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'Alive And Kicking' Chronicles Deep History Of Swing Dancing

Apr 9, 2017
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, there was a time when going out on weekends didn't mean Netflix and chill or dining out at the latest restaurant. It meant going out to dance, and in the '20s and '30s that meant swing dancing. Born in Harlem, N.Y., the Lindy Hop in particular took off across the country cheering up a country beaten down by the depression, and even in its own way challenging racial barriers as blacks and whites found places to dance together. But for a lot of reasons, swing dancing disappeared. And then a funny thing happened. It came back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT DON'T MEAN A THING IF IT AIN'T GOT THAT SWING")

ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

MARTIN: A new documentary called "Alive And Kicking" chronicles the deep history and the tight community that's brought it back to life all over the world. The film's director Susan Glatzer stopped by our NPR West studios to tell us about it. I asked her to introduce me to her guest Norma Miller who's often called the queen of swing.

SUSAN GLATZER: Well Norma's 97. Norma has done everything. She's seen it all. She's done it all. She was a dancer from the moment she was born and happened to grow up in the back of the Savoy Ballroom which was the place to go swing dancing. People from Hollywood would come, people from politics would come. Everybody wanted to be there.

And it was the first place in Harlem that was open to both black and white people. And Norma was dancing outside. She got noticed by Twistmouth George, and she got taken in there before she was old enough to legally be in there. And she got discovered and from there on, I mean, it was - she was a dancer the rest of her life.

MARTIN: And with that being said, Norma Miller, the queen of swing dancing, thank you so much for being here with us as well.

NORMA MILLER: Thank you.

MARTIN: So tell us what drew you to swing dancing? I mean, it sounds like you really were born to it.

MILLER: It was the music that I was raised with. It was the music I heard all my life. You see, it was just a part of everyday life. You recognized me for only one reason. It's because I've outlived all the dances of that period. I'm the only one left, so when you talk about swing dancing, they just come to me because they figure I know something about it because I was there when they all began the dance.

And when my last partner was put into the grave, I said, well, I'm the only one left here. And I promised Frankie I will keep going and keep doing what he gave to the world because he gave all the young kids the dance.

MARTIN: OK. Now I'm going to ask Susan to pick up that story there. So tell me a little bit, Susan, if you would about who is Frankie Manning? And how did he get the kids dancing again as it were?

GLATZER: Absolutely. Well, Frankie Manning was an incredible dancer. He was part of the scene that was, you know, dancing at the Savoy Ballroom. He was in movies of the time. He's in the movie "Hellzapoppin'" with Norma Miller. But when the war came, he went to war, and at the end of the war, the music changed. And there wasn't that same kind of partner dancing. The music in jazz changed to like bebop which is impossible to dance to.

And so he joined the Post Office, and he worked at the post office. And he was discovered again when he was 75. All of a sudden, the movie studios were putting out old movies on VHS, and people started seeing these movies. And they said, hey, who are these incredible people? And they found Frankie, and, you know, to his generation, it wasn't a dance that you taught. You didn't teach the beat. An eight count, what's that? You just heard the music, and it made you dance.

But for a new generation, we didn't grow up partner dancing with connection at all. You needed someone who could break it down and teach it. So Frankie, you know, figured out a way to break it down. And so my generation, we were able to go take lessons, and you just got better. And thank goodness we were able to find it.

MARTIN: Norma, I asked Susan earlier to describe it for people who may not have seen it - that clip of you in "Hellzapoppin'" - I mean, you cannot forget that.

MILLER: It took five years to develop "Hellzapoppin'." We danced 24/7 every day, so that whenever it came, you were ready.

GLATZER: I would say, Michel, that for people who haven't seen it, it is an incredibly fast-tempo song. Even when I show this clip to people, I have to remind them it's not sped up. And the dancing is so acrobatic and so crazy - Norma is actually being swung around in a circle by her neck.

MILLER: Better believe it.

GLATZER: OK? And people are just being flung through the air. You know, I showed it to somebody and my assistant editor said that is not how gravity works.

MARTIN: The film points out how swing dancing can be so cathartic. There are stories about people turning to swing dancing to alleviate depression, anxiety. I just want to play a clip from the film of two sisters who turn to swing dancing to deal with the stress of their jobs. I'll just play that.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALIVE AND KICKING")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You wake up in the morning, and you're happy. And you go to work, and during the day you talk to people who tell you that life sucks. Life is not worth living for eight hours. And to teach Lindy Hop and to dance with people is the way better way to make people happy.

MARTIN: So, Norma, what is it that you think makes people so happy?

MILLER: It's the beat. You've got to have a beat. That's what was most important, and it's the beat that's infectious. And it doesn't matter the fact that you're on the time of the beat or not. The beat is what continues you to try to keep up with it.

MARTIN: So, Norma, you were saying in the film, though, that one of the points that others made in the film is that young African-Americans do not seem to be as interested in swing dancing. Does...

MILLER: Well, they developed rap. That's why.

MARTIN: But what would it take to get people interested or do you care? I mean, is it a thing where...

MILLER: Well, I, personally - Susan came onto me. I don't give a damn.

GLATZER: (Laughter).

MILLER: That's what Rhett Butler said? (Laughter) But you get the beat anyway because the rap is coming over to our side of thinking anyway because I'll be listening to a lot of rap, and the beat is coming in. They can avoid as long as they can, but you listen to a Count Basie rhythm section, and you're hooked.

MARTIN: Susan, what do you think? Is it true that you care about this more that the demographics, more than Norma does?

GLATZER: I guess what I care about is young people don't see this kind of dance, they don't hear the music, they don't see this kind of dance. It's just not in their world. And, you know, when they see it, they get excited about it. And, you know, in the film Dawn Hampton talks about being with a group of swing dancers at a dance and all these young, black kids come over and say, hey, what's that? What are you doing? And she said, hey, this is your dance.

MARTIN: So, Norma, do you still get to dance?

MILLER: Oh, no. I don't dance anymore. I don't even look at dances.

MARTIN: Oh.

GLATZER: (Laughter).

MILLER: You have to be - I've given you 70 years. That's as good as it gets. But...

GLATZER: I think she's exaggerating. I think she loves to look at dancers.

MILLER: I like to look at a great dancer.

GLATZER: That's true.

MILLER: And if you show potential, I'll do anything with you.

MARTIN: OK. Susan, do you have a final thought about this? Do you think that swing is here to stay now?

GLATZER: Well, obviously, this revival now has lasted longer than the original dance craze. I think as long as people want to be happy, it's a fun, joyful dance.

MILLER: It is.

GLATZER: People are going to be doing it.

MARTIN: That's Susan Glatzer, the director of "Alive And Kicking" and Norma Miller, the queen of swing. They were both with us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. You can see "Alive And Kicking" in select theaters across the country. It's also available on demand on Amazon and iTunes. Norma Miller, Susan Glatzer, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MILLER: Thanks.

GLATZER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.