He Put the Hop in the Lindy | Frankie Manning, the Last King of Swing
By Emily Gordon and Robert L. Fouch
Imagine this scene: In a packed ballroom, hundreds of women edge closer to the dance floor, angling for a chance with that handsome fellow with the brilliant smile, the one who moves with such power and grace. Never mind that the man is 85 years old. This is the legend of lindy, the king of Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom in its heyday, who danced for royalty and has sidestepped old age as he would another couple on the floor. This is Frankie Manning, and as the song begins to swing, the women clamor to be one of his 85 partners—one for each of Manning’s remarkable years.
Swing dancers, musicians and jazz and dance lovers from all over the world will descend upon Roseland Ballroom tomorrow night to celebrate the man who helped create the lindy hop—the dance Life magazine once pronounced “this country’s only native and original dance form,” which has hooked a new generation on partner dancing.
Manning, as any young swing fanatic can tell you, was a member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, a celebrated ’30s swing performance troupe that performed at Radio City, the Moulin Rouge, the Royal Albert Hall. Manning also choreographed movies of the era, including jaw-dropping scenes in “Hellzapoppin’” and the Marx Brothers’ “A Day at the Races.”
Perhaps Manning’s most famous legacy, though, is the invention of the air step—or, as it’s now called, the aerial. “You have to remember that those were the beginning days of lindy hop, that everything that was created was ours, was new,” he says. “So a person could never say, ‘That’s wrong.’” When he told Frieda Washington, his partner, “Get on my back, roll over, come down in front of me,” what was her reply? “Just think of this,” he says now, “something you’ve never seen, don’t know how to do it, your partner don’t know how to do it—and she said, ‘Yeah, OK.’ Brave girl, very brave.”
The Savoy in the ’30s was the place to dance. It was New York’s only integrated club—unlike, for instance, Roseland, where Manning and some friends were once turned away at the door. At the Savoy, “They didn’t care what color you were. All they wanted to know is, ‘Can you dance?’ … Clark Gable walked into the place and somebody’d say, ‘Hey, Clark Gable’s in the house!’ ‘Oh yeah, can he dance?’” Manning knew the legends—Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie. He played point guard for Cab Calloway’s basketball team.
Today’s swing dancers speak with awe about Manning’s career. “Frankie’s stuff is so out there,” says Janice Wilson, who teaches lindy and won the 1999 Dancesport International lindy hop championship with her partner, Paolo Lanna. “When you see the old films, all of [Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers] were phenomenal dancers, but you have a really hard time looking at anyone else.” But those days would soon end. Manning was drafted, and spent five years fighting in the South Pacific. When he came home to New York, they were playing bebop, and the lindy hop was passé.
So Manning took a job at the post office, where he stayed 30 years. He still danced—“If I wasn’t dancing, I don’t think I would be here”—and when they played rock and roll, “I learned how to do those dances, too.” It seemed that Manning, and the lindy, had had their day. But not quite. In the ’80s, rockabilly and swing bands grew out of a retro subculture. Erin Stevens, co-owner of the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association, and her dance partner, Steven Mitchell, set out to track down the finer points and pioneers of lindy hop. They had the old films but, Stevens says, “we didn’t have any names”—African-American dancers and choreographers at the time often weren’t credited.
Finally, they came across Manning’s name, and found him in Corona, Queens. He eventually agreed to teach them, and thus, says Stevens, “we learned the heart, the soul, the feeling, the basics, from Frankie Manning.” It wasn’t long before Manning was coaxed out of his living room and into the studios. For Manning, swing is as much about socializing as it is about dancing, and now, he says, “People want to get back together again, they want to be friends, they want to talk to each other.” And that’s what Manning preaches: affection and respect. “A lot of times if I get a class of beginners … I say, ‘OK, now you’re going to have to put your arms around the lady.’ For some ungodly reason, they are very reluctant. I say, ‘Fellows, touch the girl, she doesn’t mind. Do you mind, ladies? No. See there?’” He always tells them: “Make sure you treat her as if she’s the queen, and you’re just a jester in her court.”
Given that their teacher has 71 years of dancing experience, his students tend to listen. Manu Smith, webmaster of yehoodi.com, New York’s central swing website, says, “You look at Frankie and you think to yourself, OK, you’re teaching us this step. You might have invented it. When you look at Frankie, he is lindy hop … You feel honored to be corrected on a step by Frankie.” Manning seems to breathe the dance, as another student, Katherine Lewis, puts it. “Instead of counting out the steps the way other teachers do, he just scats. ‘Be-dop-a-oody-ah-be-doby-yonk-ah!’—and you’re like, oh, that’s it! All of a sudden, you feel it in your body.”
For his part, as is obvious from Manning’s gigantic grin when he watches his students, the swing revival has given as much to him as he has given to it. “I see some of these young kids get out on the floor, and sometimes they don’t even know what they’re doing, but I see something that I say, ‘Oh, wow. Yeah, I can do something with that.’ … They’re creating also, just like when I was young.” Some of modern lindy hop’s best will be performing at tomorrow’s birthday bash—dancers from Sweden, London, Singapore, California and New York. Manning chose the bands: Grover Mitchell’s Count Basie Orchestra and George Gee and His Make-Believe Ballroom Orchestra—“That’s one of the swingingest bands in the land,” Manning says. His old friend Buster Brown will tap dance. More than 100 couples will dance the Lindy Chorus, a routine Manning choreographed.
Lindy-hop teacher Laura Jeffers is counting on being in the lucky 85. “He has this dance in him. You can watch him and listen to him talk about it, but you can get so much of the dance from just being near him. He is the most goodwilled person I have ever met in my entire life, about people and the world—aside from everything else. It’s like a gift.”
—Published in Newsday: May 25, 1999
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