BERTYE LOU WOOD
"I'm going to dance, dance, dance 'til I can't dance no more, and I'm going to live, live, live 'til I die!"
The wry and irrepressible Bertye Lou Wood is the Silver Belles' sage and mentor. Bertye Lou was the dance captain at the Apollo Theater in the 1930's, where the ladies first met, and in 1985 she gathered the women together to form the Silver Belles. She is the one they continue to look up to. "She taught me how to dance, everything I know I owe to Bertye," says Marion Coles. "You feel like laughing when you're with Bertye, she's more fun than anyone I know," adds Cleo Hayes. Bertye Lou is still a party girl, and the type to tease a rise out of anyone, just to get the action going.
Bertye Lou started dancing in New York in the late 1920's while raising three sons. She danced without stop for the next twenty years, "I wasn't afraid of nothing, teach me that!" She danced on Broadway with Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, and at such venues as the Lafayette Theatre, Connie's Inn and Small's Paradise in Harlem's famed theatrical district. Bertye also led the Apollo Theater chorus line in a strike for higher salaries and a week's vacation. It was the first strike for black performers, and the first for the fledgling American Guild of Variety Artists. The strike successfully established that union for black and white performers nationwide. These days, there seems to be no one, band leader nor dancer, that Bertye hasn't worked with, and when she walks down the streets of her Harlem neighborhood, it seems everyone calls out her name.
Bertye Lou (far right) as a young woman in Newark, c. 1928
Above right, Bertye Lou Wood, with friends after a show c. 1940