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."
What the Silver Belles lack in acrobatics, they more than make up in seasoning and showmanship. At what turned out to be the last performance before injury ended her dance career, Wood stole the show from her fellow dancers by simply walking downstage and telling the audience, "I'm too old for this," uh, stuff.
Choreographer Mercedes Ellington describes them as a "very flirty" group and points out how the Silver Belles dance to syllables rather than a one-two count. One young dancer describes how Coles can lay out a dance step over the phone, simply by spitting out a line of wordless scat singing.
Colored by nostalgia and an obvious fondness for its subjects, "Been Rich" sometimes glosses over the bad times that came with the good. Wood recalls that the clubs' mainly white owners wanted only light-skinned dancers (a vintage shot of the Cotton Club's marquee bears the legend "50 Copper-Colored Girls"), and Hayes describes stealing the "For Colored Only" signs from segregated trains during a USO tour through the South.
But MacDonald seems less interested in the Silver Belles' past than their inspirational present. Eventually, the inevitable broken hips and dizzy spells take their toll, but those who remain seem determined to shuffle-step their way into the sunset.
`Been Rich All My Life'
MPAA rating: Unrated
A First Run Features release. Director-producer Heather Lyn MacDonald. Cinematography MacDonald, Jon Miller. Editors BB Jorissen, MacDonald. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes.
Exclusively at Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills (310) 274-6869.