Vol. 22, No. 5,514 - The American Reporter - September 7, 2016



by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
Dummerston, Vt.
February 15, 2007
Momentum
LOVING THE SILVER BELLES

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DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Forget the Oscar winners. If you only see one film this year, see "Been Rich All My Life."

This is the year for women, and if that doesn't make any sense to you, why, I would have to agree. After all, isn't every year the year for women?

The Silver Belles (l. to r.): Marion Coles, 91; Cleo Hayes, 91; Elaine Ellis, 88; Fay Ray, 86.

Photo:
John Clifford, for NPR

But with a woman running - and being taken very seriously, no matter what you think of her - for president, personally, the fruits of Second Wave feminism have clearly ripened. And they are being picked.

It hasn't hurt that the last vestiges of the patriarchy - in terms of the father-knows-best, machismo-rules, keep-women-barefoot-pregnant- and-in-the-kitchen, cut-off-her-clitoris, war-as-a-metaphor-for-life, wear-a-burqa-to-work-day ethos - has proven disastrous all over the world.

Yes, the patriarchy is fighting back with everything it can get its hands on, including sanctimony, hypocrisy and cluster bombs.

But it's a last gasp kind of fight. Too many of them are being caught in bed with other men, for example. Or their daughters are being caught in bed with other women. Or the whole world is looking at them with loathing. Or they are being indicted. Or forced out of office. Or slinking away.

And in the meantime, women are winning Academy Awards for editing, producing and being humanitarians as well as being gorgeous and botoxed to the gills. They're winning Nobel Peace Prizes, too. One grieving mother took on President George W. Bush when no one else seemed to dare. I noticed the other day that the great fashion designer Carolina Herrera named a daughter Carolina, Jr.

'When most women stayed close to home, they had the drive, courage and talent to explore the world. That they were African-American women gives you an idea of how brave, vital, lively and strong they are... .'

You wouldn't have seen that in my day. Or seen the gorgeous Ivanka Trump being a real-estate executive instead of a pampered upper-class bimbo being pimped out to some drunk with a fortune to keep her off daddy's back. And we even have female suicide bombers now, if you really want to talk about equal opportunity.

Here's a dirty little secret. Women have always been out there, being all that they can be. But now, instead of it just sounding like an Army commercial, it's the plain and tall truth.

In older times, the arts were one of the arenas in which women often fought. Which brings me back to "Been Rich All My Life" and the Silver Belles.

For many of us, early jazz and the Big Band era are times of wonder. The music of the Harlem Renaissance. Duke Ellington's bands. Cab Calloway. Louis Armstrong. Count Basie writing swing to the rhythm of the trains he and his band rode on, crossing the country going from gig to gig. The Cotton Club. The Apollo Theater. Great dancers like Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Honi Coles, the Nicholas Brothers.

Except for Josephine Baker, who escaped racism for a career in Europe, and the writer Zora Neale Hurston, most of the names we know from this legendary era are male names.

But lest we forget, there was a chorus line dancing to the music at the Cotton Club, and at the Apollo, the café Zanzibar, the Club Ebony, and in many Hollywood films. We might think of these women as background, pretty faces and pretty legs - you know, eye candy.



The Silver Belles strut their stuff at the Kennedy Center.

Photo:
CBS

But many of them had dancing in their blood and rhythm in their bones. They had to dance the way most of us have to breathe. And they danced to some of the best music the world has ever produced.

At a time when most women stayed close to home, they had the drive, courage and talent to explore the world. That they were African-American women on top of everything else gives you an idea of how brave, vital, lively and strong they were.

The Swing era ended. Cut to 1985, when the dance captain of the old Apollo line, the stunning and wickedly risqué Bertye Lou Wood - "I may be old, but I'm not cold" - collected some of the dancers from that mythical time and formed the Silver Belles, five women, ages 84 to 96, who still swing, still dance, still have the music in their soul.

"Been Rich All My Life" is a Heather Lyn MacDonald documentary that tells the story of the Silver Belles. I saw it as part of a woman's film festival in Brattleboro, but you can order it on-line for $23 at http://www.tootscrackin.com/braml.htm. Also check out the schedule of where it's playing over around the country in the next few months. It might be coming to a place near you.



The Silver Belles count President Bill Clinton among their friends.

Photo:

Tootscrackin Productions.

See the film. Watch these women dance. See how cool they really are. See how their shoulders pick up the beat, their arms swing, their hands tell the story.

Listen to those stories! How they chipped in to buy Ella Fitzgerald her first evening dress when she began performing; how, after working 15 hours a day and learning a new show every week, they led a chorus-girl strike at the Apollo that established the American Guild of Variety Artists.

When the era ended, learn what these women did to survive - tend bar, drive cabs, work the Alaskan pipeline.

The film follows the Silver Belles during a year of triumph, hardship and pain - 96-year-old Bertye Lou breaks her hip and slowly dies during the filming - as they rehearse, teach their moves to younger dancers, and perform all over New York to standing ovations.

This is a magical film. "The Silver Belles are bold, brash, and gorgeously awake, and their willingness to live large is thrilling," said the Village Voice when the film came out in 2006. "Marvelous...a real treasure!" said The New Yorker.

You might never forget the Silver Belles.

Silver Belles Resources:

Sample Courtesy Tootscrackin Productions

The Trailer: "Been Rich All My Life"

The Movie: "Been Rich All My Life" Official Website (Photos, Downloads, Trailer, DVD

NPR: "Silver Belles Still Light Up the Harlem Stage" (Interviews, Video and Story)

CBS News: "Silver Belles" (Story, Interviews, Photo)

A new collection of Joyce Marcel's columns
"A Thousand Words or Less"
is available now at www.joycemarcel.com

Copyright 2016 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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