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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Linton

Frankie Manning, Lindy Hop Legend

In this article, in addition to information about Frankie Manning, a true legend of Lindy Hop, I tell the story of The Night I Met Frankie. Born on May 26, 1914, in Jacksonville, Florida, Frankie was a pioneer and legend of Lindy Hop, the iconic swing dance that emerged from the vibrant Harlem dance scene in the 1930s. His contributions revolutionized the course of Lindy Hop and helped shape the Swing Era, leaving a lasting impact on the world of dance.

At the age of three, Manning moved to Harlem, where he grew up surrounded by the social dances of the time. It was at the Alhambra Ballroom, as a teenager, where he first encountered the Lindy Hop, a dance that would become his lifelong passion. Frankie's dedication to mastering the Lindy Hop led him to the renowned Savoy Ballroom, known as the "Home of Happy Feet," where he quickly became an integral part of the dance community.

In 1934, Savoy's bouncer, Herbert "Whitey" White, invited Manning to join Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, a premier dance group that captivated audiences with their electrifying performances. Recognizing Manning's exceptional talent, White appointed him as the group's choreographer. This marked the beginning of Manning's groundbreaking innovations in Lindy Hop. He introduced the concept of "aerials," gravity-defying moves where he and his partner would perform breathtaking acrobatics mid-dance, captivating audiences with their daring and grace.

The Snatch

The "aerials" were just one of Frankie's many contributions. He also popularized synchronized ensemble dancing, where multiple dancers moved in harmony, showcasing the joy and exuberance of the Lindy Hop. Manning's style incorporated a more horizontal dance posture, evoking a sense of wild abandon and freedom that became a hallmark of the Lindy Hop.

Under Manning's creative leadership, Whitey's Lindy Hoppers reached new heights of fame and success. They performed at leading venues and shared the stage with swing legends like Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and many others. Additionally, the group appeared in various films, including "Radio City Revels," "A Day at the Races," and the Marx Brothers' classic "Hellzapoppin'," introducing Lindy Hop to a wider audience.

As the Swing Era began to fade after World War II and popular music changed, Manning took a job with the Postal Service, and his professional dance career appeared to be over. When California dancer, Erin Stevens, tracked him down in the New York City phone book, she made the call (one of many calls to various Frank Mannings in the New York City phonebook). She asked, “Is this Frankie Manning, the famous dancer?” to which Frankie replied, “Baby, I don’t do that anymore.” Erin and her dance partner persisted, begging Frankie to teach them how to do what they had seen in the old movies, and he finally relented. Several others also claim credit for discovering Frankie Manning. Whoever it was that brought Frankie to the limelight again, he embraced his role as teacher, choreographer, and performer, continuing to spread the joy of Lindy Hop worldwide.

Manning's impact on dance was recognized and celebrated throughout his life. He received numerous awards and honors, including a Tony Award for Best Choreography for his work in the Broadway show "Black and Blue." He also served as a consultant and performer in Spike Lee's film "Malcolm X" and was featured in Ken Burns' acclaimed documentary, "Jazz."

In 2000, Frankie Manning was recognized as a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts, a testament to his invaluable contributions to American culture and dance.

Frankie Manning's autobiography, "Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop," co-written by Cynthia R. Millman, became a treasured account of his life and dance journey, shedding light on the vibrant history of Lindy Hop and swing dance. I recommend this book to anyone who would like to know more about Frankie and his life.

In the fall of 1997, I began my own swing dance journey in Phoenix, Arizona. Just a few months later, Steve Conrad organized a weekend dance festival bringing Frankie Manning to Phoenix to teach and dance with us. Ahead of that amazing weekend, a group of about 80 of us local dancers, went with Frankie to a theater in downtown Phoenix to see a show called “Five Guys Named Moe”, featuring the music of Louis Jordan. I believe it was before the show (but it might have been after), we had a reception to honor Frankie in the upstairs lobby of the theater. I somehow got the courage to walk over to Frankie and say, “Is this your first time in Arizona, Frankie?” He said it was. I said, “Well, we are just so excited that you’re here and we’re so looking forward to the workshops this weekend!” To this, the 84-year-old smiled broadly and said, “Oh, I’m really looking forward to the workshops, too! I have met so many gorgeous women here!” He looked around the room happily and then, looked straight into my eyes and said, “and each one is more beautiful than the last!”

The night I met Frankie, January 15, 1998

I don’t know how I didn’t swoon, but I somehow managed to stay on my feet. I was certainly very happy, but my heart had melted. I do remember thinking, “Oh, you are one smooth operator,” but it didn’t matter; I was already in love! From that day forward, I went to as many events where Frankie would be present as I could, including Harvest Moon Festival in Pasadena, California and several times at Catalina Island. Those long weekends on the island were particularly magical, with that beautiful round, floating wood dance floor with 1000 Lindy Hoppers on the floor dancing to legendary bands like Bill Elliott’s Orchestra. You could walk out on the balcony surrounding the ballroom and look at the moon over the ocean. And Frankie returned to Phoenix each year for Martin Luther King weekend in January to bless us with more of his presence. I had eventually learned most of the moves he taught in those workshops, and I had heard all his favorite jokes and stories. But it didn’t matter. When Frankie was in the room, he filled it up with joy, and that was why we wanted to be with him.

Frankie leads the shim sham in Phoenix

When I was teaching English in China, I taught students to dance whenever possible. In Nanjing, China, I taught a small but enthusiastic group. One of my students, English name Night, was particularly enthusiastic. A year or so ago, I began hearing from him about the Lindy Hop group he has organized in Nanjing. They recently held their first weekend event, and from the video he posted on Facebook, it looks like it was a fabulous success! This is especially fulfilling for me, to feel I had some small part to play in helping to spread this much joy. In this way, maybe I am a true disciple of Frankie.

At Herrang Dance Camp in front of Frankie's portrait

Sadly, almost one month before Frankie’s 95th birthday in 2009, the world lost a dance icon as Frankie Manning passed away. His memory and legacy continue to live on, carried forward by swing dancers around the world who continue to celebrate the joy, energy, and innovation he brought to the Lindy Hop.

Frankie Manning's extraordinary life and artistic contributions forever changed the landscape of swing dance. He remains an inspiration to dancers and enthusiasts alike, a symbol of creativity, passion, and the boundless joy that dance brings to our lives. As long as there are dancers taking to the floor, Frankie Manning's legacy will continue to shine brightly, a testament to the enduring power of Lindy Hop and the spirit of swing.

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