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Silver Belles Still Light Up the Harlem Stage

In the 1920s and '30s, Harlem was known as the "Capital of Black America," the epicenter of a flourishing African-American culture. Now, many of those who lived during the glory days of the revival known as the Harlem Renaissance are dying out.

A new documentary, Been Rich All My Life, takes a loving look at one part of that rich heritage: the Silver Belles, a leggy troupe of dancers who drew crowds to Harlem's famous nightclubs and theatres, such as the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club.

Now in their 80s and 90s, four of the remaining Belles -- Fay Ray, Elaine Ellis, Cleo Hayes and Marion Coles -- continue to dazzle a new generation of audiences.

Filmmaker Heather Lyn MacDonald followed the troupe as they performed before enthusiastic audiences, capturing their often bawdy backstage humor.

At the height of their fame, the Silver Belles were at least as popular as the headliners with whom they shared the stage at clubs. But it wasn't all glamour: The dancers worked hard for what little money they were paid. At one point, they made history by going on strike at the Apollo, an act that helped lead to the formation of a union for dancers.

After World War II, movies became more important than live shows. Dancers were considered too expensive, and the Harlem show girls eventually found themselves looking for other jobs.

The Silver Belles sporadically kept in touch until 1985, when Bertye Lou Woods -- one of the original members, who recently passed away -- asked if they would like to regroup. Since then, the Silver Belles have become a star attraction in a newly reinvigorated Harlem looking for a second renaissance.

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Transcript

NOAH ADAMS, host:

We have heard about Harlem, of course, in its glory days. But the people who actually lived in what was then called the capital of black America are now dying out. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates tells us now about a documentary called Been Rich All My Life. It's a loving look at the Silver Belles, legendary Harlem chorus dancers who are still dancing. Take a listen.

(Soundbite of film Been Rich all My Life)

Ms. FAY RAY (Silver Belles): What do you say we go from the top.

Unidentified Women: Okay.

Ms. RAY: I'm not good jumping in the middle and all, because I forgot all that stuff.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

In a studio in Lower Manhattan, dancers line up behind Fay Ray for one more try at the Shim Sham Shimmy. It's a classic routine in every tap dancer's repertoire. Ray learned the Shim Sham Shimmy back in the day, when she was one of the lady dancers who drew crowds to Harlem's famous nightclubs and theaters.

This class is a promotion for Been Rich All My Life. It's a new documentary that shows Ray and her sister dancers, Elaine Ellis, Cleo Hayes, Marion Cole, and the late Bertye Lou Wood. Together they are the Silver Belles, a gift from Harlem's golden past that has been dazzling contemporary audiences.

(Soundbite of music)

BATES: A few years ago, filmmaker Heather Lyn MacDonald saw an ad for a Silver Belles performance.

Ms. HEATHER LYN MACDONALD (Director, Been Rich All My Life): They were doing a performance at the Cotton Club coming up that week. And there was a picture of them and a little article about these ladies in their '80s and '90s, the oldest being 96, rehearsing for a show that they were going to perform for the public. For a paying public.

BATES: After badgering the Silver Belles manager for months, MacDonald was finally allowed to meet the ladies. Eventually they agreed to let her film them, although initially they had reservations. Elaine Ellis.

Ms. ELAINE ELLIS (Silver Belles): We were afraid to really talk because some of the things that we said in privacy we really wanted kept between the group.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ELLIS: It shouldn't have been on TV or anything else. But we never knew where to look for Heather. She'd either be on your right, your left, or under the table.

BATES: MacDonald and her camera became such a constant presence that sometimes the ladies had to remember she was there. Here's a scene in the documentary when she's being teased by Marion Coles.

(Soundbite of film Been Rich All My Life)

Ms. MARION COLES (Silver Belles): This is going to be edited, right?

Ms. MACDONALD: Oh yeah.

Ms. COLES: It's got to because we don't want no arguments in this.

Ms. MACDONALD: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

BATES: There's a lot of good-natured bickering in Been Rich All My Life, but no arguing. The one thing that unites these amazing women is their love of dancing. Here's Elaine Ellis and Cleo Hayes on Marion Coles.

Unidentified Woman #1: She actually sleeps, eats, loves dancing. It's in her bones.

(Soundbite of tap-dancing)

Unidentified Woman #2: If Marion could get out on the floor and dance all day, she would.

BATES: They still do it pretty often. The film shows the Silver Belles performing to enthusiastic audiences around New York, elegantly dressed in silver and black satin.

(Soundbite of film Been Rich All My Life)

Unidentified Man: These are some of the original ladies that danced in the Apollo Theater chorus when it first opened in the '30s.

(Soundbite of applause)

BATES: And it gives us an oral history. Elaine Ellis.

Ms. ELLIS: We used to work and then we got off we went - the chorus girls would hang out. That would be walk all over Harlem. They weren't afraid of anything. You could leave your door open at that time and go home and be sure that you had everything that you left there. It was a fun time, it really was.

BATES: These showgirls were the celebrities of their day, much more so than the headliners whose names were in lights on the club marquees. The ladies, uniformly beautiful and lithe, were very much in demand. Fay Ray.

Ms. RAY: All of the fellows wanted to take us out, you know? Headliners often take us to the big, fine restaurants and wonder what we were going to order.

Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah.

Ms. RAY: I was the first one to say steak.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BATES: As the film shows, it wasn't all glamour. The dancers worked hard for what little money they got. At one point they made history by going on strike at the Apollo. Filmmaker Heather MacDonald.

Ms. MACDONALD: It was this group of 16 young women that really established that union. It became a viable union. Nationally it was the first variety artists' integrated union, and they said in the newspapers at the time that it was the first strike by black performers.

BATES: Dancers like the Apollo chorus girls helped put Harlem on the map. But events outside Harlem eventually would make them irrelevant. After World War II, movies became more important than live shows. Dancers were considered too expensive, and the Harlem showgirls eventually found themselves looking for other kinds of employment.

The ladies kept in touch, though. Then in 1985 they got a call. Would they consider dancing again? Marion Coles didn't hesitate.

Ms. COLES: We want to dance, and we love dancing.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. COLES: And we're able to be out there, at our age able to be out there doing it, you know?

BATES: Elaine Ellis had to be coaxed, at first.

Ms. ELLIS: I thought that I couldn't dance as well as the other girls. They had so many more years ahead of me. But it worked out fine. I've never been as happy being with them because it's like a family.

(Soundbite of music)

BATES: In a rapidly aging America, the Silver Belles are a great example of why we shouldn't be resigned to going gently into old age. Elaine Ellis.

Ms. ELLIS: First of all, the reason we started the group was to entice people that were staying home waiting to die not to do it, to get up and get out.

BATES: It works for them and, Fay Ray says, it can work for us, too.

Ms. RAY: Let the music play. Get up and try. And I know you can do it. I know I did it.

BATES: With examples like this, how can you not try? Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #4: I was pleased with all of you. You remembered better than I did.

ADAMS: Been Rich All My Life opens in New York today, other cities later this summer. Watch the Belles in action on our website, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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