma Miller wearing her Menton Buck Clayton hat, photograph by Nancy Miller Elliot, curtesy Norma Miller
New Jazz Dancers from left): Amaniyea Payne and Clyde Wilder, Debbie Williams and Chazz Young, and Darlene Gist and Stoney Martini, courtesy Norma Miler
Dorothy Miller (left) and Norma Miller, courtesy Norma Miller
Norma Miller (right), courtesy Norma Miller
Jonathan Bixby and Norma Miller at the 1990 Boogie in the Berkshires dance camp, courtesy Norma Miller
Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, courtesy Norma Miller

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.”

Bibliography
Baskett, Bob. “Norma Miller: Her Comedy is Carved Life Itself.” Mirror, March 12, 1980.
Caridi, Guy. “Norma Miller to Visit Seattle.” Savoy Swingline, fall 2001.
Coffman, Larry. “Need to Know.” Marketing, April 2001.
_____. “Some Good News!” Marketing,April 2004.
Crease, Robert P. “Last of the Lindy Hoppers.” Voice, August 25, 1987.
Dietrich, Heidi. “America’s True Folk Dance Had Harlem Roots.” Magnolia News, February 21, 2001.
Govenar, Alan. Stompin’ at the Savoy: The Story of Norma Miller. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 2006.)
Harris, Jason. “Dancer Documents Swing Era.” Northern View, January 9, 2002.
Kurtz, Sandra. “Swingin’ Then, Swingin’ Now.” Seattle Weekly, March 2001.
MacDonald, Patrick. “Jazz Dancer Back in the Swing of Things.” The Seattle Times March 2, 2001.
McKiernan, Meegan. “How ‘Swingin’ Came To Be.” Marketing, February 2001.
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.
O’Haire, Patricia. “Lindy Lovers Hop to it.” Daily News.
Sime, Tom. “Former Dancer Puts Show in Step with Times.” Associated Press, 1999.

Filmography Queen of Swing, DVD, color, Directed by John Biffar, Dreamtime Entertainment, 2006.

Watch

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


Listen

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

Norma Miller answers the question 'What was it like playing at the Savoy club?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar