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Tue, 12.02.1919

Norma Miller, Dancer born

Norma Miller

*Norma Miller was born on this date in 1919.  She was a Black lindy hop dancer, choreographer, actress, author, and comedian known as the "Queen of Swing".  

Norma Miller was born in Harlem, New York into mother Alma and father Norman, a soldier, both from Bridgetown, Barbados. She was named after her father, who died from pneumonia a month before her birth. She had an older sister, Dot. Young Miller took dance lessons from a young age. During the Great Depression, Miller and her family moved to an apartment near the Savoy Ballroom.  

On Easter Sunday in 1932, when Miller was 12 years old, she was dancing outside the Savoy Ballroom, too young to enter. She was approached by George “Twist Mouth” Ganaway, "the greatest dancer at the Savoy," who was impressed with her dancing. Twist Mouth asked Miller to immediately be his partner in a competition occurring in the ballroom, which they won before Miller was escorted back outside.  Later that year, Miller entered the Savoy Lindy Hop Contest, held at the Apollo Theater. Miller entered with one of her high school friends, Sonny Ashby, and they won the contest. The performance prompted Herbert "Whitey" White, the dance master at the Savoy, to ask Miller to join his group, Whitey's Lindy Hoppers.

She was hired in 1934 at age 15, the youngest member of the group. In 1935, the troupe won the Harvest Moon Ball contest and then went on a 7-month European tour that began in the U.S. with headliner Ethel Waters. In California, the group appeared in the 1936 movie A Day at the Races. After the tour, Miller was hospitalized for fatigue. Miller rejoined the group in 1938. For a second time, the group performed at the Harvest Moon Ball, hosted by Ed Sullivan. Miller and her partner placed in the top 3, and Sullivan invited them to perform on Toast of the Town (later called The Ed Sullivan Show).  

They appeared in the 1941 movie Hellzapoppin', where Miller played a dancing cook. When they returned from filming, the group went to Rio de Janeiro to perform for 10 months because of the start of World War II.  She left Whitey's Lindy Hoppers in 1942 to produce and attend dance school. She took classes based in the techniques of Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman. She toured Canada and the United States and lived in Los Angeles before returning to New York in 1946.  From 1952 to 1968, Miller directed and toured with the Norma Miller Dancers and Norma Miller and Her Jazzmen, both of which included Frankie Manning's son Chazz Young as well as her long-time partner Billy Ricker. In 1954, her group toured nationally with the Count Basie show. She and Cab Calloway introduced their comedy skit of Romeo and Juliet while performing in Miami Beach, where she lived until 1959.  In 1972, Miller traveled to Vietnam on a solo comedy tour.

She moved to Las Vegas in 1977, where she starred in and produced shows. She returned to New York In 1982, where she lived and worked until 1990 when she returned to Las Vegas.  Miller, who never married and left no immediate survivors, had a long-term relationship with her fellow “Hellzapoppin” performer Roy Glenn, who died in 1971.  She appeared in at least nine other documentaries on dance, black comedy, and other subjects, including a PBS series “Jazz” (2000). She was the subject of a children’s book by Alan Govenar, “Stompin’ at the Savoy: The Story of Norma Miller” (2006). Her own books include “Swing Baby Swing” (2010, with Darlene Gist), a chronicle of swing dancing over her century. 

In 2018, Miller appeared at the Herrang Dance Camp in Sweden, an annual gathering since the 1980s of Lindy Hop lovers from around the world.  Norma Miller died on May 5, 2019, at her home in Fort Myers, Fla. She was 99.

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