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Sep 10, 2008

As a founding father of swing dancing, Frankie Manning helped launch a global phenomenon. Now at 94 years young, the dancing icon remains an inspiration to swingers everywhere.

By Amy Van Vechten

Unlike most 94-year-olds, inactivity makes Frankie Manning antsy.
“The doctor says I gotta rest up. But I just can’t wait to get back on the dance floor,” says Manning with a laugh.
Though he makes light of the subject, he is serious. After having spent the last 80 years of his life dancing—much of it as a professional—Manning’s recent surgeries (one to replace a hip and another to insert a pacemaker) have forced him to slow down a bit. What they haven’t done is put a damper on his spirit.

Watch a video interview with Frankie Manning, in which he reflects upon the positive influence of the lindy hop throughout his life.

The Making of a Legend
Manning is best known as one of the men that shaped the lindy hop, the frenetic dance that first took America by storm in the mid-1920s and was at the center of a worldwide dance revival in the ’80s and ’90s.
Now known to most as “swing dancing,” the lindy hop emerged out of Harlem, N.Y.’s dance halls and music clubs in the 1920s. Manning’s involvement in those early days had a profound influence on the development of the dance’s unique style, and his active participation in the swing dance revival over half a century later contributed to his status as a living legend.
Manning’s career has spilled over onto the stage, screen and page. He worked on numerous films in the ’30s and ’40s and, in 1989, he won a Tony Award for his choreography in the musical revue Black and Blue. In 1992, he worked with Spike Lee on Malcolm X, both dancing in the film and consulting. He tried his hand at writing in 2007, co-authoring his autobiography, Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop with writer and dancer Cynthia R. Millman.
This summer, his doctors finally convinced him to slow down long enough to recover from his surgeries. However, according to Manning, as long as he has a say in the matter, he’ll continue his full-time schedule of teaching, traveling and performing even as his age approaches triple digits.

Journey from the Savoy to Celebrity: Learn all the details about Frankie Manning’s rise from the streets of Harlem to the worldwide stage in our interactive timeline.

Setting the Trend
According to Manning, the lindy hop got its name in 1927. As dancer George “Shorty” Snowden remembers, the headline in the papers after Charles Lindberg completed the first transatlantic flight read “Lindy Hops the Atlantic.” When a reporter asked Snowden what dance he was doing, he said it was the lindy hop.
In the years that followed, the lindy hop was everywhere. In Harlem during the late ’20s and ’30s, there were ballrooms on almost every corner. The Savoy, which opened in 1926 and featured live dancing every night of the week, was the hotspot for both musicians and dancers. There, Manning got to dance to the live music of such jazz greats as Count Basie, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Webb and Benny Goodman.

Watch as Frankie Manning and Ann Johnson do “air steps” in Hellzapoppin’.

During that time, one of Manning’s key contributions to the development of the dance was his introduction of “air steps,” the dramatic—and sometimes dangerous—lifts, throws and catches that are integral components of swing dancing.
In 1935, Manning and partner Frieda Washington stunned a crowd at the Savoy by successfully executing an “over the back”—an early air step that, true to its name, involved Manning hoisting Washington up and over his back. The move eventually became a standard of swing dance and was featured in numerous films, including the iconic 1941 Universal Pictures flick Hellzapoppin’.
For Manning, the late ’30s and early ’40s truly were golden years. During that period, he toured professionally with the troupe, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, and started choreographing for films and Broadway shows. Remembering his experiences from over half a century before, Manning recalls, “it was a wonderful time, and everybody seemed so happy.”

The Rebirth of Swing

Unfortunately, the good times couldn’t last forever. Manning recalls that in the ’50s, the growing popularity of new dances like the jive and the fishtail meant fewer and fewer bands were interested in playing swing music.
For the next 30 years, swing music all but disappeared from the clubs, but according to Manning, “swing never really died. It just went underground.” Without popular venues in which to make a living swing dancing, Manning was forced to find other ways to make ends meet. After a stint in the Army, he ended up getting a job working at the post office, where he spent much of the following two decades.
But when the ’80s rolled around, interest in the all-but-forgotten dance styles made a nationwide comeback—much to Manning’s surprise.
In 1984, he was invited by Erin Stevens and Steven Mitchell to instruct a new generation of dancers in the finer points of the lindy hop, reviving his career as a teacher, dancer, performer and, perhaps most importantly, as an international ambassador of swing.

Still Dancing
These days, Manning’s favorite event is the Herräng Dance Camp, an annual summer dance camp held outside of Stockholm, Sweden.
In 1987, when Manning first attended, the hosts were surprised when 80 swing enthusiasts showed up. Some 20 years later, more than 4,000 people from all over the world attend the event each year, which has been extended to last four weeks.
“Politicians need to come to this place,” Manning says of the camp, “to see how all these people from all these different countries get along by just listening to music and dancing and enjoying each other’s company. The lindy hop is such a happy dance, a wonderful dance.”
Though some claim the swing revival is declining because hits like the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’s “Zoot Suit Riot” aren’t on heavy rotation on the radio like they were a few years ago, Manning says that’s not the case. In his opinion, the revival is just leveling off.
Whereas ten years ago, there were fewer swing clubs, classes and annual events, now there are dance organizations in every U.S. state, and clubs and studios are more numerous. Plenty of people still are interested in swing dancing, and now they simply have more places to go to dance and take lessons.
In any case, the swing community’s appreciation for innovators like Manning continues to grow.
“Working with Frankie Manning on his autobiography was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Millman, who wrote alongside him for over 14 years, says. “I believe that he is a major figure in the history of American dance, and that his story deserved to be communicated in print. Frankie is hugely gifted at evoking his past, and a very special and absolutely lovely person. It was an honor and a joy to collaborate with him.”
Manning still draws a crowd everywhere he goes. When asked what it’s like to be famous in the international swing community, Manning looks confused. “I don’t know,” he says, feigning a puzzled look. “I’ve never been a celebrity,” he concludes, letting out a joyful, deep-throated laugh.
“Well, yes, I’ve kind of been around the world, and I’ve made some friends around the world. It’s a wonderful feeling to get to meet people from different countries and different ethnic groups. That’s another thing about lindy hop: it brings everybody together. Whether you can speak their language or not, you can understand their dancing.”

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Frankie has just left us! RIP my dear!

Thuy Uong
Apr 27, 2009

This piece is great- so uplifting! I love his laugh!

Kayla Baxter
Sep 11, 2008

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