When she was a little girl, Norma Miller would perch on the fire escape of her tenement building in Harlem, watching dancers spin through the Savoy Ballroom across the street. By the age of 15, she was dancing the Lindy Hop for audiences around the globe, fueling the craze for its frenetic footwork. Miller died this week at the age of 99, according to Harrison Smith of the Washington Post; to the end, she was known as the “Queen of Swing.”
Miller was born in Manhattan in 1919, to parents who had immigrated from Barbados. Her father served in the Army and died of pneumonia before she was born, and her mother worked as a maid. Miller and her sister liked to practice the moves they observed among patrons of the Savoy, a sprawling, integrated dance hall where the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie performed for crowds of swing dancers. At the time, Miller was too young to enter the ballroom, but the dance that would become her signature was flourishing there. The Lindy Hop, named after the aviator Charles Lindbergh, “married swing music’s traditional eight count with the fast-paced, free-form movements of African-American dances at the time,” Renata Sago explains for the New York Times.
On Easter Sunday in 1932, 12-year-old Miller was dancing on the sidewalk when she was spotted by famed Lindy Hopper “Twistmouth George” Ganaway, who brought her into the Savoy to dance with him. “I don’t know if I ever hit the floor,” Miller remembered in the 2006 documentary Queen of Swing. “He just flew me all around.”
Miller subsequently began entering and winning dance contests, which opened up new horizons for her. “Black girls didn’t have many outlets,” Miller told Renata Sago in a 2015 interview with WGCU. “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.”
In 1934, Miller became the youngest member of an elite dance troupe Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, founded by Herbert “Whitey” White. She worked with the legendary choreographer Frankie Manning, who had a defining influence on the development of the Lindy Hop, and began touring across the United States, Europe and South America. Along with her fellow Lindy Hoppers, Miller appeared in the 1937 Marx Brothers’ comedy A Day at the Races, which earned an Academy Award nomination for choreography for its Lindy Hop sequence. She also danced in the 1941 madcap comedy Hellzapoppin’, in which Miller, who played a cook, can be seen spinning, leaping, twirling and flipping with her partner Billy Ricker.
The advent of World War II signaled an end to the Lindy Hop’s heyday, as trends in music and dance began to change. After Miller’s partner was drafted to the military, she left the Lindy Hoppers and the troupe disbanded soon after. In the years following the war, Miller founded her own troupe—the Norma Miller Dancers—which toured the United States and Australia, and subsequently accompanied Count Basie on a national tour. In 1957, she joined the Cotton Club Revue, which featured the jazz entertainer Cab Calloway and a 48-member, all-black cast. The group performed regularly in Las Vegas and Miami Beach, though they were not always welcomed due to their skin color.
“The day of our big dress rehearsal, there were headlines in the Miami Sun telling [nightclub owner] Murray Weinger that they didn’t want his colored show on the beach,” Miller recalled in her 1996 memoir, Swingin’ at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer, co-written with Evette Jensen.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Miller pivoted to comedy, performing alongside Redd Foxx. When interest in the Lindy Hop began to resurge in the 1980s, Miller began dancing for audiences once again. Near the end of her life, at age 98, Miller traveled to the seaside village of Herräng in Sweden to oversee Lindy Hop enthusiasts at a dance camp there. She was reportedly bemused at how far the dance’s popularity had traveled. “I said: ‘You’ve got to be kidding talking about some goddamned Lindy Hop in Sweden,” Miller told Sago of the Times.
Miller had planned to celebrate her 100th birthday this December at the camp. Miller’s long-standing love of dance appeared to be matched only by her sunny outlook. “Life,” she said in 2015, “is comedy to me.”
For more on Norma Miller's life, listen to the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program’s 1992 interview with Miller in conversation with jazz historian and swing dancer Ernie Smith. According to John Edward Hasse, curator emeritus of American Music at Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, the same year she gave the interview, she came to Washington, DC, with her dancing partner Frankie Manning to participate in Stompin’ at the Smithsonian. “It was a sensational, memorable night,” recounted Miller, who, at the time, also served as the executive director of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, which played on as Miller and Manning danced. “[It was] the first time, I believe," he noted, "that a national jazz repertory orchestra had reignited the historical link between swing dancing and swing music, and thus was a milestone for the Smithsonian and for jazz.”