Silver Belles Still Light Up the Harlem Stage

The Silver Belles i i

The Silver Belles, from left: Marion Coles, 91; Cleo Hayes, 91; Elaine Ellis, 88; and Fay Ray, 86. John Clifford/Toots Crackin Productions hide caption

itoggle caption John Clifford/Toots Crackin Productions
The Silver Belles

The Silver Belles, from left: Marion Coles, 91; Cleo Hayes, 91; Elaine Ellis, 88; and Fay Ray, 86.

John Clifford/Toots Crackin Productions
Elaine Ellis dancing at the Apollo Theater in the early 1940s.

Elaine Ellis dancing at the Apollo Theater in the early 1940s. Toots Crackin Productions hide caption

itoggle caption Toots Crackin Productions
Fay Ray backstage at the Apollo, circa 1940s.

Fay Ray backstage at the Apollo, circa 1940s. Toots Crackin Productions hide caption

itoggle caption Toots Crackin Productions

In the 1920s and '30s, Harlem was known as the "Capital of Black America," the epicenter of a flourishing African-American culture. Now, many of those who lived during the glory days of the revival known as the Harlem Renaissance are dying out.

A new documentary, Been Rich All My Life, takes a loving look at one part of that rich heritage: the Silver Belles, a leggy troupe of dancers who drew crowds to Harlem's famous nightclubs and theatres, such as the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club.

Now in their 80s and 90s, four of the remaining Belles — Fay Ray, Elaine Ellis, Cleo Hayes and Marion Coles — continue to dazzle a new generation of audiences.

Filmmaker Heather Lyn MacDonald followed the troupe as they performed before enthusiastic audiences, capturing their often bawdy backstage humor.

At the height of their fame, the Silver Belles were at least as popular as the headliners with whom they shared the stage at clubs. But it wasn't all glamour: The dancers worked hard for what little money they were paid. At one point, they made history by going on strike at the Apollo, an act that helped lead to the formation of a union for dancers.

After World War II, movies became more important than live shows. Dancers were considered too expensive, and the Harlem show girls eventually found themselves looking for other jobs.

The Silver Belles sporadically kept in touch until 1985, when Bertye Lou Woods — one of the original members, who recently passed away — asked if they would like to regroup. Since then, the Silver Belles have become a star attraction in a newly reinvigorated Harlem looking for a second renaissance.

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