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    Norma Miller, Lindy-hopping ‘Queen of Swing,’ at 99

    Norma Miller was the last surviving member of the Lindy Hoppers.
    Erika Gerdemark/The New York Times/file 2018
    Norma Miller was the last surviving member of the Lindy Hoppers.

    NEW YORK — Norma Miller, who danced the Lindy Hop on Harlem sidewalks as a child, and as a teenager dazzled crowds on international tours in the 1930s and early ’40s doing the same kicks, spins and drops that had made it a Jazz Age jitterbug craze, died Sunday at her home in Fort Myers, Fla. She was 99.

    Her longtime manager and caretaker, John Biffar, announced her death.

    Among the cultural prodigies who arose after aviator Charles Lindbergh’s “hop” from New York to Paris in 1927 — hence the dance’s name — Ms. Miller, known as the “Queen of Swing,” was the youngest recruit and last survivor of the original Lindy Hoppers, the all-black Herbert White troupe that broke in at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom and popularized the Lindy Hop in Broadway shows, on tours of Europe and Latin America, and in films.


    In the movies, she danced and sang in memorable black-cast numbers in the Marx Brothers’ “A Day at the Races” (1937) and in the madcap Olsen and Johnson comedy “Hellzapoppin’” (1941). She later thrived as a choreographer, comedian, television actor, and author, and was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2003 as a conservator of the Lindy Hop.

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    With her own black companies, the Norma Miller Dancers and Norma Miller and Her Jazzmen, she joined early fights to undermine segregation in the nightclubs and casinos of Miami Beach and Las Vegas, where black entertainers — even stars like Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. — drew big crowds but afterward had to leave through the kitchen and stay in segregated accommodations.

    A child of poverty whose father died before she was born, Ms. Miller lived with her mother and sister in a cramped, noisy Harlem apartment, whose back windows looked out on the ballroom that would be her steppingstone to stardom. On the horizon were professional friendships with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Artie Shaw, and other musical legends.

    She was discovered on Easter Sunday 1932 by the great swing dancer Twist Mouth George Ganaway as she flashed her moves on the sidewalk outside the Savoy, a blocklong rhythm factory on Lenox Avenue between West 140th and 141st streets. She was only 12, too young even to get into the swanky, mirrored emporium of swing that Langston Hughes called “the heartbeat of Harlem.”

    “I was a precocious youngster,” Ms. Miller said in “Queen of Swing,” a 2006 documentary about her life. Ganaway spotted her performance and gave her a Coca-Cola. From inside the Savoy, a swing band’s hard-driving sound beat its way to the sidewalk, and there she and Ganaway danced.


    “He swung me out,” she recalled. “I don’t know if I ever hit the floor. He just flew me all around.”

    Norma, wiry and nimble, already knew some Lindy Hop moves: the swing out, the hip-to-hip, the side-flip, the sugar push. Ganaway was impressed. He took her into the Savoy, ignoring the technicality of her age, and they were soon captivating the regulars with through-the-legs slides, over-the-head flips and acrobatic aerial lifts.

    Later, they won a Lindy Hop contest at the Savoy.

    She continued to improve. After watching her win the Harvest Moon Ball dance contest at the Apollo Theater in 1934, Herbert White invited her to join his new troupe, the Lindy Hoppers. She agreed, and at 15 came under the tutelage of White’s choreographer, Frankie Manning, the master of swing-era dances, who was the inspirational coach of the Lindy Hoppers.

    What followed over the next few years was the professional education of a dancer: the wider world of hard work and the excitement and grind of travel to faraway places, of dancing on Broadway and on a seven-month tour of Paris, London, and other European cities, then performances across America with Ethel Waters and a girl’s first adventure in Hollywood.


    She was not quite 18 when she met the Marx Brothers, Allan Jones, and Maureen O’Sullivan on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot and made her film debut in “A Day at the Races.” She danced and sang with the Lindy Hoppers in the well-known black-cast number “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm,” which featured singer Ivie Anderson and Duke Ellington’s orchestra. The Lindy Hop sequence earned an Academy Award nomination for the choreographer, Dave Gould.

    Ms. Miller and the Lindy Hoppers were showcased in the hit Broadway musical revue “Hellzapoppin’” in 1938 and in 1941 appeared in the Hollywood version, both of which starred Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson, and Martha Raye. It was a slashing satire of show business, with slapstick mayhem, horned demons, collapsing staircases, and fun house slides that led straight to hell.

    In a sequence widely regarded as the best example of the Lindy Hop on film, four couples in backstage-workers’ get-ups swing out, one after the other, into acrobatic shines at a frenetic tempo. Ms. Miller and Billy Ricker, dancing in chef’s caps like animated rag dolls, execute breathtaking flips, slides, kicks, splits, lifts, and lightning moves that seem to defy gravity and human speed limits.

    After completing the filming of that sequence, the Lindy Hoppers flew to Brazil and were performing in Rio de Janeiro when the bombing of Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II. Unable to find transportation home, the troupe toured for six months in South America before returning home exhausted and nearly broke.

    With the war on, the Lindy Hop began to fade as musical tastes changed. In 1942, Ms. Miller made her last tour with the Lindy Hoppers. When her dance partner was drafted into the military, she left the troupe, which disbanded soon after. While her career went on for decades, it never returned to the high notes of her early years.

    The Savoy Ballroom, which opened in 1926 and brought blacks and whites together in an era of racial segregation, was torn down in 1958 to make way for a housing project. On any given night, thousands had packed its hardwood floors as swing music by Ellington, Basie, or Chick Webb inspired the Norma Millers.

    “Black girls didn’t have many outlets,” she told a Florida radio station in 2015, eight decades after her heyday. “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.”

    Ms. Miller lived in Las Vegas for much of the 1960s and ’70s. She did comedy routines in clubs with Redd Foxx and taught children’s dance classes. In 1972, she entertained American troops in Vietnam. She had roles in three of Foxx’s NBC sitcoms: “Sanford and Son” in 1973 and 1974, “Grady” in 1976 and “Sanford Arms” in 1977.

    Besides “Queen of Swing,” John Biffar’s documentary, Ms. Miller appeared in at least nine other documentaries on dance, black comedy, and other subjects, including Ken Burns’s PBS series “Jazz” (2000).