Who was Frankie Manning?

Muriel ArgentBlog, Lindy History Month

If you’ve been to a swing dance, you’ve heard the name Frankie Manning. You’ve caught a glimpse of him dancing in black and white movies and you’ve heard his auspicious title ‘Ambassador of Swing’. Frankie Manning wanted to share the joy of swing dancing wtih the world, and we want to share more about his life with you.

I’ve never seen a lindy hopper who wasn’t smiling. It’s a happy dance. It makes you feel good.Frankie Manning

Frankie Manning grew up in Harlem, having moved there with his mother at the age of 3. The political climate at the time made life as a black American tough – to say the least – with overt racial segregation, Jim Crow laws and lynchings that were still taking place in the Southern states. Harlem, a neighbourhood in New York, had become an attractive place to live for black Americans, who were escaping racial discrimination in other cities. Harlem was a hive of cultural expression in the form of music, art, literature and dance: read more about the Harlem Renaissance here.

Frankie learnt to dance with his friends in the ballrooms of Harlem, and he first danced at the Savoy Ballroom as a teenager – defying his mother’s prediction that he was “too stiff” to ever be a dancer. The Savoy became known as the birthplace of the lindy hop: “first generation” lindy hopper Shorty George and his contemporaries experimented on the social floor and eventually swung out of of the charleston, creating what later became known as the lindy hop. Frankie and his friends (now known as the “second generation” lindy hoppers) adapted the lindy hop into a more athletic form, and became key members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, the elite dance troupe based at the Savoy.

via GIPHY

Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers helped transform the lindy hop into the highly energetic dance that is known today, and Frankie, as lead dancer and chief choreographer for the group, is largely responsible for taking the lindy hop from the ballroom and onto stage and screen. He’s credited with originating the lindy hop “airstep”, as well as the synchronised ensemble routine – both of which became central in performance lindy hop (check out Hellzapoppin’ and A Day at the Races to see what we mean). The group became famous worldwide, and toured Europe with Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday and Count Basie.

As World War II set in, the Swing Era came to an end: musicians and dancers were enlisted, and the remaining members of swing bands were forced to hire less skilled musicians. In addition, the cabaret tax on venues as well as the musicians’ strike of 1942-44 (which prevented musicians from recording for a whole two years), meant that big band swing was no longer viable, and jazz moved in the direction of smaller bebop ensembles and music that showcased vocalists (who were not subject to the musicians’ strike). The lindy hop faded into memories and partnered dancing generally became less popular. By the time the war had ended, Frankie Manning found himself in a world where swing was no longer the music of choice, and lindy hoppers were no longer sought-after entertainers. To support himself and his family, Frankie took a job in the postal service and for the next 30 years, hardly danced at all…

In the 1980s, the resurfacing of Swing Era movies that featured the lindy hop sparked new interest in learning the dance. Small groups emerged in the the UK, Sweden and the US, trying to recreate what they saw in the films and to connect with the “original” lindy hoppers of the Swing Era, event traveling to New York to seek out these “old-timers”. In 1986, these “swing revivalists” discovered Frankie Manning, still working in the postal service. Even though he was in his 70s by then, it didn’t take too much to convince Frankie to leave his job, and come out of dance-retirement to teach the lindy hop to keen new jitterbugs. In a few years he found himself traveling the world again to teach workshops. His return to swing became a focal point for what is now known as the “Swing Revival”.

For the next couple of decades, Frankie would travel most weekends of the year to spread his love of lindy hop – his deepest wish was that the lindy hop would live on and spread joy throughout the world. In 1989 he received a Tony Award for his choreography in the Broadway musical Black and Blue, and he was still throwing airsteps well into his 80s. Frankie taught and inspired a new generation of lindy hoppers right up until his passing in 2009, at the age of 95.

In celebration of the life and legacy of this great man, the global lindy hop community came together on May 26th 2014, for the biggest swing dance event in the modern swing era – “Frankie100” – honouring what would have been Frankie Manning’s 100th birthday. Bringing together over 2000 dancers from 47 countries, the event celebrated the roots of the lindy hop and big band swing music. This date, Frankie’s birthday, is now known as World Lindy Hop Day – and to celebrate #FrankieMonth, the Frankie Manning Foundation has released the Frankie100 Commemorative Book: a gem of a publication featuring articles, interviews and memories about Frankie; as well as a podcast series featuring interviews with some of the most important figures of the Savoy Ballroom’s history.

Help us celebrate #FrankieMonth and honour this great man’s legacy by learning about the history of lindy hop, and sharing its joy!

I’m not interested in fame and glory. It’s just that I would like others to know what a happy dance this is.Frankie Manning