This past Wednesday 98-year-old Norma Miller – the Queen of Swing – and daughter of Norman and Zalma Miller from Light Foot Lane, St Michael, ably led a two-hour reflective lunchtime conversation with members of Team Barbados, at their New York office, about her life as an author, comedian, swing dancer (Lindy-Hop), and choreographer.
When the early afternoon affair ended around 3:15 p.m., her audience, stood, applauded and sang the song, For he is a jolly good fellow.
Without hesitation, Miller, dressed in a black tux suit with sequins, accepted the commendations and then quietly said: “You sang it wrong. Let us try it again.”
Miller, who performed with Ella Fitz Gerald, Duke Ellington, Frank Manning and many other famous musicians, clapped her hands in a jazz tempo and restarted the song, to further applause.
Her story is one of survival, success, and rejection and it was presented in a way that reflects the deep thinker and teacher she has become. Indeed, Miller invited those present to think about life choices.
Her first thinking cap was a red cap, a response to danger and struggle.
“My mother came to the United States to work as a sponsored housekeeper. She followed in the footsteps of an aunt. When I was young, mother once told me, ‘when you don’t have horse to ride, ride cow.’ My father had died, and, in order to survive, she kept rent parties,” she recalled, while admitting that she always struggled with eating ‘cou-cou’, but had to eat it.
The second cap was a green cap, green as in go.
“My mother became my dance cheerleader. In those days, when you won an amateur competition at the Apollo Theater, they gave you work for a month. She sought performing opportunities on amateur stages wherever she could find them.
“When a door opened you had to go through it. That is why we needed a Joe Louis. It was often said that he was dumb, but he knew not to speak. If you didn’t speak, no one could come back at you. With every opportunity came rejection but you needed to educate yourself about the law,” she explained.
Miller added the white cap – the truce, the white flag of neutrality.
“I encountered racism and more, but you instinctively learn to deal with it. You decide what you want to be, learn it well, and become better than anyone else at it. No one can better you at what you created, no one had to teach us the Lindy-Hop dance. White people came to us to learn it. You can’t replace Mozart or Beethoven,” she said.
Miller also used an orange cap for amber or pause mode.
“When I was 40, Redd Foxx the comedian told to me your knees will soon be old and he invited me to travel with him. I became his sidekick, and he taught me how to become a comedian,” she said.
The Harlem-born Miller, who lived opposite the Savoy Ballroom, was visiting New York to attend the launch of a stamp issue in honour of Lean Horn, and a symposium on the work of Ella Fitzgerald.
Consul General Donna Hunte Cox thanked Miller for keeping her promise, congratulated her on her significant contribution to dance in America and presented her with her 50th anniversary of Independence honoree plaque, awarded to Barbadians by birth or descent.
Eustace Skeete, a tourism officer, offered to help Miller visit Barbados.
“ My previous attempt to stop off in Barbados while on my way to Rio never happened because the war turned up. Make it happen before it is too late,” said a smiling Miller, who turns 99 on December 2, 2018.