"Been Rich All My Life," a 2005 documentary by director Heather Lyn MacDonald, has five things going for it: The Silver Belles, five chorus girls now in their 80s and 90s who met during the heady days of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s. They came from New York and the Deep South, and despite the film's title, none of them were rich in the disposable-income sense of the word. What they all had was a determination to better themselves and a love of dance. Let me tell you something about professional dancers, and I've worked with a few: They're terrific.
The gals reunited in the mid-1980s and began taking their show on the road. Now, let's be honest: By the time this film was made, they could no longer shake a leg with the best of them. The inspiring part is that they could shake it at all. The wonder is that they still wanted to.
The troupe was comprised of four dancers with one on the sidelines who traveled with them. Bertye Lou Wood was 96, still as sharp and sassy as ever, but unable to keep up with the others: Marion Coles, Elaine Ellis, Fay Ray and Cleo Hayes, who takes a heavy fall down some stairs and has to battle back from immobility.
Don't be misled by the designation "chorus girls." These five dancers may never have been headliners, but they worked with the best, including Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater.
Director MacDonald includes some vintage photos of the gals at work in these legendary venues. I would like to have seen more of the historical material. People with little or no understanding of what those performers and performing spaces meant and still mean to American popular music could use more instruction. Hopefully, this information will be provided through other elements at the Oklahoma Museum of Arts screening 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 5:30 and 8 p.m. Friday, and 2 p.m. Sunday.
The five dancers don't spend much time telling audiences about their experiences. With luck, MacDonald has oral histories from them on tape for use by future historians. I suspect that what we are given in this film is but a small part of what these ladies could have contributed to our knowledge of their lives and times.
We find out that at the end of every Silver Belles show, dancers in the audience are invited on to the stage to take part in a "shim sham shimmy," a chorus line of dance that is made up of four simple tap steps. Museum screenings may not include it, but the DVD of the movie contains a bonus shim sham shimmy dance class. How cool is that?
There is something in us that marvels at seniors who refuse to go quietly into that dark night. If there is life after death, when the Silver Belles get to that great dance hall in the sky, Bojangles will greet each of them with, "Welcome. Get your taps on. Rehearsal starts in 10 minutes." "Doug Bentin