Norma Adele Miller was an American Lindy Hop dancer, choreographer, actress, author, and comedian known as the “Queen of Swing”. Miller authored several books, including Stompin’ at the Savoy: The Story of Norma Miller, Me & John Biffar: A Love Story, Baby Swing!, Swingin’ at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer, Swing, and The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor co-written by Miller and Redd Foxx.
The reason Norma is so compelling is she was a renaissance woman who conquered many talents and lived a very long life of fabulous adventures. She was a queen among us.
Miller was born on December 2, 1919, in Harlem, New York, United States. She died on May 5, 2019, in Fort Meyers, Florida aged 99.
Miller and her family moved to a cramped and noisy tenement apartment on 140th street When the Great Depression began in 1929. Her father, a shipyard worker, had died a month before her birth in 1919, from double pneumonia, probably a victim of the Spanish Flu. The windows were open due to the lack of air conditioning and she could hear the house band, which was led by Chick Webb and included singer Ella Fitzgerald. From her fire escape, she would watch the dancers perform the Black Bottom, the Shimmy, the Charleston and the Shim Sham. She would practice dancing in her living room and her school gymnasium.
Because of her proximity to the Savoy Ballroom, she had a broadside view of the world she wanted to be part of. Soon she would be ushered into that world by her talents and her associations; her talent easily recognized. All she knew is that she had to dance. It was what gave her joy.
While still in her teens, Norma began a US tour in “Whitey’s Lindy Hopper’s, which landed her in Los Angeles, with Ethyl Waters headlining. While in LA she was introduced to many in Hollywood, which led to a film debut and a few other credits. She found herself stuck in Rio de Janeiro for 10 months because of the attack on Pearl Harbor. For the remainder of the 40’s she continued to perform and take dance lessons and to produce shows for the Harlem Club Small Paradise.
During the 50’s and 60’s she directed and toured with the “Norma Miller Dancers and Her Jazzmen, besides touring with other big-name performers, like Count Basis and Cab Calloway, she also dabbled in comedy with George Kirby in Miami. In the late 60’s and most of the 70’s she lived in Las Vegas and performed with Redd Foxx and Sammy Davis Jr. After traveling around Vietnam, performing her solo comedy routine, she moved between NY and Las Vegas in the 80’s and 90’s producing shows. The swing revival had made a come-back and Norma was the one to call upon.
Her career spanned for more than eight decades. Ms. Miller shared the stage with singers Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday, befriended filmmaker Orson Welles in Brazil, smoked marijuana with Louis Armstrong, helped integrate Miami Beach nightclubs with Cab Calloway, and launched a saucy and profane stand-up career with support from Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor. One of the interviews she says that her favorite celeb was Sammy Davis Jr. She had known him since he began performing at a very early age as well. Because of his association with Frank Sinatra, blacks finally got respect at Las Vegas Hotels and other areas in the country. She obviously had the love and respect of those she worked with. How else would her career last nearly 100 years?