Thursday, June 20, 2013

Who Is Frankie, and Why The Big Deal?

If you are a swing dancer and you haven't heard of Frankie Manning yet, it is high time that you knew the story.  Every lindy hopper owes a large part of their dancing to Frankie, from his original pioneering influence to the ultimate revival of lindy hop.

Frankie Manning was a young dancer back in the original heyday of lindy hop, in Harlem in the 1930's and 40's.  He quickly rose to the top of the dance crowd at the Savoy Ballroom, due to his creative, athletic, and musical style.  One night, he and his partner Freda Washington entered a contest against their idol, the famous George "Shorty" Snowden, who invented the "shorty george".  They did a brand-new over-the-back move - the first aerial ever invented - which sent the crowd wild and won them the contest.

Frankie was soon invited to join the first lindy hop dance ensemble, Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, and he traveled and performed with them all over the world as their chief choreographer.  Some of their performances are immortalized in film, such as the Marx Brothers' A Day At The Races, or this now-famous dance clip from the movie Hellzapoppin' (dancing starts at 2:40):

But all of that is history.  Swing dancing eventually fell out of style, in favor of rock 'n' roll, and Frankie joined the Postal Service and faded from the public eye.  He fully expected that his performing days were over, and settled down into a relatively normal life.

Even if this were the end of the story, it would be enough to immortalize him in the annals of dance, but we're not done yet!

In the mid-80's, a pair of dancers named Steven Mitchell and Erin Stevens were taking lessons from Al Minns, a former member of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers.  After introducing them to lindy hop, he told them that Frankie was still alive and living in New York.  They called every Frank Manning in the phone book to find him.  When they finally contacted him, he was very surprised, but agreed to work with them, and the lindy hop revival was born.  It soon spread to every major city, as swing music came back into style and dancers flocked to learn from the master.

From 1986 through his death in 2009, Frankie Manning traveled the world teaching, choreographing, filming, and inspiring a new generation of dancers.  It is largely due to his hard work and charisma that lindy hop is as widespread and true to its original form as it is today.  He was a beloved and engaging teacher, a subject for many jazz and swing documentaries, and an award-winning choreography consultant for several productions including Spike Lee's Malcolm X.  His opinions on technique and style are respected to the point of reverence; arguments between dancers are often resolved with the phrase, "But this is how Frankie did it!"  

Not only was Frankie Manning a leader and innovator back in the original days of lindy hop, he was also a teacher, ambassador, and figurehead in the modern days of the revival.  He was a beloved, central character in the dance world, not only for his skill as a dancer and a teacher, but also for his happy energy and his modest, engaging personality.  Everyone who met him has a story, and the echos of his life are inextricably linked with the dance we love.

Here is a video of Frankie at age 89, leading his favorite line dance the Shim Sham, which he choreographed from the original tap version:

Everyone post your favorite Frankie anecdote or Frankie-inspired dance move in the comments!

If you want Frankie's story in full, check out these sources:

The Frankie Manning autobiography, Ambassador of Lindy Hop

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