Norma Miller

Last Sunday afternoon, I was driving while listening to NPR and heard the news: Norma Miller, the acclaimed Lindy Hopper and “Queen of Swing”, died earlier in the morning. A living legend of American culture. Now she is simply a legend.

For those who don’t know about Norma Miller, she was a professional Lindy Hopper back in the 1930’s and played an important role in the revival of Lindy Hop and swing dance from the 1980’s to present day. She was also featured in a famous Lindy Hop dance sequence called Hellzapoppin. She is wearing the baker’s hat. And that dance sequence is done in real time. It is not sped up. Norma never married, but did fall in love once.

Although Norma lived to be 99 years-old and death was around the corner, the news of her death still shocked me because her death was personal to me. Although I was not a close friend of hers, I had met her three times in my life and each time was memorable. The first time I met her was in 2012 in Herrang, Sweden. I heard her give a talk about Lindy Hop and her life growing up in Harlem. Two comments from her stood out: She raved about how great it was to fall in love and how it’s the most important feeling in the world to find a sweetheart and have that connection. She talso talked about how she doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks because she’s 92 years-old. She was funny, charismatic, raunchy, and spoke her truth.

The second time I met Norma was in 2014 in New York City at a dance event. I was volunteering as an usher at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater when out of nowhere, this diva rushes at me and grabs me by the arm, and in true Norma fashion, asked me questions about the photographs of modern black dancers on the wall as if I worked there. I had no answers for her obviously. But I remebered being star-struck and fortunate to have met Norma, a living legend, for a second time. And this time, I made sure to get a picture with her.

The third time I met Norma was in sometime around 2016 in Seattle at a speaking event. When I heard she was speaking in town, I had to get a ticket because I had read her autobiography, “Swingin’ at the Savoy, which focused on her life story from teenager to dance leader to comedienne from the 30’s through the 80’s. I had the book. And I wanted to get it signed by her. And she did sign it. But the most memorable part was hearing her speak again. This time she talked about the racism she experienced during the Swing era. And then she emphasized how much things have changed for the better given her personal experience of living through WWII, the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, and the election of Barack Obama. To a mostly white audience in their 20’s and 30’s, she described the horrible racism she experienced and then emphasized how race relations have improved, saying that “We are now past that. We have a black and white president”. It’s easy for young people to be critical of our country’s racist tendencies. But it is equally wise to listen to our elders about how much things have improved.

As an avid fan of jazz culture and a Lindy Hop dancer myself, I am a bit sad that I can no longer have the opportunity to hear and learn from a legendary dancer. But I am grateful to have met her in person and learned about the origins of Lindy Hop directly from the source, an American legend. The month of May is considered to be unofficially the month of Lindy Hop because Frankie Manning was born in May. How fitting that Norma dies in May as well. All the more reason to go out and swing dance. Keep Swingin’.