Frankie Manning

London Swing Festival traditionally takes place on the UK May Bank holiday which also falls around the time of Frankie Manning’s birthday. What better way to celebrate the Ambassador of Lindy Hop.

‘Whitey’s Hopper Maniacs’. From left: Frankie Manning, Naomi Waller, Jerome Williams, Lucille Middleton, Billy Williams and Mildred Cruse

Frankie Manning (May 26, 1914 – April 27, 2009) was one of the greatest and most important lindy hoppers of all time. Not only was he one of the founders of the dance he was also the first person to choreograph the lindy hop, which he did regularly for the dance troupe Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, and he is credited with inventing the lindy hop ‘air step’. He famously performed the lindy hop all over the world and was known to be one of the most caring and generous lindy hop mentors even when he was well into his nineties.

The Home of Happy Feet

Frankie started dancing from about ten years old at rent parties with his mother. He remembers his mother calling him ‘stiff’ as a dancer and he was determined to prove her wrong! He danced to records in his bedroom with a broom or a chair pretending it was his partner until he was confident to go out to the Alhambra ballroom with his friends and try it out for real.

After dancing at the Alhambra and Renaissance ballrooms, Frankie finally went to the Savoy Ballroom, also known as the Home of Happy Feet since it was the place to be if you wanted to dance. The best dancers would come to the Savoy and although all dances were done including foxtrot, waltzes or two-step, it seemed that everyone was dancing the Lindy Hop at the Savoy. It was here that Frankie would meet and eventually be accepted into the Savoy Dancers and could dance in the ‘Cat’s Corner’ with the best dancers, throwing down their hottest steps each night.

Flying High

Leon James and Willa Mae Ricker demonstrating the Over the Back for Time Magazine photoshoot

The first air step was inspired by a move done by Shorty George and Big Bea, where she would carry him on her back. Frankie and his dance partner Frieda Washington, after months of practicing, built on this so that instead of just carrying Frieda on his back Frankie could flip her over and then keep dancing. The first time it was showcased was during the famous battle between Shorty George Snowden’s dancers and Herbert ‘Whitey’ White’s dancers. With Chick Webb playing for the dancers, one of the three couples from each team would go in one at a time. The final showdown was Shorty George and Big Bea going up against Frankie Manning and Frieda Washington. After Shorty and Big Bea had their turn, Frieda and Frankie danced and bust out the Over the Back air step that they’d been working on and everybody lost it. History was made. Lindy hoppers couldn’t get enough of it and continued pushing for more new and exciting air steps.

Musicality & Choreography

After practicing to Jimmy Lunceford’s song ‘Posin”, Frankie got the idea to do freezes to the music as the music stopped on the breaks. It was mostly impossible to plan particular musicality as dancers only danced to live music (except when practicing) so you never knew what the bands were going to play. Frankie practiced hitting the breaks to this song and eventually figured out he could feel out breaks for different songs too so that the stops fitted the music. Dancing to the breaks made Frankie think about putting pauses in for different songs in different places, and he built a little sequence together and taught it to the others in Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, now known as First Stops. The first synchronised ensemble lindy hopping was born.

Hellzapoppin’ Lindy Hop scene.
Musicians: Slim Galliard, Slam Stewart, Rex Stewart, Harry Carney, Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, and Sonny Greer.
Routine Music: Charles Previn
Choreoraphy: Frankie Manning
Dancers: The Harlem Congaroo Dancers (a.k.a. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers)
1. Frances “Mickey” Jones (maid) and William Downes (uniform)
2. Norma Miller and Billy Ricker (chef’s hat)
3. Willa Mae Ricker and Al Minns (white coat) 
4. Ann Johnson (maid) and Frankie Manning (overalls)

Many people have seen the iconic dance scene from the film Hellzapoppin’ which was choreographed by Frankie – he is the one in the dungarees dancing with Ann Johnson. Frankie put together many ensemble choreographies for the group over the years, using the talents and moves of individual dancers to inspire and build each number.

In 1937 while Frankie was in California working on a film with some of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers he received a letter from Whitey about the Big Apple dance craze that was happening in New York. Whitey asked him to choreograph a Big Apple routine, which they used for the film Everybody Sing (unfortunately the lindy hop scene was cut from the final movie). Frankie talks about how all the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers groups would use some slightly different versions of the Big Apple routine that he’d choreographed – one of which being featured in the film Keep Punching, a routine now known and danced by lindy hoppers all over the world.

The Big Apple in the movie Keep Punching. Dancers: Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers

Frankie and the dancers from Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers would famously tour all over the world – Australia, Europe, around the USA and Brazil. They featured in broadway shows and movies but still continued to do shows in smaller clubs as well as just go out for some dancing for fun.

Later Years

Frankie quit dancing professionally around 1955 and got a job in the post office to support his family. He would still dance lindy hop but as the music changed over the years there was less and less opportunity to swing out, especially after the Savoy Ballroom closed in 1958.

Around 1983 a reunion was organised by Larry Schulz and Sandra Cameron, and some of the original Savoy Lindy Hoppers got together and danced. A new generation was getting bitten by the bug and eventually Frankie was asked to come and teach some aspiring lindy hoppers. From that point on, Frankie was invited all over the world to teach swing dancing. Many anecdotes are shared by the dancers who were touched by his spirit, kindness, enthusiasm and generosity. Watching an interview with Frankie or reading his autobiography, you can really get a sense of what a incredible person he was:

Frankie Manning, at age 80, performs at the Smithsonian.
 Frank Johnston/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“For me, this whole revival has been as if a door opened and I walked into a place where the sun is always shining and the flowers are always blooming. It makes me feel so light, so exhilarated. I’ve had such a wonderful life – I know it – and I feel like I owe it all to Lindy hoppers around the world. That’s where I get my energy. More than anything else, that’s what’s kept me going

“When I reflect back on all my years, and I’m older than dirt, I’m kind of proud of the contributions I made to the Lindy hop, like the air step, ensemble dancing, and bending forward. I feel very good about having been a member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and the Congaroos, and about my choreography in Hellzapoppin’, Radio City Revels, Hot Chocolate, and Killer Diller, which I think has inspired quite a few people. But I have to say that the thing I’m happiest about is my role in helping to get the Lindy hop going again.”

– Frankie Manning

Frankie Manning passed away in April 2009, just a month shy of his 95th birthday. Over 2000 lindy hoppers from all over the world came to join the celebrations of Frankie’s life in New York City at a special event known as Frankie 95. The proceeds went to creating the Frankie Manning Foundation, an organisation whose mission is to spread the joy of lindy hop throughout the world. 5 years later a similarly historic event took place in honour of Frankie’s 100th birthday, naming the 26th May World Lindy Hop Day.

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