Norma Miller, a dancer, comedian and big-band singer whose acrobatic flips, slides, leaps and twists helped popularize the Lindy Hop dance craze of the 1930s and ’40s, earning her the title “Queen of Swing,” died May 5 at her home in Fort Myers, Fla. She was 99 and had continued performing with an Italian swing band until shortly before her death.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said her friend John Biffar, director of “Queen of Swing,” a 2006 documentary about her life.
“She had just cut four new tracks,” he said. “They were playing her music for her when she passed.”
Ms. Miller was among the last links to the glory days of Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, a racially integrated dance hall where big bands led by Chick Webb and Benny Goodman dueled from opposing stages, fueling the steps of jitterbug dancers who bounded across the maple-and-mahogany hardwood under crystal chandeliers.
She was also considered the last surviving member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, a legendary Savoy troupe. The swing dance style — involving dancers who turned themselves into human propellers with their spinning and tossing — reportedly was named for transatlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Honed by performers including Frankie “Musclehead” Manning, Leon James, Al Minns, and Billy and Willa Mae Ricker, the Lindy Hop was effectively “swing dance at lightning speed,” said dancer and choreographer Debbie Allen, who is planning a feature film based on Ms. Miller’s life.
“Think of ‘Fast and Furious’ on the dance floor, with women going over men’s backs, down through their legs and up over their body,” she said in a phone interview. “This is something you’d expect to see in Cirque du Soleil, but it started with her, Frankie Manning and all the other great dancers back in the day.”
In a career that spanned more than eight decades, Ms. Miller shared the stage with singers Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday, befriended filmmaker Orson Welles in Brazil, smoked marijuana with Louis Armstrong, helped integrate Miami Beach nightclubs with Cab Calloway, and launched a saucy and profane stand-up career with support from Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor.
Dressed in sequined jackets and sparkling glasses in old age, her nails still painted white and red as they were in her prime as a dancer, Ms. Miller never struggled to draw attention. As a young girl in Harlem, living across the street from the Savoy, she sat on her tenement’s fire escape to watch the ballroom’s windows, studying the shadows of dancers before replicating their steps in her living room.
Her big break came in 1932, when she was 12. The dance sensation Twist Mouth George Ganaway spotted her dancing on the sidewalk outside the Savoy dressed for Easter Sunday services and invited her to join him for a matinee performance. Because of age restrictions, it was the first time Ms. Miller had stepped inside the dance hall.
“He just threw me up; my feet never touched the ground,” she said in Ken Burns’s 2001 documentary “Jazz.” “People were screaming and he put me on top of his shoulders, walked me around the ballroom . . . and put me back outside. Greatest moment in my life and I’m excited, excited, and I’m gonna go home and tell my mother and my sister — and then I said no, I better not say nothin’!”
At 15, she was invited to join Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers as the troupe’s youngest member. They embarked on tours across Europe, the United States and South America, and were featured in Hollywood movies including the Marx Brothers comedy “A Day at the Races” (1937), which earned an Oscar nomination for best dance direction for the Lindy Hop routine to “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm.”
For “Hellzapoppin’ ” (1941), a musical starring the comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, Ms. Miller played a dancing cook, flying under the legs and over the head of Billy Ricker at a freight-train tempo. Improbably, he appeared to swing her in a circle by the neck.
Ms. Miller also danced in Broadway musicals such as “Swingin’ the Dream,” a short-lived 1939 production headlined by Armstrong. But with the onset of World War II and the rise of bebop, the Lindy Hop began to vanish from the stage, leading Ms. Miller to reinvent herself while many of her fellow performers struggled to launch second careers.
She led a dance group on the chitlin’ circuit, traveling across the segregated United States by bus, before turning to comedy in the 1960s at the suggestion of Foxx. “Look, you’re not going to be able to dance any longer,” she recalled his saying. “Your knees are knocking. You better learn to talk.”
In between performances in Las Vegas, she presided over dance workshops and productions, and worked as a choreographer. She helped spur a Lindy Hop revival beginning in the 1980s, when she introduced the dance style to a new generation through shows at venues including Smalls’ Paradise and the Village Gate in Manhattan; collaborated with Manning on a sequence for Alvin Ailey’s “Opus McShann”; and watched what she described as a morbid game of musical chairs, as her old friends and fellow dancers died.
“When my last partner was put into the grave, I said, ‘Well, I’m the only one left here,’ ” she told NPR in 2017. “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.”
Norma Adele Miller was born in Manhattan on Dec. 2, 1919. Both her parents emigrated from Barbados: Her mother was a maid, and her father served in the Army and died of pneumonia shortly before she was born.
After winning a local dance contest, she was invited to join Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, formed by Herbert White, a bouncer turned promoter. In her memoir, “Swingin’ at the Savoy,” Ms. Miller recalled that the Lindy Hop took off after her fellow Savoy dancers swept the competition at the 1935 Harvest Moon Ball, a contest at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
“The world wanted to get away from the waltz, the tango, the rumba,” she told the Florida radio station WGCU in 2015.
Ms. Miller left the group because of “accounting differences” with Whitey, according to Biffar, and formed the Norma Miller Dancers and Norma Miller and Her Jazzmen. In the 1970s she appeared alongside Foxx in episodes of his sitcoms “Sanford and Son,” “Grady” and “Sanford Arms.” She also toured Vietnam, performing her comedy routine for American troops.
In 1992, amid the Lindy Hop revival, she danced in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” and received an Emmy nomination for choreographing “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” a TV movie directed by Allen. Soon after, she met Biffar, a filmmaker, who cast her in his movie “Captiva Island.” They lived together for about a decade, and she helped raise his three children.
Ms. Miller, who never married and leaves no immediate survivors, once quipped that she was “the last of the closet queens, a spinster.” She appeared in several documentaries on swing dance and jazz, taught at Stanford University and the University of Hawaii, and in 2003 received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 2018, at age 98, she presided over a dance camp in the Swedish countryside, shouting instructions from a chair — “No! It’s BE-dop buh bop!” — as a group of mostly white students practiced the dance style she had nurtured in Harlem.
When she first heard about the camp, Ms. Miller told the New York Times, she said, “You’ve got to be kidding talking about some [expletive] Lindy Hop in Sweden. Who the hell’s gonna come here?” Around 200 dancers made the trip, and Ms. Miller said she planned to return for her 100th birthday.
Correction: An earlier version of this story was incorrectly illustrated with a photo showing Billy Ricker and one of Ms. Miller’s backup dancers. The photo of Ms. Miller performing with the Billy Bros. Swing Orchestra was also incorrectly captioned. It was taken in 2018, not 2008. The story has been updated.