What happens to a chorus girl when her high kick starts to sag? If she's one of the Silver Belles, the toe-tapping quintet at the heart of Heather Lyn MacDonald's affectionate documentary "Been Rich All My Life," she keeps right on hoofin' until the Almighty takes her tap shoes away.
All in their 80s and 90s, the Silver Belles have seen better days. Some of the best, in fact. Arriving in Manhattan at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, the five women collectively scuffed the floors of the biggest nightclubs in Harlem, the Cotton Club, Connie's Inn and Small's Paradise among them.
Bertye Lou Wood, at 96 the group's eminence grise, captained the Apollo Theater's dance line and shared the stage with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Marion Coles, widow of the legendary dancer Honi Coles, spread the Lindy hop craze across the nation. Fay Ray, who rode a freight train out of Louisiana at the age of 14, learned her trade with the Three Businessmen of Rhythm and toured the vaudeville circuit as a solo act, making some famous friends along the way. She digs out an off-color telegram from Louis Armstrong, signed "Red Beans and Ricely Yours."
The demand for tap dancers dwindled in the late 1940s, and the women drifted out of show business. Cleo Hayes, a former Cotton Club dancer who appears briefly in the Lena Horne vehicle "Stormy Weather," tended bar, a job she still holds at age 89. Ray, whose life story deserves a movie of its own, drove a cab and worked on the Alaskan oil pipeline. But when they formed the Silver Belles in 1985, dance regained center stage in their lives. When she's performing, Ray says, "I light up like a Christmas tree."