A 102-year-old Harlem Renaissance dancer sees her young self on film for the first time
A 102-year-old Harlem Renaissance dancer watched her young self on film for the first time performing in dance clubs in the 1930s and 1940s. (Tenfresh)
It has been decades since Alice Barker last danced on a stage. But after the 102-year-old finally saw video footage of her glory days performing in dance clubs in the 1930s and 1940s, she wanted to get out of her bed to do it all over again.
The remarkable moment was made possible thanks to director David Shuff; the nursing home’s recreational director, Gail Campbell; and the Celluloid Improvisations Music Film Archive‘s Mark Cantor, who found footage of Barker that had been filed under the name “Baker.”
Lying in her Brooklyn nursing home room, Barker sat back and watched the video on an iPad, seeing her younger self on film for the very first time.
The video, posted on YouTube this week, was filmed in the fall of 2014. (Barker is still alive and well, Shuff says.)
“Making me wish that I could get out of this bed and do it all over again,” Barker said when asked how she felt while watching the footage.
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She remembered some things vividly: the singers, their songs but mostly, the feeling of being carried away in the music.
“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,” Barker said. “Because that music, you know, I just get carried away in it.”
On Reddit, where the video has garnered thousands of comments, Shuff said that he has known Barker for years and had hoped to be able to find the videos and share them with her.
“I knew Alice for several years — my dog is a therapy dog and we visited her nursing home — the recreation nurse and I always talked about how amazing it would be to find her films and show her,” Shuff said. “And we finally were able to.”
In an interview with the Washington Post, Shuff said that the process of tracking down the video took almost three years of searching.
“Being that she has no family, never had kids, all of her memorabilia has kind of been lost in the shuffle,” said Shuff, who now lives in California. “We didn’t have a photo of her or anything. Nothing at all.”
But after months of digging they had a breakthrough. They discovered that films, called “soundies,” were short music videos of their time and they would have been be recorded in night clubs, where Barker likely danced.
Cantor, it turned out, had a collection of those archived soundies. And he was able to find evidence of three soundies that included a “Ms. Baker.”
Shuff watched the videos and knew the search was over.
“I was like holy s*** that’s her, that’s totally her,” he said.
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Soon after, he brought his iPad to the nursing home to show his friend. Realizing that the moment should probably be recorded for “posterity,” asked someone to record the video on a cellphone.
“In this case, I’m neither a documentarian nor a producer, just a dude who brings his dog to the nursing home to visit with people, and a friend of Alice’s,” Shuff said on Reddit. “Shooting this at all was an afterthought.”
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The public reaction to the video came as a surprise, Shuff said. But he is encouraging all of Barker’s admirers to consider sending her “fan mail” to the Bishop Henry B. Hucles Episcopal Nursing Home.
“What’s awesome is that she definitely found this whole thing super invigorating,” Shuff said. “She love seeing them and seeing herself in them.”
Barker danced at clubs such as the Apollo, the Cotton Club and the Zanzibar Club, and her dancing appeared in movies, commercials and television shows and with stars like Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, according to Shuff.
Asked how many years she danced during that time, Barker touched her hand to her chest and replied, “Oh, that’s all I ever did.”
“That was it,” she said.
[This post has been updated.]