What do you do when you’ve lived a full life, time has slipped by like a bandit, and the days seem like they’re numbered and few? It’s obvious. Dylan Thomas said it, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Instead, throw on a pair of tap shoes, gather your 80-year-old lady friends together, and hit the road for another round on the entertainment circuit.
Been Rich All My Life is a documentary that gives old age a new twist. For two weeks after I saw this film, I literally wanted to slap people who were napping in my home. Terrible, I know, but I am now convinced that sleep is overrated because of these inspirational, dancing divas.
Bertye Lou (96), Cleo (89), Elaine (88), Fay (84), and Marion (88) re-united in 1985 to form “The Silver Belles”. With over 70 years of experience in the entertainment industry, these women danced their way through the Harlem Renaissance as chorus girls, performing at some of the most famous nightclubs around like the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater. The different sounds and melodies through eight decades of musical progression, topped with the unique, tap-dancing style of “The Silver Belles”, will make you want to sign up for lessons even if you have no sliver of rhythm to work with.
These ladies were also responsible for the creation of the American Guild of Variety Artists. Working 15-hour days, 7 days a week, they decided to go on strike and demand compensation for rehearsal time. Rehearsals were several hours long, and the chorus girls were only paid for the actual shows they performed in front of an audience.
Large crowds disappeared from the clubs forcing business owners to comply with their requests, and the ladies triumphed. Dancers returned to the stage with higher wages, people flooded back into the scene, and business boomed as usual. But shortly after a well-deserved accomplishment, another obstacle presented itself.
The war broke out. Having worked together for several years by then, the ladies parted ways and claimed their temporary blue-collar destinies, filling in wherever they were needed. Fay Ray, the youngest of the group, even became a certified welder and worked on a major pipeline before jetting off to see the world. Most of them traveled, some of them got married and had children, but none of the Fab 5 tappers ever stopped performing.
They’re still rehearsing regularly these days, playing to sold-out crowds and loving every minute of it, all in their middle to late 80’s. Bertye Lou, at 96 and the eldest of the group, just recently stopped dancing with the girls, but that doesn’t stop her from attending every practice. She says, “I may be old, but I’m not cold!”
So when I see some whiny, melodramatic, “woe is me” kind of character trying to pass off another tired excuse for an unfulfilled life, I’m going to suggest they watch this documentary and ask that “The Silver Belles” pay them a visit. They’ll probably be tap-dancing the whole way there, leaving a trail of smiles and sequins along the way.
Heather Lyn MacDonald, Been Rich All My Life featuring “The Silver Belles”, www.tootscrackin.com