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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 964

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This is the grave of Norma Miller.

Born in 1919 in Harlem, MIller was the daughter of a Barbadian immigrant shipyard worker and a mother who worked as a house cleaner. Her father died before she was born and her mother raised her as a single woman. It was tough. They were very poor. During the Depression, the family in a noisy awful tenement. But her mother was determined that her daughter enjoy the arts. She loved dance and so did her daughter. Moreover, said awful apartment was right across the street from the Savoy Ballroom and when the windows were open, she could hear the band. Said band included Ella Fitzgerald, among others. To say the least, that was inspiring to the young girl. She attended Manhattan School of the Arts and danced as often as she could.

Miller became one of the pioneers of the Lindy hop. Along with Frankie Manning, she was one of the most important figures in this dance movement of the 30s. In fact, she later became his student. She won a Lindy competition in 1934 at the Apollo. She toured with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers behind Ethel Waters and while in Hollywood was in the Marx Brothers film A Day at the Races with her other dancers. In Hellzapoppin’, she played a cook who like Manning was doing incredible moves on the screen that blew away audiences. She became known as the Queen of Swing with her audiences. During the 40s, as the Lindy hop declined in popularity, Miller remained a figure in the dance and entertainment industries. She remained up on the latest dances, worked as a producer for a night club in Harlem, and toured all over the U.S. She wasn’t rich, but she kept working, which is a success in itself. She had her own group tour that toured periodically, first with Norma Miller Dancers and then Norma Miller and Her Jazzmen. That allowed her to tour with Count Basie in 1954. She was based out of Miami for awhile in the late 50s and had success there, but also faced housing discrimination and kind of hated it. So she moved to Vegas in 1959 and lived there for the next couple of decades. She performed consistently there, often opening for people such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Redd Foxx.

As an older woman, Miller’s body became to change. Could she keep dancing. Redd Foxx told her, at least according to her later, “Look, you’re not going to be able to dance any longer. Your knees are knocking. You better learn to talk.” Luckily, Miller was funny. So she had a whole second career as a stand-up comedian. She was pretty successful. She toured Vietnam giving performances for the troops. She had a 1972 album called Healthy, Sexless & Single. Nice title! She spent the 80s and 90s between Vegas and New York, still maintaining a place in the entertainment industry. She had a brief role in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X too. In fact, she worked until the end of her very long life. As late as 2014, she toured Italy. She was 95 years old. At the age of 98, she toured Europe. Her last concert was in Palermo in 2018, when she was 99. Pretty amazing.

In 2015, Miller remembered back to how she became a dancer. She stated, “Black girls didn’t have many outlets. “You had laundry. You had hairdresser. Or teacher. Now, I didn’t qualify for any of those. I could dance. I could just do it naturally.” Fair enough. She sure made the right choice.

Miller died in 2019. She was 99 years old.

Let’s watch Norma Miller work:

Norma Miller is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other American dancers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Josephine Baker is in Monaco and I think the least you could do is send me there. If you are too cheap for that, Alvin Ailey is in Los Angeles and Maria Tallchief is in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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