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The Queen Of Swing Takes Old Age In Stride

Norma Miller (in white) says that, by the time the '20s came along, people were searching for a new style of dance. Together with the Lindy Hoppers, Miller helped supply a swinging alternative.
Courtesy of John Biffar
Norma Miller (in white) says that, by the time the '20s came along, people were searching for a new style of dance. Together with the Lindy Hoppers, Miller helped supply a swinging alternative.

The 1920s gave life to jazz, jukeboxes and the career of Norma Miller — the Queen of Swing. Now, at 95 years old, Miller is the last living member of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, the group that took Lindy Hop — the original swing dance — out of Harlem's ballrooms and across the world.

But before she became the Queen of Swing, Miller was just a poor black girl in Harlem who loved to dance. Even as she watched her mother struggle to make rent by cleaning houses, Miller dreamed of another path.

"Black girls didn't have many outlets," Miller recalls. "You had laundry. You had hairdresser. Or teacher. Now, I didn't qualify for none of those. I could dance, I just could just do it naturally."

She got her start as a 5-year-old, performing at amateur nights in theaters. "My mother pushed me at every contest," she laughs.

Miller lived just blocks from the legendary Savoy Ballroom. She was too young to go inside, so she'd imitate the grown-ups from the sidewalk. They were doing a new fast-paced dance with kicks and spins and lifts.

"The world wanted to get away from the waltz, the tango, the rumba," Miller says. "So now a dance came, and it wasn't called swing. It was called 'the Lindy hop.' It was named after Charles Lindbergh" — who was known across the world as the first man ever to fly solo from New York to Paris.

Miller was discovered doing the Lindy hop outside the Savoy. By her 15th birthday, she was in Paris with the ballroom's best dancers: Whitey's Lindy Hoppers.

The dance mixed an eight count with freer kinds of moves found in black dances at the time. It added pizzazz to films like the 1941 hit Hellzapoppin', in which Miller appears as a dancing cook. In an apron and black Mary Janes, she flips over her partner, hops up and snaps her fingers.

More than 60 years later, Miller jokes she's no cook and says she can barely make rice. She loves mimosas and red nail polish. She approaches her wrinkles with little Oil of Olay — and a lot of humor.

"The last face that you'll have is forever," Miller says. "Go with it, sweetie. That's it!"

After her career in dance, Miller took up comedy with the help of a good friend and well-known comedian. "Red Foxx said, 'Look, you're not going to be able to dance any longer; your knees are knocking; you better come out and learn to talk,' " she says — and she did.

But it took some getting used to.

"I'd played the biggest theaters in NYC. I couldn't get used to just a mic and just standing on a stage talking. I like illusion! I like changing costumes."

Miller now relishes her new comedy career, though. She does tours where all subjects are up for discussion, including sex and old age.

With all the twists and turns of her career, Miller takes life in stride.

"It's easy. When you reach my age, like I said, you know everything," she says. "Nothing is a surprise."

Copyright 2015 WMFE

Renata joined the WVIK News team in March 2014, as the Amy Helpenstell Foundation Fellow. She anchors during Morning Edition and All Things Considered, produces features, and reports on everything from same-sex marriage legislation to unemployment in the Quad Cities.