Back in the 1930s, the Silver Belles graced the stage of the Apollo Theater and other Harlem clubs lining 125th Street. The chorus line of 16 beautiful young African American women (most of them light-skinned), tapping and kicking with precision and gusto, charmed the white patrons who came up to Harlem to hear jazz greats like Cab Calloway, Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong.
Fast forward to 2005, when Heather Lyn MacDonald produced and directed Been Rich All My Life. Five Silver Belles, brought together in 1985 by Bertye Lou Wood, onetime dance captain of the group, and Geri Rhodes Kennedy gather at the Cotton Club where owner John Beatty lets them rehearse. Rehearse? Oh yes! Wood is chairbound (she finally quit performing a year ago at 95), so she’s only here to kibitz. But the other four, dressed smartly or funkily, are on their feet and ready to go over a number.
Several times over the course of the heart-lifting film, the Silver Belles— Marion Coles (88), Cleo Hayes (89), Fay Ray (84), and Elaine Ellis (86)—strut onstage stage in black and silver pants outfits. They dispensed with taps on their shoes a while back, and they don’t have the fireworks pep of their younger selves, but they are dancers and showbiz pros. As the much younger tapper Karen Callaway Williams says, “They have seasoning with their steps.” They’re in the groove every second. Their feet map out the rhythms, their bodies come alive, they flirt with the happy spectators. “I get carried away with the music,” Ellis tells the camera. They all do. Even though in the dressing room—putting on their makeup and being helped into their fancy duds by Kennedy (their manager and de facto dresser)—they may worry about forgetting the steps, once the band strikes up “Take the A Train” or “Sweet Georgia Brown,” they are on!
In MacDonald’s documentary, black-and-white footage captures the energy of the Harlem Renaissance, and the old snapshots that punctuate interviews with the Belles situate them right there in the hum and bustle. As chorus girls, they may have taken a back seat to the great male tappers, but these are tough, dauntless women. Ray picked cotton in Louisiana as a kid and left home to ride the rails north at 12, wearing a cap that made her look like a boy. Some of them picked up dancing practically on the job, with more experienced, generous-spirited dancers teaching them the steps. They tell proudly how 16 girls once shut down the Apollo for 24 hours, striking to get better pay for their four to six shows a day and rehearsals until all hours.
Around 1941, all of them went into war work. Ray welded ship seams. Hayes remembers black USO tours (Eubie Blake led the band) where their patriotism was rewarded in the South with “Whites Only” signs on train seats and eatery windows. But after the war, as one of them says, “the well went dry.” Shows no longer used chorus girls. The dancers raised families. Some became bartenders because they liked the atmosphere and the friendly clientele (when the film was shot, Hayes was still tending bar at the Flash Inn). Ray danced abroad, then became a cab driver, then worked on the Alaska pipeline.
These women are survivors, buoyed by their love of dancing. They gab, they tease one another, and they joke about the minor afflictions of age. It turns out that both Hayes and Ellis have come through cancer. Coles, revered as a teacher of tap, has a pacemaker implanted in the middle of the filming. They don’t talk about these things. Also in the process of making the movie, Hayes falls down a flight of subway stairs and breaks an arm and a kneecap. We see her grit her teeth in physical therapy sessions. She’s determined to dance again, and she does (while she’s recovering and out of the lineup, the remaining Silver Belles have to cover more space in their number: they laugh over how tired they get doing that).
They laugh about life as much as they can. Hayes thanks God for every day she’s alive. Ray says that if she had her life to live over, she wouldn’t change a thing. But their sadness is palpable when Wood, who at 96 has had several falls, falls again in a short-term care facility. They all know (but think she doesn’t) that she’ll never be able to live on her own again. At a rehearsal she visits, they try to chivvy her, to get her to show the old Bertye feistiness they cherish. Kennedy brushes her hair, while they cluster. Finally the nursing-home glaze leaves Wood’s face. “What the fuck do you want me to do?”, she says, and then everything’s fine. For a short while. Dressed in sober black, the four Silver Belles dance at their friend’s memorial service, along with scores of others. We hear Bertye in a voiceover talking about what dancing meant to her: “I was free,” she says, “like a bird coming out of a cage.”
MacDonald and her colleagues have handled the material with respect and affection. No dumb or intrusive questions. Smart choices of what to film (like seated Ellis’s feet stirring into action while she’s waiting backstage and hears music). At 81 minutes, Been Rich All My Life feels a bit long, but it’s hard to imagine what you’d want to part with. As an MC’s voice calls out in the film’s final moments, over the cheers of an audience watching the four Silver Belles, “Take a bow! This is history right here!!”