The Silver Belles are the most unlikely troupe of tap dancers. In their heyday they worked at some of Harlem's most prestigious haunts, performing with legendary band leaders like Cab Calloway, Jimmie Lunceford and Duke Ellington. They met in the 1930s as chorus dancers at the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club. When the big band era ended, and with it the need for show dancers, they all went into other work. Thanks to founder Geraldine Rhodes Kennedy, they regrouped in 1985, put their shoes back on and - sassy as they ever were - are still performing regularly. They may not kick as high, but they are hip-swaying and show-biz savvy. These women will disrupt any notions you have of old age.
Each of the Silver Belles has a distinctive, idiosyncratic personality and dance style. They share a love of dance and the ability to flirt with their audience. "We mug more now than we used to," explains Marion Coles. "I light up like a Christmas tree when I go out there, the right music will just push you," adds Fay Ray. "I may be old, but I'm not cold!" exclaims Bertye Lou Wood, the eldest.
The Silver Belles have brought down the house at such places as Carnegie Hall with Cab Calloway, the Atlantis Casino in Atlantic City with Sister Sledge, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center and were seen on television on 'Showtime at the Apollo'.
The Belles, as they're fondly called, performed to a sell-out crowd at the now defunct Latin Quarter in 1987, just before it closed. The Latin Quarter used to be the stomping grounds for several members of the Silver Belles when the club opened as Connie's Inn in 1935. It became the downtown Cotton Club in 1936. Now, even the building is gone.
The Silver Belles are featured in the new documentary Been Rich All My Life, directed by Sundance Audience Award winning filmmaker Heather Lyn MacDonald.
The film is lively and humor-filled, sparkling with the verve and candor of these inspiring women. It follows them from their rehearsals at the Cotton Club, to their shows - and over the bumps in between. They perform to standing ovations at concert halls around the city, working with dancers some 60 years younger. They enjoy their weekly rehearsals, their love of their craft, the music, and the laughter and arguments of a friendship that has continued for over 70 years.
They have rich stories to tell about the history they made during the 'Harlem Renaissance'. At the Apollo Theater, where they worked 15 hour days, rehearsing and performing a new show each week, these chorus girls led the historic strike that established the American Guild of Variety Artists. Archival film and photos from the 1920's to the 1950's, often from their own closets, blend into the present narrative (e.g., film footage of Bertye dancing with Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, Cleo Hayes in Stormy Weather, or Marion lindy-hopping at the Savoy). The music in the documentary ranges over eight decades of jazz styles, the honky tonk sounds of the 20's, the big bands of the 30's and 40's (some of it written especially for these dancers), the bebop of the 50's - to the rhythms of contemporary jazz as the ladies travel the streets of their neighborhoods today.
The ladies that make up The Silver Belles continue to make a significant contribution to our society.