From Harlem to Herrang: An Original Lindy Hopper Blooms in Sweden
Aug. 10, 2018
Norma Miller (seated in blue cap) at a workshop at the Herrang Dance Camp, in the Swedish countryside about 70 miles from Stockholm.Erika Gerdemark for The New York Times
HERRANG, Sweden — The rhythmic boom boom of Count Basie’s 1930s big band echoed around the Folkets Hus community center here. Men in suspenders and trousers and women in beaded silk dresses fanned themselves in what meteorologists earlier that day had called record-breaking heat for Sweden.
The temperature didn’t seem to bother Norma Miller, 98, who was seated onstage in a sequined jacket and leggings. Behind her flickered a black-and-white clip of the 1935 Harvest Moon Ball at Madison Square Garden in New York.
She pointed to a slim, energetic figure onscreen — her 16-year-old self — twisting and sliding across the dance floor with Billy Ricker. “This is the contest I lost because my blouse opened!” Ms. Miller said. “You can see it opening!”
This evening lecture at the Herrang Dance Camp, nestled in the countryside about 70 miles from Stockholm, offered a glimpse into the life of Ms. Miller — the “Queen of Swing” — whose dancing took her from the sidewalks of Harlem, where the “loose-and-let-go” Lindy Hop was born in the 1920s, to the ballrooms of Europe, where the Lindy Hop flourished through the 1940s.
The Queen of Swing: Ms. Miller, 98, grew up in an apartment behind the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. “The Savoy was a very important place socially for black people to go and mix and mingle,” she said.Erika Gerdemark for The New York Times
For audience members, some 200 dancers from around the world, most of them white, Ms. Miller was a direct link to the Lindy Hop’s African-American history, a link she has been providing for more than 30 years. The still lively and salty-tongued Ms. Miller, who keeps her nails painted the signature red and white of her performance days, ended her lecture by jokingly, but sincerely, thanking white dancers for keeping the Lindy Hop alive.
Named after Charles Lindbergh, the Lindy Hop married swing music’s traditional eight count with the fast-paced, free-form movements of African-American dances at the time: spins, slides, thrilling flips and kicks — steps Ms. Miller mastered as a child.
Born in 1919, she grew up in an apartment building behind the Savoy Ballroom. In an interview here, Ms. Miller said she remembered hearing the big bands from the fire escape window every night and longing to be inside the club. In her 1984 memoir, “Swingin’ at the Savoy,” she wrote that her mother, a maid, held rent parties for extra cash. She and her sister would watch the guests dance and later practice their moves in the living room.
On Easter Sunday in 1932, one of the Savoy’s top dancers, Twistmouth George, saw the 12-year-old Ms. Miller dancing on the sidewalk outside the club and invited her inside to perform with him. That chance encounter jump-started her career.
“The Savoy was a very important place socially for black people to go and mix and mingle because, remember, you were confined in your area,” she said. “We couldn’t go to all the other five ballrooms that they had throughout the city of Manhattan.”
Ms. Miller competed in amateur contests in Harlem, eventually coming to the attention of Herbert White, founder of the popular Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. At 15, she was invited to join the troupe on tour to introduce the Lindy Hop to clubs and ballrooms in Europe.
Scenes from the Herrang Dance Camp and surrounding areas. This summer, the camp drew some 5,000 dancers and 100 instructors from more than 60 countries.Photographs by Erika Gerdemark for The New York Times
At the height of her career, Ms. Miller performed in Paris, Miami and Rio de Janeiro with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, crossing paths with Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker, smoking joints with Louis Armstrong, and appearing onscreen in “Hellzapoppin’ ” (1941). But World War II finished Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, as the group’s male performers were called into service. Ms. Miller formed her own troupe, eventually going solo and working the chitlin’ circuit with little success. By the 1960s, she had transitioned from dance to comedy about dance, opening regularly for Redd Foxx.
A few days after her lecture, over lunch at a nearby marina, Ms. Miller talked about her time at Herrang Dance Camp. “A place like this is unbelievable,” she said, pausing to swat mosquitoes at her leg. It’s “like Brigadoon” — the musical about the enchanted Scottish village that magically appears once every 100 years.
The camp started as a weeklong summer event for 25 Swedish Lindy Hop lovers in 1982 and has evolved into a five-week dance camp known as the Lindy Hop Mecca. This summer, the camp drew some 5,000 dancers and 100 instructors from more than 60 countries.
Ms. Miller described the camp as a place where students “come to inherit the soul of black dancing.” There are nightly social dances, with live bands. And workshops — from “Beginners Lindy” and solo jazz to ballroom competition — take place in tents named after New York’s famous ballrooms: the Savoy, the Alhambra, the Palladium, Roseland and Small’s Paradise. But as much as the camp is intent on exposing students to vernacular dance, it also became responsible for reviving the Lindy Hop and extending the careers of dancers associated with it, including Ms. Miller.
Lennart Westerlund, 60, a founder of Herrang, attributes the Lindy Hop revival to Swedes’ admiration for the dance. In its early years, Mr. Westerlund said, Herrang drew Swedish dancers who mostly knew about the Lindy Hop through old movies like “After Seben” (1929) and the Marx Brothers’ “Day at the Races” (1937).
“The dance was more or less dead,” he said. “It was existing in small pockets in America and possibly somewhere in Europe. But it was more a European translation of the dance.”
The camp’s first instructor, a New York dancer named John Clancy, taught a white American interpretation of the dance from the 1940s and ’50s.
“At the time, we didn’t know the African-American side of it,” Mr. Westerlund said. That changed when he read “Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance,” Marshall and Jean Stearns’s comprehensive book on its African-American origins.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
One figure in the book was the master Lindy Hopper Frankie Manning, who by the early ’80s had left dancing for a steady job at the post office. Mr. Westerlund invited him to teach at Herrang. A lead performer in Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, Manning was a longtime friend of Ms. Miller, who was then living in Las Vegas, doing comedy and writing her memoir.
Mr. Manning and Mr. Westerlund’s friendship changed Herrang, opening the door for dancers like Ms. Miller to teach and perform. The camp soon became a platform for black performers whose popularity had waned stateside, including the master drummer George Reed, who played behind jazz giants like Charlie Parker; the singer and tap dancer Mable Lee; and the tap dancer Skip Cunningham.
Chester Whitmore, a dancer from Los Angeles, has taught and performed at Herrang for more than 25 years alongside Ms. Miller. He said that Swedes respected the black performers and their careers in a way that he hadn’t seen in the United States, and praised the Herrang approach. “The other camps,” he said, “they’ll do the music and stuff, but they won’t tell you the story.”
In the past three decades, the Lindy Hop has grown internationally, with ballroom scenes, swing clubs and Lindy Hop camps opening in places like Singapore, Russia, Israel and Nepal. (It even had a resurgence in the U.S. in the 1990s.) Mr. Whitmore says Ms. Miller is a source that keeps the movement rooted, adding: “It’s a shame that you got to go all the way of Europe just to find it.”
Angela Andrew, a Londoner, met Ms. Miller in a hotel room in New York during a visit to celebrate Frankie Manning’s birthday in 1994. She now serves as her stand-in at Herrang workshops, demonstrating movements while Ms. Miller, who needs help walking these days, instructs from a chair. During a recent workshop, Ms. Miller could be heard shouting at Ms. Andrew and other longtime instructors to stay on beat: “No! It’s BE-dop buh bop!”
Ms. Miller, who splits her time between Florida and Italy, said she planned to celebrate her 100th birthday in December 2019 in Herrang, but remembers that when Manning first told her about the camp, she couldn’t believe it.
“I said: ‘You’ve got to be kidding talking about some goddamned Lindy Hop in Sweden. Who the hell’s gonna come here?’”