Printed in Ft. Myers News-Press 5-7-19
She jumped, jived and wailed in the 1930s and '40s as a member of the Lindy Hoppers, the famous dancers who helped popularize swing dancing. And later, she shared a Las Vegas stage with Sammy Davis Jr. and Redd Foxx.
Norma Miller — otherwise known as the “Queen of Swing” — died Sunday morning of congestive heart failure at her Fort Myers home, according to longtime friend and manager John Biffar. She was 99.
“She’d hoped to make it to 100, but it just wasn’t mean to be,” says Biffar, a Cape Coral filmographer who reintroduced Miller to the world with his 2005 documentary “Queen of Swing.” “She was still active up to the very last minute.”
Born in Harlem, Miller grew up near the famous Savoy Ballroom. She was 12 when legendary dancer Twist Mouth George saw her and asked her to dance with him inside the Savoy.
"I danced with the world's greatest dancer," Miller told The News-Press in 2005 as she sat in Biffar’s living room. "And I couldn't tell nobody. I was too young to go inside the Savoy. I wasn't supposed to be there."
Just three years later, Miller was cherry-picked by dancer Herbert "Whitey" Ford to join his Lindy Hoppers, whose high-flying dance moves were named after aviator Charles Lindbergh. She was the last surviving original member of the all-black dance troupe.
Miller ended up touring Europe with the group in 1935. And that led to appearances in — among other things — the Marx Brothers movies "Hellzapoppin" and "A Day at the Races."
Miller and the other Lindy Hoppers took aerial dancing to new, creative heights with a combination of hopping, somersaulting and other gravity-defying moves. To get that good, Miller and the other dancers practiced endlessly.
And, of course, she fell. A lot.
"You'd bust your backside," she said in 2005. "It's hard dancing. We had all kinds of fractures. I'm just healing now, and it's 70 years later."
Miller later worked as a choreographer, comedian, actor, author and a performer at various nightclubs, opening for big names such as Redd Foxx and Sammy Davis Jr. She did a little of everything: dancing, singing, comedy. Later, she appeared in an episode of Foxx's "Sanford and Son," where she delivered the line, "Coffee, tea or me."
Biffar says Miller was better known in Europe than in the United States. One time, he remembers, she even got top billing over The Rolling Stones in one Italian newspaper.
“She was big,” he says.
Biffar met Miller 25 years ago in a Las Vegas nightclub. He says he was drawn to her singing voice, and the two quickly became close friends.
Here’s how Biffar describes her now: “Indomitable spirit. She never got down. She always found a way.”
Then there was her endless knowledge of pop culture. “She was just hip. She was a very cool lady.”
Biffar says a funeral will be happening later this month in New York City. About 1,000 dancers from all over the world are expected to attend.