Meet a NYFA Artist: Heather Lyn MacDonald
“We don’t walk on like elderly people; we come on ready to dance, and they know it.”
So says 88 year-old tap dancer Elaine Ellis during filmmaker Heather Lyn MacDonald’s new documentary Been Rich All My Life. Ellis is a member of the Silver Belles, a New York-based troupe of tap dancers now in their 80s and 90s which formed in 1985, but all of whose members have been dancing since the 1930s. Seemingly in defiance of burnout—both mental and physical—the Silver Belles’ perseverance and energy in passing the language of tap from one generation to the next is exceptional. MacDonald recently spoke with NYFA Current Editor Nick Stillman about the Silver Belles and the making of Been Rich All My Life,which opens in New York on July 21 at Cinema Village. The film is a NYFA fiscally sponsored project.
Nick Stillman: There are some artistic disciplines where the physical limitations that come with age aren’t quite as relevant as they are with tap dancing—writing, for instance. While watching Been Rich All My Life it’s obvious these women can still more than hold their own. I was watching your film thinking, “There’s no way she’s 89. No way she’s 96!” How do women of between 84 and 96 years old keep themselves in shape to tap dance?
Heather Lyn MacDonald: I think dancers can generally remain in shape to perform because they’re so involved with their bodies. For example, when Cleo [Hayes] was in therapy after falling, the therapists were stunned that she could stand on one leg and balance. It’s a skill she got as a dancer. When she was in rehab she could only use one arm and one leg, both on the same side of her body, to scoot herself along in a wheelchair. If you’re only pushing with one side you’ll go in circles. Watching her go down the hall you couldn’t help but want to push her. But when I tried she waved her arm at me and said, “I have to learn how to do this.”
I’d say that apart from just being a dancer it’s that attitude, a fierce independent spirit, that helps keep their bodies fit enough to continue. It’s not like if you’re a dancer you’ll live forever, but if you lead a physical life…it obviously helps. None of these ladies had dance training. What they had was physical adeptness—a lack of fear of using their bodies.
NS: You chose not to use voiceover as a narrative strategy, letting the women of the Silver Belles tell their own story, the vast majority of which is remarkably positive, despite all requisite financial hardships and scattershot work that come with the territory of being an artist of almost any type. Did you sense any frustration from the dancers that they weren’t physically capable of things they may have been in the past?
HLM: No. These women have no regrets. I can say that about all of them. I think they’re all amazed they’re still alive; they don’t worry about being old. One dancer has a stroke in the film, which we actually didn’t know was a stroke as we were filming. The idea of having anyone else take care of her was terrifying to her. Now she’s adjusted to the idea of someone else going to the grocery store for her. They make transitions in their old age.
NS: Why are the Silver Belles still dancing? This seems to be the central question in the film.
HLM: First of all, their manager, Geri Kennedy, brought them out of their retirement. She’s a very fierce manager and the ladies appreciate that she brought them back and has kept them together and going. She whips them into shape, gets them gigs, plans the rehearsals. It’s always better to have someone calling the shots. Like a filmmaker with a producer giving you deadlines—it’s got to happen. Geri really was, and is, a force that way.
Also, the oldest of the Silver Belles, Bertye Lou Wood, kept them going. She danced until she was 95. The ladies who were 85 could hardly say, “I’m too tired to dance!”
NS: There were a few instances in the film where you asked younger tap dancers to talk about the Silver Belles’ style. One woman spoke of the “seasoning” of their steps, and a young choreographer mentioned how the Silver Belles don’t necessarily dance to count, that their methodology is almost half-language and half-music. Could you talk a little more expansively about how some of the younger tap dancers responded to the Silver Belles when you spoke with them? There seemed to be some awe there.
HLM: They’re awed. I would say the tap dance world adores them. Is inspired by them. I think they make others think to themselves, “If they can keep going I can.” They’re often being called upon to teach.
NS: Did you get the feeling that the Silver Belles are sometimes treated as a novelty?
HLM: There’s definitely that, but really only from the press. In the tap dance world they’re not a novelty. We shot a bonus feature for the DVD of Fay [Ray] teaching the Shim Sham Shimmy. I had the young dancer Karen Calloway there because I wanted her available if it was necessary to translate the steps to dancers who couldn’t follow the Silver Belles’ phonetic instruction, who needed instruction in the language of sound instead of music. Fay did a step from the 1930s and Karen, an incredible dancer—an amazing dancer—just fell out of her routine and said, “Do that again,” and made her do it three times till she could pick it up. Just a moment of real excitement for Karen.
NS: Most of the Silver Belles began dancing in front of crowds in the ’30s in Harlem, right in the thick of the Harlem Renaissance, to huge crowds at venues like the Cotton Club or the Apollo Theatre. While making your film, did you get a sense of their opinions on how America’s entertainment culture may have changed from then to now? Is there now less of a demand for performing artists?
HLM: There’s no call for chorus line dancers, certainly of their age. Of course there’s the Radio City Rockettes but it’s a retro kind of thing. They also come from a lighter-on-your-toes style of tap dancing. There’s a tap workshop in New York this summer called Break the Floor, trying to appeal to a young tap audience. Break the floor. That speaks to this new style. Tap dance is being marketed as breaking the floor as opposed to coming off of it.
NS: Been Rich All My Life briefly touches on the historical context in which the Silver Belles began dancing—pre-Civil Rights America. Did you talk with them about how they were received when they were younger? In the film, one dancer remarks that they typically performed for all-white audiences.
HLM: A lot of the clubs were all-white and the chorus lines were often light-skinned. Most clubs were owned by whites. One Cotton Club show was called the Copper Color Gals Show. I guess the exotica aspect was appealing to audiences in that period.
NS: You’ve now made several documentary films. Been Rich All My Life is about to open at Cinema Village in New York City. I want to ask you about what seems to me was a major shift in the popular reception of documentary films by American audiences in 2003 and 2004, with the successes of films like Fahrenheit 9/11, Control Room, Supersize Me, and The Fog of War, just to name a few. When making a documentary film these days, is there more opportunity than in the past to have it viewed by a larger audience?
HLM: When Hoop Dreams came out in 1994 I thought, “America’s changing! America’s starting to like documentaries!” Every year it seems like there’s one that breaks through, that makes it seems like this country will start loving documentaries. The truth is that American audiences still are not flocking to see documentaries. Every now and then there’s one or two, but still they’re doing well only in a small market. It’s extremely difficult to market a documentary to an American public unless you get a distributor with big PR dollars. You will succeed thru PR or someone really big championing it. Still, I’m glad people are making them; what you have to go through to finish one (considering funding possibilities and how slim chances are of making anything back)…I have such regard for people doing that. And like you said, there’s some cause for hope: more people are seeing documentaries at the theater now and theaters are more willing to take them on.
Been Rich All My Life opens July 21 at Cinema Village in New York.
For more information on Been Rich All My Life, visit: