BROOKLYN, N.Y. — A chorus line dancer during the 1930s & 40s Harlem Renaissance, Alice Barker had never, in all of her 102 years, seen herself dancing on film — that is, until now.
Finding Alice Barker
According to Tenfresh, Alice Barker danced in movies, commercials, and TV shows, but had never seen any of them. What photos and memorabilia she did have at one time have been lost over the years. That’s where video director David Shuff and Mark Cantor of the Celluloid Improvisations Music Film Archive come in. They researched and found Alice in several old films — and they couldn’t wait to show her.
Mark collects old soundies (the first music videos); he had Alice listed in documents, but with the last name Baker, not Barker. “They misspelled my name. All the time. They’d leave out the middle ‘r,'” Alice says.
Dancing With Legends
But once you see the film, there’s no question that it’s Alice. Among others, she danced with Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson at places like The Apollo, Cotton Club, and Zanzibar Club. “That’s all I ever did; that was it,” Alice says of her dancing years.
Once the films with Alice were found, the team brought an iPad to Alice’s Brooklyn nursing home and showed her what they’d discovered. And she didn’t miss a beat.
“Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” she says, instantly recognizing the song playing on film during her dance.
When asked about her rumored nickname, Alice knows exactly what her visitors are talking about. “That’s it! That’s it! Because every time we go somewhere, they say, ‘What do you want to eat?’ I’d say, ‘Chicken.’ So they called me Chicken Little,” Alice says.
Seeing Herself Dance
Someone off camera in the video asks Alice how she feels seeing herself after all these years. “Making me wish that I could get out of this bed and do it all over again,” she says with a smile.
After the first ‘premiere’ of Alice’s film, the group came back two weeks later with even more.
“It’s just fabulous! Fabulous to see these and remember all these things that was happening,” Alice says.
“Let’s Get It Going!”
“I used to often say to myself, ‘I am being paid to do something that I enjoy doing and I would do it for free,’ because it just felt so good doing it,” she says. “Because that music, you know, I just get carried away in it.”
Alice’s ‘getting carried away in it’ started at an early age. “My mother told me she was getting ready to bathe me, and on the corner was a band playing. She had forgotten something and she went back in the house to get it — and when she came out I was gone. And I was down there naked just going, dancing,” she said. “And I can see me down there, naked, just dancing. And then, if the band would stop playing, I’d look at them and ‘Come one, let’s get it going,'” she says.
Check Out the Hands
As Alice tells stories in the video, she often has her left hand delicately placed on her middle. Just like the old days — check out the same left hand, decades apart.
The video was posted Monday and it already has more than half a million views; the publishers also posted Alice’s address, saying they “would love to see her get the adoration she deserves after so many years.”
c/o Bishop Henry B. Hucles Episcopal Nursing Home
835 Herkimer Street
Brooklyn, NY 11233
Tenfresh recommends the film Been Rich All My Life, which features several of the women Alice danced with back in the day.
“Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
You said it, Alice!