When you feel the aches and pains of old age creep up on you, the ideal remedy can be found in Been Rich All My Life, Heather Lyn MacDonald's documentary on the Silver Belles, a Harlem dance troupe that first met in the 1930s and is still going strong. These five dancers, all in their 80s and 90s, are former chorus girls who helped make Harlem the jazz capitol of America in the 1930s, dancing at places like the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club. But, the kicker (pardon the pun) is that they're still dancing. As 96-year old Silver Belle Bertye Lou Wood says, "I'm going to dance, dance, dance 'til I can't dance no more" This dance troupe reunited in 1985, thanks to Wood, and still performs at benefit shows and special events in Harlem.
From the opening scene of these "young at heart" chorines rehearsing at the new Cotton Club, it is clear that the film is crafted with an infectious affection. The dancers' senses of humor, pride, and camaraderie make these Silver Belles continue to shine bright. In fact, while the filmmaker takes audiences back to the Belles' beginnings in Harlem, with charming archival photos and vintage stock footage, it is their current performances that make this film work. The ways in which these women effortlessly do the "Shim Sham Shimmy" and teach dance to students who are a fraction of their age is a testament to their professionalism, their passion, and their legacy.
The leader of this troupe and the dance captain at the Apollo Theater in the 1930s—when the Belles first met—is Bertye Lou Wood. She is still the one the girls see as their inspiration. "She taught me how to dance, everything I know I owe to Bertye," says Marion Coles. "You feel like laughing when you're with Bertye, she's more fun than anyone I know," adds Cleo Hayes.
Each dancer has her own story, each of which unfolds throughout the film, accompanied by glamorous photos from their careers. Cleo, 89, was born in the south and migrated north to the newly opened Apollo. While the film was in production she was still a bartender in Harlem, serving regulars from the 1950s that still came in daily. Elaine Ellis, 88, began her career as a "Spanish Dancer" at the Cotton Club. When the club closed, she moved on to Café Zanzibar, Club Mimo, the Lenox Lounge, and the Apollo Theater. Despite a bout with cancer, a stroke, and a two-hour each way bus trip to rehearsal, she continues her lifelong love affair with dancing. [End Page 65]
Growing up in Harlem's theatrical district, Marion Coles, 84, started dancing as a teen, Lindy Hopping at the Savoy and the Renaissance Ballroom in the early 1930s. Fay Ray, 85, was born in Louisiana, but at age 12, she hopped a freight train and never looked back. Ray is the most travelled of the troupe, having served as a welder for the Navy during WWII. She also danced with USO troupes in Europe, Asia, and the Far East. At various points, she also earned her living driving a taxi in New York City and working on the pipeline in Alaska. One of the film's warmest moments is when Fay talks about her "true love"—an older man in his 90s.
The film also provides an insider's look at the cultural history of the Harlem Renaissance: the theaters, the big bands, the performers, and of course, the challenges that were all part of everyday life for dancers in Harlem in the 1930s. Some of the best scenes in the film are of the women looking at pictures of the performers with whom they had danced, and reminiscing about the friendships made along the way—familiar names such as Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald, to name just a few. But life was not just celebrities and dancing for these Belles. The film also documents their struggle to form...