“I may be old, but I’m not cold!” Bertye Lou Wood exclaims in the film Been Rich All My Life, Directed by Sundance Audience Award winning filmmaker Heather Lyn MacDonald. The film follows five women, now in their 80s and 90s, known as The Silver Belles, who made their way through life as tap dancers in the heyday of Vaudeville and beyond.
These women started their lives in poverty, but it didn’t take them long to escape that life and take up a new, exciting life in the community of Harlem in New York City. They all have different stories and different styles, but all have the same talent for dance.
The 1930’s Apollo and Cotton Clubs, among others were the hottest ticket in New York. The clientele at the Cotton Club was all white; the dancers were all black. These young women met while they were chorus line dancers in these clubs. They performed with the legendary Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Pearl Bailey, and Ella Fitzgerald were among those they considered friends.
Please watch this short movie trailer and be inspired!
I saw this movie recently and was so enamored of these women by the closing credits! They’re sassy and talented. My own mother, in her late 80s now as well, was also a chorus line dancer in the 1940s traveling with the USO, which endeared their story to me even more.
Here’s a snippet of the life of each of these women and a link to read a little more about them. Unfortunately, two of them have passed away since the making of the film:
Bertye Lou Wood, 96
“Bertye Lou started dancing, as a young woman, in New York in the late 1920’s while raising three sons. She danced on Broadway with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and at such venues as the Lafayette Theatre, Connie’s Inn and Small’s Paradise in Harlem’s famed theatrical district. Bertye wasn’t afraid of anything in those days. She was working 14 hour days…read more.
Cleo Hayes, 89
“In New York, Cleo started at the newly opened Apollo Theater, as one of the Apollo “Rockets.” When the Cotton Club moved to its elegant new home downtown in Times Square, Cleo joined that company. She then traveled with Bertye Lou dancing throughout South America, and later with the first black USO unit during WWII. Cleo recounts that USO tour…read more.
Elaine Ellis, 88
“They lovingly call Elaine “Calamity Jane” — if a train stalls, she’ll be on it. With buoyant good cheer, she spreads her love, and anything else she has to give. (She’s the kind of woman for whom bus drivers, unbidden, will go off-route to drop at her very doorstep.) Elaine dances with a smooth grace, despite an almost debilitating …read more.
Fay Ray, 85
“When Fay was 12 years old, she hopped a freight train (dressed like a boy) and left her home and a hard life in Louisiana. She joined a show on the vaudeville circuit and never looked back. There she learned how to tap dance with some of the best dancers of the day. When she was 16, she set out on her own, performing as a solo act at theaters throughout the country. In the 1940’s, she made her way to New York and joined the chorus lines, where she found steady work at such venues as the Café Zanzibar, Club Ebony and the 845. During WWII she detoured briefly to become …read more.
Marion Coles, 89
“Marion Coles is the dance director of the Silver Belles, and has seemingly boundless energy. During the filming, Marion had to get a pacemaker, and the first question she asked her doctor was, “When can I dance again?” She hardly skipped a week before she was back on the floor. “I don’t like to sit around.” “She always used to hang out with guys between shows, eating up any tap moves they could teach her. “Dance, dance, dance, she’d dance all day if she could,” say the ladies. She is the widow of …read more.
Bertye Lou, Cleo, Elaine, Fay and Marion all faced tremendously difficult times in their lives. They raised their children alone, looked racial bias in the face, steered clear of the pitfalls surrounding a life in the entertainment business, suffered through illness and hardship to become the definition of ‘Strong women’.
The story of The Silver Belles proves true, the admonitions to stay active, take care of your health, enjoy all the moments of life, find what you love and do it with a passion, and persevere no matter what happens.
What do you think you’ll be doing when you’re 85+? Did they inspire you?
You know I love hearing from you and anxiously await your comments!
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