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Norma Miller, the Queen of Swing that’s Made America Dance for 80 years

99 years young: an interview with the last living witness to an extraordinary period of American music -- that of the Lindy Hop

Norma Miller.

We met her in Milan, where she arrived to give one of her concerts, in front of a public that could not be more variegated: from twenty-year-olds to ninety-year-olds. And with regards to her turning 100 years old soon, the Swing icon affirms: “I will stop touring and finally rest. Stop”

Translated by Emmellina De Feo

They call her the Queen of Swing, and she herself, Norma Miller, born back in 1919, defines herself as the oldest woman in show business, the last living witness to an extraordinary period of American music – that of the Lindy Hop, the dance that in the 1930s and 1940s dragged the entire country onto the dance floor, where ballrooms and nightclubs became legendary, such as the Savoy Ballroom or the Cotton Club.

I meet with her in Milan, in a ballroom (the Spirit de Milan, the famous temple of Italian swing music) where she arrived to hold one of her concerts. In front of a public that could not be more variegated, from twenty-year-olds to ninety-year-olds.

Ms. Miller, what is music to you?
“It’s everything. Music awakens me; listening to music gives me the energy to get on stage, to sing, to dance. And to live. You see? This is how I’ve arrived at the threshold of being a centenarian”.

What would you say to someone who doesn’t know what swing music is?
“To someone who has no idea about swing, I’d say, listen to this music. Everything circles around this rhythm, around swing. Let yourself go, listen and the dance will follow right away, and you won’t stop”.

You began dancing at 12 years old, in 1931. Then in the following years you were hired for several shows, and you also wound up in two famous black and white movies, always as a dancer, correct?
“Yes, I began very young. Then, they wanted me in two movies, A Day at the Races and Helzapoppin’, always with the Marx brothers. In the Thirties, so, so very long ago”.

I know that you worked with famous artists throughout your long career. Which one do you remember most fondly?
“Oh, yes! I worked with huge music stars. Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior, Judy Garland, and many others that right now do not come to mind. I certainly had a special rapport with Sammy; I saw him grow and become a famous artist. And he “took” a piece of music of mine once! Or rather, I gave it to him, but he was really perfect for that piece!”.

How has the America that you have experienced been from the 1920s until today?
“Sometimes difficult, sometimes complicated, and sometimes beautiful. Honestly….. I don’t know! I’ve lived for so long immersed in the world of dance. We always lived in a state of joy. Even when there were laws that discriminated against us, we people of color. Let’s say that it was exactly swing music that helped me. It makes you enjoy life, overcome many things, and this is what happened to me”.

Do you listen to today’s music? What, for example?
“Today’s music doesn’t turn me on. With Swing, we had magnificent bands, magnificent artists, real musicians….Today instead there are perhaps 3 valid musicians, to tell you the truth. We’re not even close.

You were a supporter of Hillary Clinton during the election campaign, so much so that you dedicated a song of yours to her. But you also valued Obama highly.  What can you tell me about Donald Trump? Do you have some nostalgia for the Democrats?
“You want to know my political opinion regarding Donald Trump? I think he’s stupid, but he’s currently the president of the United States, therefore I must respect this, even though I do not appreciate what he does and says.  And at the same time, I’ll admit that I don’t know him. For certain, I can tell you that I did not vote Republican. As for Obama, he was the first mixed race president, and in a certain sense I was afraid for him — I drew a sigh of relief when he won and….he wasn’t killed. Because in America, black people get killed! Now we have another white president, he’s stupid, but okay — for me, end of story”. 

After this stop in Italy, where you sang on the stage of the Spirit de Milan, what is in program for you?
“I’ll be returning to Miami, and then on to Los Angeles this December, for a fundraising dedicated to one of our dancers. And on my birthday, I’ll be returning to Florida. Nothing special”.

Next year you will be turning 100. What are you preparing for this milestone birthday?
“I will stop touring and finally rest. Stop”.    

Listen, do you have a secret for staying so fit? You are 99 years old, and you were on stage singing for 90 minutes straight…
“I don’t think I have a secret. I just enjoyed life….for my whole life. The difficulties are overcome with dance, laughter and a lot of fun. And I’ve had this during my entire existence. I don’t know if this is the secret. For sure, I’ve always loved what I was doing”.

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