The Queen Of Swing Takes Old Age In Stride
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The 1920s gave life to jazz, jukeboxes and the career of Norma Miller. She's the Queen of Swing. And at 95 years old, Miller is the last living member of Whitney's Lindy Hoppers. That's the group that took Lindy Hop, the original swing dance, out of Harlem's ballrooms and across the world. Renata Sago from member station WMFE in Orlando, Fla., has her story.
RENATA SAGO, BYLINE: Before Norma Miller was the Queen of Swing, she was a poor, black girl in Harlem who loved to dance. She watched her mother struggle to make rent cleaning homes, and Miller dreamt of another path.
NORMA MILLER: Black girls didn't have many outlets. 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.
SAGO: Miller got her start as a 5-year-old, performing at amateur nights in theaters.
MILLER: My mother pushed me at every contest (laughter).
SAGO: She lived just blocks away from the legendary Savoy Ballroom. Miller 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.
MILLER: The world wanted to get away from the waltz, the tango, the rumba. So now a new dance coming - it wasn't called swing. It was the Lindy Hop. It was named after Charles Lindbergh.
SAGO: 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.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And those Lindy Hoppers go to town, boys and girls. They don't do nothing but. Some call it madness, but they call it dancing. Whatever it is, it's hop. Yeah, man.
SAGO: It added pizzazz to films like the 1941 hit "Hellzapoppin'," where Miller appears as a dancing cook.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "HELLZAPOPPIN'")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hey, Pops, keep that beat a beat. Feel a rhythmic dream song coming on.
SAGO: 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. She can barely make rice. She loves mimosas and red nail polish. She approaches her wrinkles with a little oil of Olay and a lot of humor.
MILLER: The last face you have is forever. Go with it, sweetie. That's it (laughter).
SAGO: After her career in dance, Miller took up comedy with the help of a good friend and well-known comedian.
MILLER: Redd Foxx said, look, you're not going to be able to dance much longer. Your knees are knobby. You better come out and learn to talk.
SAGO: And she did, but it took some getting used to.
MILLER: I played the biggest theaters in New York City. I couldn't get used to just a mic and standing on stage talking. I like illusion. I like changing costume.
SAGO: Miller now relishes her comedy career. She does tours where all subjects are up for discussion, like sex and old age. Here she is at a show in Florida.
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MILLER: They talk about that Viagra. But, honey, some of them need a nuclear reactor.
SAGO: With all the twists and turns of her career, Miller takes life in stride.
MILLER: It's easy. When you reach my age, like I said, you know everything. Nothing is a surprise.
SAGO: Except the next joke that comes out of her mouth. For NPR News, I'm Renata Sago in Orlando.
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