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'Been Rich' reveals history through dancers' lives

If you only watched the first half of ``Been Rich All My Life," you might walk away thinking it's a so-so documentary about another fascinating, underreported piece of Harlem history. And you'd be at least half right in that assessment.

But the second act of this new film from director Heather Lyn MacDonald (``Ballot Measure 9") is where it moves from a routine soft shuffle into a rich and touching piece of work.

MacDonald's movie begins by looking in on the contemporary stage lives of a group of octogenarian dancers known as the Silver Belles. The ageless performing troupe, which includes founding members of Harlem's Apollo Theater chorus, plays to standing ovations wherever it goes. And from what we can see at first glance, it goes and goes and goes beyond all reasonable expectation, like the Energizer bunny in four well-worn pairs of strappy heels.

The active quartet of Silver Belles is composed of Marion Coles , Elaine Ellis , Cleo Hayes , and Fay Ray . Legendary 96-year-old Bertye Lou Wood, who has only recently stepped down as captain of the group, looks on with a hypercritical eye from the sidelines of every performance. And manager Geri Kennedy keeps order where possible, though her charges are a forgetful, sassy, independent-minded bunch.

Watching the women rehearse and converse is mildly interesting for a while, until it becomes redundant and sort of tedious. No matter how much you like, admire, and root for these scrappy seniors, a little backstage footage goes a long way here. Far more informative are the vintage clips and photographs that MacDonald uses to skim the performers' back stories and the history of uptown Harlem as ``the place to be" in the 1930s.

But what's really captivating is the history that emerges more in the second half, when MacDonald dips beneath the surface of her dancers' public and private lives, and time also begins to take its full toll on the health of the troupe.

Viewers learn that the chorus-line girls were mighty enough to be victorious in a labor strike at the Apollo, and they were connected enough to come away with photo albums featuring the likes of Bill ``Bojangles" Robinson and Cab Calloway. Eventually it's revealed that Ray didn't just ride the rails to escape a life of picking cotton in Louisiana; she also traveled the world, welded warships in Rhode Island, and worked on the Alaska pipeline. Hers is just one of the stories that begs to be fleshed out more.

It's a joy to watch these seasoned dancers pass down their innate shim-sham skills to a generation of up-and-comers. And on the flip side, it's heartbreaking to see tragedy and infirmity conspire to cut short those teachings. Ultimately, it's clear that even the Belles can't dance around the inevitable. But they can sure show the rest of us how to keep moving till the very end.

Janice Page can be reached at

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