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Silver Belles Still Light Up the Harlem Stage

In the 1920s and '30s, Harlem was known as the "Capital of Black America," the epicenter of a flourishing African-American culture. Now, many of those who lived during the glory days of the revival known as the Harlem Renaissance are dying out.

A new documentary, Been Rich All My Life, takes a loving look at one part of that rich heritage: the Silver Belles, a leggy troupe of dancers who drew crowds to Harlem's famous nightclubs and theatres, such as the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club.

Now in their 80s and 90s, four of the remaining Belles -- Fay Ray, Elaine Ellis, Cleo Hayes and Marion Coles -- continue to dazzle a new generation of audiences.

Filmmaker Heather Lyn MacDonald followed the troupe as they performed before enthusiastic audiences, capturing their often bawdy backstage humor.

At the height of their fame, the Silver Belles were at least as popular as the headliners with whom they shared the stage at clubs. But it wasn't all glamour: The dancers worked hard for what little money they were paid. At one point, they made history by going on strike at the Apollo, an act that helped lead to the formation of a union for dancers.

After World War II, movies became more important than live shows. Dancers were considered too expensive, and the Harlem show girls eventually found themselves looking for other jobs.

The Silver Belles sporadically kept in touch until 1985, when Bertye Lou Woods -- one of the original members, who recently passed away -- asked if they would like to regroup. Since then, the Silver Belles have become a star attraction in a newly reinvigorated Harlem looking for a second renaissance.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.
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