How racism drove Margot and Norton, a black ballroom couple to pass for “Hispanic” to hire

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Margot and Norton were a couple of black ballroom dancers who rose to fame in America and Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. 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 World War II.

In 1933, during one of his dance performances, Webb met Harold Norton. Soon after they met, they became ballroom dance partners, known professionally as “Norton and Margot”.

Although Margot and Norton have become famous to some extent, because they did not perform the stereotypical dances that white audiences expect from black dancers such as sandals, exotic jungle dances, tremors, jitterbugging and Lindy hop, they weren’t making much money.

It wasn’t just white audiences who found her dancing style and sleek, elegant image disconcerting, black audiences of the time expected black artists being sexy performers and dressing a certain way didn’t find them ideal.

People and righteous critics, however, loved their graceful, gentle, and polite dance, considering it the highest level of classical dance.

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

In several cases, the dancers had to hide their true identity, often posing as “Hispanic” in order to be hired.

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

Although largely undocumented by the white public and unreservedly, they received 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 downtown Harlem. They gave lessons for children and adults and also choreographed choreography, often for white disco performers, but because of their busy tour schedules and inability to earn money, they closed their Harlem studio in 1938.

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

Margot Webb, née Marjorie Smith, grew up in Harlem and attended Hunter College until she dropped out to pursue dance full time and became a principal dancer at the Cotton Club from 1933 to 1939. His father George Mitchell Smith was a classical violinist who also taught saxophone and clarinet while his mother Gertrude Violet Fay Bush played piano in nightclubs.

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

The rarity of having an African American ballroom dance team was a radical movement for the time that brought questions of race and gender to the field of dance. The end of the swing era ends Margot and Norton’s careers due to declining demand for their number.


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