At 95, Norma Miller can still bust a move. “Swing baby,” says Miller, who will dance with a partner as she hums the Count Basie song “Shiny Stockings.”
That song, she explains, gets any Lindy Hopper dancing. Lindy Hop – that’s a type of dance borne from the Swing Era of the 1930s and ‘40s. It was the dance style that evolved in Harlem alongside all the jazz greats from Basie to Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. And Miller, who first stepped into Harlem’s famous Savoy Ballroom when she was just a child, is the last great Lindy Hopper from that era.
“Queen of Swing,” says Miller by way of introduction. She lives in Florida but she travels about 6 months a year to coach and teach and to catch up with the Lindy Hop community of dancers near and far, folks in their 30s who want to celebrate this American legend.
Miller, who was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2003, stopped by KPLU recently during a weekend visit in Seattle; she was feted at a public celebration that included a screening of a 2006 documentary about her life.
About what was it like to dance the Lindy Hop back in the day, Miller says: “How can I explain it? It’s perfection! Nothing is better than a body that’s coordinated perfectly with music. You hear a sound and you respond to it.”
But it was how she responded to the music that launched a performing career with musicians, in film, in the theater as a choreographer and even as a stand-up comedian and TV star. Miller’s credits include choreographing the dance scenes in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” and working with Redd Foxx in the 1970s sitcom “Sanford & Son.”
But it all began with the Lindy Hop, which took hold of her when she a kid growing up in back of the Savoy Ballroom. She and her sister would hang on the fire escape of their apartment and take in the sounds of the bands playing across the street. Back then, black musicians could only play in black clubs like the Savoy. Miller and her sister would imagine how the adults danced and they’d practice in their stocking feet in their living room.
“My mother hated it,” Miller recalls. The music played late at night.
When she was 12, she stood outside the Savoy on Easter Sunday and was spotted – and invited – by a legendary Lindy Hop dancer named “Twistmouth George” to dance. “I was a precocious youngster,” says Miller. He gave her a Coca Cola and then “he swung me out. I don’t know if I ever hit the floor. He just flew me all around.”
When she was 15, Miller won 3rd place at the Harvest Moon Ball and she was invited to join a group called Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and tour Europe. “They had never seen the Lindy Hop,” Miller says. By then, the group had put its own stamp on the dance style, elevating it physically and acrobatically. Miller performed with Ethel Waters and in 1941, she performed in the film “Hellzapoppin.’” The Lindy Hop sequence in the movie -- Miller is the second couple – is considered to be the greatest Lindy Hop sequence ever recorded.
“I just did it naturally. Yeah. This was no big effort at all. This was just ordinary dancing,” she says.