At 95 Years Old, Norma Miller, the Queen of Swing, Still Reigns
Norma Miller has Lindy hopped from juke joints in the south to stages in Europe, appearing in films like the 1941 hit Hellzapoppin’.
In an apron, a baker’s hat, and black Mary Janes, she flips over her partner Billy Ricker’s head, slides through his legs, then hops up and snaps her fingers while swaying.
Years later, kicks and spins on stages have done Miller well. She is pushing a century old, but with her fitted pants and red nails, she could pass for 60-something.“What’s my best angle?” she asks. “Should I keep glasses on or off?” Miller takes her age in stride and in laughs.
“Oh God, the face,” she mumbles. “The last face that you’ll have is forever. Go with it, sweetie. That’s it!”
Miller has lived through ten wars, a jilted lover, and the switch from black and white television to color. Today, she Googles, watches Youtube, and follows Justin Bieber.
“Here’s a kid—made one album and he made more money in that one year than I made in a lifetime!” she chuckles.
It’s a safe bet to say that even before Justin Bieber’s grandparents were in diapers, Norma Miller was on the dance floor. In an era of amateur night dance competitions. Miller’s mother, an immigrant maid from Barbados, put her in dance classes at age five with money she made cleaning homes. Soon, Miller was competing on stages in Harlem for $10 prizes.
“Black girls didn’t have many outlets,” Miller remembers. “You had laundry. You had hairdresser. Or teacher. Now, I didn’t qualify for none of those. I could dance, I could just do it naturally and so my mother pushed me at every contest. ”
At 12, she was discovered outside the famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, and by her 15th birthday, she was touring in Europe with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, a group started by dance great Herbert White and named after Charles Lindbergh, known around the world for his solo flight from New York to Paris.
“The world wanted to get away from the waltz, the tango, the rumba,” Miller says.
The Lindy hop had kicks and spins and drops. Its free form came from black American dances of the time, and its 8-count from white American ballrooms.
“Europe wanted to know about this new dance that was happening in America,” Miller adds. “We didn’t have computers and things, so we had to physically take it over there.”
But when World War II started, the male dancers got drafted and the group had to dismantle, forcing Miller to reinvent herself. She started a dance troupe called the Norma Miller Dancers, then she went solo; then worked the chitlin’ circuit. She even had a stint as a singer.
“Everything was trial by error,” she reflects back. “It was some of the worse (expletive) times you ever wanted. Jesus Christ!”
The entertainment industry was changing. Neither the Lindy Hop nor dance troupes were in demand like they used to be. Miller’s good friend, the comedian and Sanford & Son actor gave her some advice.
“Red Foxx said, look, you’re not going to be able to dance any longer; your knees are knocking; you better learn to talk.”
Foxx put her behind a microphone on his little stage in California and let her tell jokes at what was one the first comedy clubs in the country.
“I’d played the biggest theaters in NYC. I just couldn’t get used to a mic and just standing on a stage talking. I like illusion! I like changing costumes!”
But Miller still has a soft spot for comedy. She wrote an anthology on black humorists, and after eight decades in show business, she’s still on stage—this time, telling jokes.
In a clip, she shares the qualms of aging and finding a man:
“Competition is mighty keen. After all, I’m not 21 anymore. I’m not even 31 anymore. Now, thanks for Oil of Olay and swing, I can go on like this for years and years!”
It’s all about attitude for Miller.
“Life is comedy to me,” she chuckles. ” When I look back, I’ve been with the craziest (expletive) people in the world!”
And she’s not slowing down. Miller is writing a book, planning a comedy tour, and still swinging.