Dance
102-year-old dancer watches film of her dancing in the 1930s for the first time
This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
Naomi Lai
08.21.20

Making it to your 102nd birthday is an amazing feat, and deserves something special to celebrate.

Alice Barker got a priceless once-in-a-lifetime surprise that would warm her heart and the hearts of people around the world. She was born in New York in 1912. By her early twenties, she became a successful swing dancer during the height of its popularity—an era known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Now, decades later, she has been reunited with footage from her performances that she didn’t even know existed.

A team of friends at her nursing home brought the dream to life after working tirelessly to track down the footage. They were inspired after hearing all of Alice’s amazing stories from her youth.

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It was a beautiful twist of fate that they would be able to find the recordings so many years later, and while Alice was still around to re-live the experience!

They brought the videos to her in her hospital bed and played early videos from some of her best club performances.

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Alice was no amateur—she danced at reputable venues such as the Apollo, Cotton Club, Zanzibar Club and on Broadway in her day.

She even danced with A-list celebrities from the era like Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. In addition to her club appearances, she danced in movies, commercials and TV shows, but never saw any of them.

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All of her photos and other memorabilia were lost over the years, so she had nothing left but fond memories and stories from her young, lively dancing days.

She couldn’t just upload everything to the cloud like we do today!

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As soon as the videos were played, she lit up.

It was clear she recognized herself and was able to point herself out on screen.

“Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!”

She recalled, smiling—quoting the catchy Duke Ellington song-turned popular, quippy saying of the 1940s.

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The team played through various recordings and pulled up some photos, while Alice kept her eyes fixated on the screen, tapping along to the beat.

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“My mother told me a story”, she recalled. “She was ready to bathe me, and on the corner was a band playing. She had forgotten something and went back into the house to get it, and when she came out I was gone. And I was down there, naked, just going dancing.”

She really was born to be a dancer!

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The magical moment was brought together by a few dedicated fans in Alice’s life.

David Shuff, a volunteer at the nursing home got to know Alice through sessions with his therapy dog. With the help of one of the facility’s recreation therapists, Gail Campbell, the two managed to track down the black and white recordings.

They got in touch with Mark Cantor, who collects old “soundies,” and he had records of Alice back in her hay day. Then, they contacted Alicia Thompson, a historian of black female performers.

She had been looking for Alice for years, and couldn’t believe her luck when she heard from David and Gail. It meant they were able to give Alice a priceless gift.

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For those of you wondering, Alice has since passed away.

But she lives on in black and white through the magic of film. What an incredible gift for her to experience, and for her family to have now as keepsakes (including this video of her reaction to seeing herself perform)! Fans were so inspired by the story that they sent flowers, cards and other gifts from around the world to her hospital bed. It must have made her feel like she was in the limelight all over again!

Watch the video below to see her swing performances, and reaction to seeing herself on film for the first time. It’s sure to bring a tear to your eye!

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By Naomi Lai
hi@sbly.com
Naomi Lai is a contributor at SBLY Media.
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