How racism pushed Margot and Norton, a black ballroom dance couple to pass as ‘hispanic’ to be hired

Michael Eli Dokosi May 22, 2020 at 03:00pm

May 22, 2020 at 03:00 pm | Faces of Black Excellence, History

Michael Eli Dokosi

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

May 22, 2020 at 03:00 pm | Faces of Black Excellence, History

Margot and Norton via harlemworldmagazine.com

Margot and Norton were a black ballroom dance couple who found fame in America and Europe during the 1930’s & 40’s. Margot Webb and Harold Norton danced the Waltz, Tango and Bolero at the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York 1933-39 and in London, Paris and Germany before WWII.

In 1933, while at one of her dance performances, Webb met Harold Norton. Soon after their meeting, they became ballroom dance partners, professionally known as “Norton and Margot.”

Although Margot and Norton found fame to an extent, because they didn’t perform the stereotypical dances white audiences expected of blacks dancers such as tap dancing, exotic jungle dances, shaking, jitterbugging, and the Lindy hop, they didn’t make much money.

It wasn’t only white audiences who found their dance style and classy elegant image unnerving, black audiences at the time, expecting black performers to be hot performers and dress a certain way found them not ideal.

Fair minded folks and critics, however, loved their soulfully graceful, smooth, polished dancing regarding it as the highest standard of classic dance.

According to American cultural historian choreographer, Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Webb modified her name from Marjorie to Margot, adding the “t” for a more “Latin” because she realized that in the prevailing state of America’s anti-black and racist environment, Latin performers had a better chance of being hired than an African-American performer.

In several instances, the dancing pair had to masquerade their true identity, often presenting themselves as “hispanic” to be hired.

Margot Webb born March 18, 1910 and trained in ballet, waltz, tango, and bolero together with Norton toured the East and Midwest United States and parts of Europe with the Cotton Club Revue and the Continental Variety show in 1937.

Although largely undocumented by white audiences and not frequently booked, they did receive regular coverage in various newspapers and magazines in the 1930s and 1940s in the African American Press, the Amsterdam News, the Norfolk Journal and Guide, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Chicago Defender.  

In 1936, Norton and Margot opened a dance studio in central Harlem. They taught classes for children and adults and also choreographed routines, often for white nightclub performers, but because of their busy touring schedules and inability to make money, they closed their Harlem studio in 1938.

While they were touring from June to August in 1937, Norton and Margot were also a part of the Cotton Club Revue, which toured abroad with the Teddy Hill Band. They performed at the London Palladium, the Moulin Rouge and the Théâtre des Ambassadeurs in Paris.

Margot Webb born Marjorie Smith grew up in Harlem attending Hunter College until she dropped out to pursue dancing full-time and became a headline dancer in the Cotton Club from 1933-1939. Her father George Mitchell Smith was a classical violinist who also taught the saxophone and clarinet while her mum Gertrude Violet Fay Bush played the piano in nightclubs.

“Webb continued to dance professionally from 1942 to 1945 working as a soloist and as the occasional ballroom partner of Al Moore. Webb however retired from show business when she got less recognition and offers. Norton and Webb staged a comeback from 1946 to 1947 to try to regain their name. They opened Harlem’s “Club Baron” in September, 1946, but only got a few bookings afterwards. As a result, the team disbanded permanently in early 1947. Webb entered graduate school at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and went on to teach at Catholic colleges and public schools.”

The rarity of having an African-American ballroom dancing team was a radical move for the era that brought questions of race and gender to the field of dance. The end of the swing era ended the career of Margot and Norton because of the decline in demand for their act.

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