Showing posts with label Dancing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dancing. Show all posts

Saturday, July 29, 2017

National Dance Day: Interview with Norma Miller and Susan Glatzer

Norma Miller and Susan Glatzer on media day in April 2017

Today is National Dance Day and I’d like to share with you two interviews I did with dancer Norma Miller, the Queen of Swing, and Susan Glatzer, director of the swing dancing documentary Alive and Kicking which I reviewed back in April.

Norma Miller with other members of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. Photo source: Norma Miller's official website

"Give me a beat!" - Norma Miller

At 97 years old, Norma Miller is still as feisty as ever. The legendary swing dancer is the last surviving member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers which also included the late great Frankie Manning. She started dancing at the age of 5 and quickly became an attraction whether it was on the sidewalks of Harlem or in the Savoy Ballroom. In my phone conversation with Norma Miller she explained, "the Savoy Ballroom was the first integrated place in America. And it was a place where we could go in every night and dance and we didn't have to pay to come in."At the tender age of twelve, she and her mother lived across from the Savoy Ballroom and Miller could often be found dancing just outside it. She was invited in and soon started enchanting eager audiences with her moves.

Miller then caught the eye of Herbert White, also known as "Whitey" and he invited her to become one of his dancers. On becoming one of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers Miller told me, "that became the professional act that came out of the Savoy Ballroom. We were traveling for [the] Whitey's Lindy Hoppers [in] 1937." Whitey's troupe of talented swing dancers traveled the world and it wasn't long before she got to Hollywood. Miller remembers:

"We went all the way. We crossed the country. We played every Paramount theater. From New York City all the way out to the West Coast. And it was at the West Coast that the people that was making a movie called A Day at the Races saw us at the theater and called back the cast so they could put the Lindy Hop in there. And that was the first time America saw the Lindy Hop."

When I asked her if she had fun making A Day at the Races (1937) Miller enthusiastically replied "of course!". 

In a few years time she'd be back in Hollywood. Norma Miller told me "that was 1941 that was a different act. We were at the time traveling with [Ole] Olsen and [Chic] Johnson. We were part of their package." She was in a fantastic swing dancing seen in the otherwise odd little movie Hellzapoppin' (1941). In it she dances with Frankie Manning. I told Miller that the scene was the best part of the movie. She replied, "Did you see the whole movie?" When I told her yes she said, 'now you know why it was the best thing!"

It IS rather a strange film!

The Lindy Hop of Norma Miller's generation was different from swing dancing today. Miller said, "The Lindy Hop is a professional dance. What you do today is social dancing. It's the greatest means of people communicating. There's nothing better than swing dancing because everybody can do it." Miller hopes people will watch the documentary Alive and Kicking, she's one of three swing dancing legends interviewed in the film. Miller told me, "if they like it, it'll give them a jump start so that people can get out and dance again."

Alive and Kicking (2016)

Stream/Digital Download: iTunes - Fandango - Vudu - and elsewhere

Susan Glatzer's documentary was five years in the making and originally she wasn't supposed to direct it. In my conversation with Glatzer,  she told me:
 "I've been a swing dancer for 19 years... At first I wasn't going to be directing it. I wanted to have somebody else direct it. And they were always busy. So I started and that's how it happened. As I started filming I realized that there were things I wanted to say about our society today. I really did feel like dancing was such a good way of expressing it. Of coming together and how the dance brings people together. We get to relate on a human level. I think that we isolate a lot and I do think that the internet has turned it into us and them a lot more than we naturally are."

In the documentary, Glatzer interviews legends like the aforementioned Norma Miller and Frankie Manning as well as Dawn Hampton who passed away late last year. When I asked her what she learned from interviewing these rock stars of swing dancing, she one word for me: "humility". She went on to say,

"Dawn, she knew how to live life. She knew how see the grace and the beauty in every situation. She saw gratitude in so many things. That's way beyond the dance. Frankie [Manning] was the same way. There's the Frankie Manning Foundation and part of their mission is to grow the swing community and introduce the dance to people. A big part of it is to carry on his outlook on his life which was about kindness and everyone is welcome to swing dance. I don't care how young, old, what size, shape, race. It doesn't matter. Everyone is welcome. Carrying on that kind of way of looking at other individuals. In a way that we do not do much of these days. Where we see other people as human beings who are potential friends as opposed to the other faction."

Also in the documentary are the young professional swing dancers who make this dance not only their profession but their lifestyle. Many of them got hooked on swing dancing from seeing clips from classic films. On how old movies influenced the swing dancing revival in the home video era, Glatzer says,

"they saw all these old movies and they were like who are these people and how do we find them? They started researching and they found the original dancers. But my generation when I started dancing in the '90s. If you got your hands on a fourth generation VHS copy of Groovy Movie or Hellzapoppin' that was considered so amazing. You would watch it and re-watch it again and try to learn the moves. And now everything is out there on YouTube. You had to work hard for it back in the day. It really did come with seeing those old movies again."

Alive and Kicking is an amazing documentary that captures the spirit of not only swing dancing but a lively and thriving community. My last question for Glatzer was what she hoped people would take away from watching this documentary. She responded, "if they are just discovering this music and this dance and they want to explore that, that would be amazing. I do think that we live lives of quiet desperation. So few of us have a source of joy in our lives. I hope that it encourages people to find whatever is the source of joy for themselves."

Thank you to Norma Miller and Susan Glatzer for taking the time out to talk to me and to Caitlin Rose for coordinating.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Alive and Kicking (2016)

What do classic movie fans do when they want to pursue their passion in other avenues? They wear vintage clothes and shoes. They style their hair in mid-century up-dos or slicked back styles. They collect big band albums and jazz records. They frequent estate sales and thrift shops. They attend historical revivals. And... they swing dance. Did you know that the resurgence of interest in classic movies of the home video era was instrumental in revitalizing swing dancing?

"Once they see those films, they really want to do it."

Let's start from the beginning. Swing dancing originated in Harlem during the Great Depression. It was a street dance with roots in the Charleston dance style of the 1920s. This dance was influenced greatly by the music of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. The African-American community brought swing dancing to the ballroom. Herbert Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, made up of dancers including Norma Miller, Frankie Manning and others, brought it to Hollywood in films like Hellzapoppin' (1940), the Marx Bros.' A Day at the Races (1937) and shorts like Groovie Movie (1944). Swing dancing transcended its Harlem roots to become a nation-wide phenomenon. While the Lindy Hop is the most popular, many styles found their niches including West Coast and East Coast swing, Boogie-Woogie, Collegiate Shag, Jive, Rock n Roll, Blues dancing and countless others.

"It was the one relief you had from the bad times." - Norma Miller on dancing during the Great Depression

Swing dancing went out of fashion in post-WWII America. New dances came into fashion and swing dancing was soon forgotten. Movies came to the rescue in the home video era starting in the 1980s and escalating into the 1990s. People watched swing dancing on screen and felt the urge to do it themselves. The craze caught on again and legends like Frankie Manning, who had retired from dancing and became a postal worker to make ends meet, were in demand again. According to dance historian Rusty Frank, the movies Swing Kids (1993) and Swingers (1996) and the widespread appeal of Gap's 1998 Khaki Swing commercial  firmly established swing dancing as part of American culture again. However this time around it wouldn't become a mainstream fad. Instead it would find a home in a community of enthusiasts who put their heart and soul into this rediscovered dance style.

"Nobody does social dancing than Lindy Hop." - Norma Miller

Susan Glatzer's new documentary Alive and Kicking (2016) explores the culture that grew from the resurgence of swing dancing. In today's technology age, everyone is constantly connected yet disconnected. Dancing forces you to be out of your head and into your body and to connect with someone face to face. It's the ultimate rebellion against the isolation of modern life because it forces you to me intimate with strangers. This documentary explores swing dancing as a community, a spiritual experience, as therapy, as a secret conversation between two people and as a way to bridge the generations. Swing dancers come in all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, genders and ages. They travel the world to compete against and to connect with other dancers. While there's some money to be made by winning competitions, most dancers work full-time jobs and swing dance on the side or they make a living through teaching their art.

 "Swing dancing is the pursuit of happiness." - Evita

Alive and Kicking isn't a historical documentary. Nor is it instructional or specifically about swing dancing competitions. It truly is about the culture of the dancers. Interview subjects include swing dancing legends Frankie Manning, Norma Miller and Dawn Hampton as well as young up-and-comers Evita, Emilie and Rebecka and Steve and Chanzie. We learn about what motivates them, why they love dance and how they approach the lifestyle and prepare for competition. The film mainly focuses on these rising stars but it also includes interviews with many other dancers and experts. I enjoyed learning about these young dancers as much as I did about the legends. Manning and Hampton have since passed away and Norma Miller is still with us at the swingin' age of 97. Fun fact: you can watch all three of these dancers in the Lindy Hop scene of Malcolm X (1992).

"Happiness is just a few steps away."

This documentary includes many dance numbers with a focus on the Lindy Hop style, an improvised dance which is also highly technical. I appreciated this documentary for what it taught me about the culture and the dancers. I would have loved to learn more about the technical aspects of the dance but that was not the intention of the film. It did make me want to take a swing dancing lesson or two!

Alive and Kicking is a contemporary documentary but I think it'll appeal highly to the vintage community as well as to classic movie fans. It revitalized my interest in the vintage life and awakened my curiosity about swing dancing.

Alive and Kicking (2016) will be in theatres and available online April 7th. Visit the official website for more information. Thank you to Magnolia Pictures for the opportunity to review this film. Stay tuned as I'll be sharing my interview with writer, director and producer Susan Glatzer as well as swing dancing legend Norma Miller soon.

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