BY MERET AMICK GIACOMINI
Frankie Manning (right) with the Big Apple Dancers (Lucille Middleton, Esther Williams, Jerome Williams, Billy Ricker) arriving in Sydney Harbor while on tour in 1938. (Photo courtesy of Frankie Manning)
Nineteen ninety-eight was the year I caught the bug. Or you might say I fell head over heels (sometimes literally) for a contagiously exuberant and screamingly happy dance called the Lindy Hop.
I was an innocent bystander who happened to witness Jeffrey and Andrea Smith suddenly burst into dance to a Benny Goodman tune called “Jersey Bounce.” I was already crazy about big-band swing-era music. But this dance tipped me over the edge into irreversible madness. I ignited. Broke into a sweat. Began to shake, and used all my strength to keep myself from just tackling them on the spot and pleading that they teach me—now. I had to learn this dance. This dance was in my bones.
So I signed on for life. I learned the Lindy Hop. Then set about going to every Lindy Hop dance workshop I could find, and ended up at one of the biggest swing camps in the world on Catalina Island. That’s where I first met the man most responsible for this happy madness, the grandfather of swing dance itself, Frankie Manning.
I love the story of Frankie’s life. Frankie Manning moved to Harlem with his mother in 1917 at the age of three. Harlem was where the Lindy Hop was born and a giant playground of the great Swing Era. It was the home of the Savoy Ballroom, one city block long, with a bandstand at either end. Chick Webb, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Gene Krupa all played there. Self-respect and pride permeated the Savoy Ballroom, one of the few places on earth where blacks and whites could meet on the dance floor as equals. Color didn’t matter at the Savoy. Whether you could dance did. Frankie made his way up the steps of the Savoy for the first time at the age of 13 and discovered a sea of dancers doing what would be called the Lindy Hop. That’s when the legend of Frankie Manning began.
Known as “Musclehead” Manning, Frankie danced his way into the prestigious “Kat’s Korner,” a section of the floor reserved for impromptu exhibitions and competitions. Frankie was asked to join the elite Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, the creme de la creme of Savoy Ballroom dancers. These young dancers were catapulted into world recognition through both live performances and films such as Everybody Sings, Hellzapoppin’, and A Day at the Races. As chief choreographer, Frankie is credited with creating the first “air step” (the partner is thrown through the air, as pictured in the book cover at right), and with the first ensemble Lindy Hop routine. Frankie then went on to tour the world with jazz greats Ethel Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Cab Calloway.
In 1943, Frankie enlisted in the army. When he returned home, he found the swing-y jazz he had danced to had morphed into be-bop. People sat and listened. Music was not for dancing any more. Frankie settled in and took a job with the U.S. Post Office. For the next 30 years, Lindy Hop swing took a big nap.
It might be good at this point to tell you a little bit about the Lindy Hop. There is a basic eight-count step, which you can learn in about an hour or less. It is a partner dance that combines moments of improvisation with moments of coming together in an eight-count way that so perfectly flows with big band swing music. The rules are few and simple: dance to the music, appreciate your partner, and there are no mistakes.
Historically, it evolved as a fusion of the Charleston and a dance called the Break-Away. It also blends African improvisational dance and European partner dance in such a wonderful American way. It swings. In the late 1920s, as music began to bounce less and swing more, the dancing style naturally followed. As for how the dance was named, Charles Lindbergh had just crossed the ocean by air and the newspaper headlines read “Lindy Hops the Atlantic.” One of the dancers was asked what the name of the dance was and he replied, “I’m doing the Hop . . . the Lindy Hop.”
In 1986, a couple of dancers from California, inspired by the dancing they saw in the old movies, went to New York City to find Frankie Manning. They found him—he assured them the Lindy Hop was dead and they assured him it wasn’t. After watching them dance, he agreed to come out of dance hiding and lead the way teaching a whole new breed of “Jitterbugs.” Frankie retired from the Post Office and began to spread Lindy Hop fever around the world. In his own, unique, magical way, he has revived the spirit of this truly American dance, teaching workshops and talking to people about his life.
Since that glorious second coming of Lindy Hop, Frankie Manning has won a Tony Award for Best Choreography for Black and Blue, performed in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, received an NEA Choreographer’s Fellowship and National Heritage Fellowship; was featured in the Ken Burns documentary Jazz; and has published his autobiography, Frankie Manning: The Ambassador of Lindy Hop.
Now here’s the really good stuff. Ninety-three years old and still dancing, Frankie will be in Fairfield, Iowa, on August 31, 2007, 7 p.m., at Cafe Paradiso to talk about his life and to sign his newly published autobiography. On September 1-2, he will conduct a Lindy Hop workshop. To quote local dancer Cielle Miller, who has taken a class with this man already: “Frankie’s whole being oozes with joy—joy for music, joy for dance, joy for life itself. . . . His big-heartedness was more than I had ever experienced. I will never forget Frankie.”