If you’re talking about swing dancing it’s impossible not to talk about Frankie Manning. Born May 26, 1914, in Jacksonville, Florida, he’s considered one of the original founders of the Lindy Hop. In fact, as a dancer, choreographer, and instructor, he actually won several awards, including the Tony Award for Best Choreography, but that’s getting a little bit ahead and definitely out of the way on the things that we’re really talking about here.
The basic foundation is that Frankie Manning was a truly amazing dancer and a truly amazing choreographer. He was a teacher to thousands (or more) around the world and he was an influencer in some of the best possible ways. But his life didn’t start out that way and, in fact, though he seemed to like to dance he wasn’t quite as good at the more formal styles when he first started out. Perhaps his family would never have realized what he would go on to do or what he would someday accomplish when it came to his dancing and the overall trajectory of his life. So let’s start with his life.
Manning was 3 years old when his parents separated and he and his mother moved to Harlem. As she was a dancer, it’s practically to be expected that he started dancing himself at a young age and his entire family seems to have encouraged it, including his father’s family when he would go to visit them in South Carolina. It didn’t take long for him to begin to love dancing and in 1927 he began attending more professional dances that were held at the Renaissance Ballroom. What he saw truly seemed to amaze him, because his mother danced entirely different here.
The foxtrot and the waltz were very smooth and he wanted to learn them as well, but when he danced with her he was told that he was too stiff. This was the true beginning of his dedication to dancing and to becoming a smooth dancer. He would listen to the music in his bedroom and dance with anything he could, a broom, a chair or anything available. It apparently paid off because he started dancing at the Savoy Ballroom in New York during the 1930s. Even more impressive, he was allowed to dance in what was considered Kat’s Corner, where only the best were allowed.
It was 1935 when he first made a big impression. That was when he was in a dance competition with Frieda Washington and performed the very first aerial to ever be performed in a swing dancing competition. It was actually against George Snowden, the man who is credited with naming the Lindy Hop and it was a huge hit to all of the over 2,000 people who actually witnessed it. He and his partner had pulled it off entirely flawlessly to the song “Down South Camp Meeting.”
Throughout his time dancing, Manning became known for his dedication and the routines that he used for fast movements. He is believed to have created several of the moves that were used at the time and even still for more modern swing dance. Things like the Slide-Through and the Over-the-Back were two that he’s credited with creating. But he was also responsible for slow-motion segments, horizontal dancing and even stop-action freezing. Manning was not afraid to take anything that he saw or learned, even outside the dance world, to create new moves and new experiences for his performance.
Later Life and Career
It was the same year as his amazing experience in a competition that Manning began to act as a choreographer. He was in charge of choreographing some of the best dancers at the Savoy Ballroom, a troupe that the organizer called ‘Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers.’ While he was a part of their troupe, Manning was not only the choreographer but a partner to Norma Miller. No stranger to the intricacies of the dance herself, she would actually go on to be known as the Queen of Swing, a prestigious honor of her own in the dance and music worlds.
Throughout the popular times of the troupe, they would perform in all areas of the world, including South America, Australia, and Europe. They were even featured in two movies in 1941 and appeared at the ’39 New York World’s Fair. Each of these experience perhaps only continued to drive Manning further into dance and further into learning and developing more of his own style and his own performances. He was most definitely well-known in the industry and the entire troupe continued to be popular throughout the span of time that they were traveling and touring.
It didn’t take long, however, for the troupe to disband, though not because of disinterest in their performing. Rather, when World War II broke out the men left the troupe to join the army. Frankie Manning was one of them and it wasn’t until 1947 that he began dancing again, this time with a small troupe he had created himself. He called his group the Congaroos and they lasted for a total of about 8 years. But once they had disbanded it seemed that Manning had had enough and instead of venturing into the dance world again or creating another troupe, he started working for the post office.
It would take 30 years for Frankie Manning to step back into the limelight of the dance world again.
How it Happened
Al Minns was once a member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and he determined that he was going to teach an entirely new group of people how to do and love the dance. This may have never really had an impact on Manning’s life at all, however, while he was dying in 1985 he informed his students about Manning. He remembered him from their days dancing together and he knew that Manning was actually still living in New York City as well. It was enough for the rest of his students. In 1986 they contacted him.
The students wanted to continue to learn and they were determined that Manning be the one to teach them. Surprisingly, he refused. But it didn’t take him too long to agree to at least meet with them and find out a little more about what they wanted. His thought was that these people were too young and there was no way that they could actually be interested in swing dancing or that they could be that interested in learning the Lindy Hop. Something about the meeting must have changed his mind because he did start to teach them and the two students that had reached out to him started to teach others.
It was the beginning of a huge transition for the world back into swing dancing and it happened, in part, because of Frankie Manning. Because it wasn’t just New York City that he was teaching in. He also was invited to teach at Herrang Dance Camp in Sweden, with The Rhythm Hot Shots and he went. In fact, he would go to this dance camp to teach for 3 years in total.
Teaching and Choreography
The reestablishment of the swing dance movement happened quickly after Manning returned to the field and his teaching started to span across the globe. He even met back up with Norma Miller, bringing her back for some of his teachings, which occurred in as far away places as Australia. He even managed to return to places that he had been to when he was dancing the first time around and now, instead of performing, he was the instructor, offering dance workshops that were widely attended and extremely popular. The revival had definitely, officially begun.
He was 75 when he helped with the choreography for a Broadway musical titled “Black and Blue” and it led to a Tony Award in 1989. That wasn’t his only major award. He would also go on to win the National Heritage Fellowship, which was bestowed upon him by the National Endowment for the Arts. Considered the highest honor in the folk and traditional arts in the United States, it was most definitely an amazing achievement and yet, only another feather in the cap for someone who was so influential in the dance world.
Manning loved to celebrate his birthday, and not just in the traditional sense that many consider. Instead, he would throw lavish parties that required tickets to attend. And attend they did. Instructors and dancers that were from every part of the world would come to his birthday parties and he would have celebrations that would last for weekends and more. He even hosted cruises for his 89th and 90th birthdays, which provided huge crowds of people to celebrate. One aspect that was unique about his birthdays was that he always danced with the same number of women as he had lived years of his life, making sure he danced with plenty throughout the night.
He had already started planning a huge Lindy Hop event for his 95th birthday when he passed away in 2009. Rather than cancel the party, everyone decided to carry it on anyway as a memorial. People who knew him flew in from all over the world, including dancers and instructors. It was a huge event, and groups that couldn’t attend still sought to honor Manning, posting videos of themselves doing another dance, the Shim Sham, which is another one that is commonly considered alongside of Manning and his career. People even did some of the choreographies that he had created throughout his life.
Overall, there were huge celebrations and huge events that were meant to honor his contributions to the music industry and the dance industry and beyond. His party lasted a total of 5 days and brought in a large amount of money that was then used to create the Frankie Manning Foundation. This new foundation seeks to help keep the spirit of Frankie Manning and the spirit of the dance alive and well, not just in New York City, but around the entire world.
In the spirit of Frankie Manning, his birthday celebration lives on and in 2014 the Frankie 100 took place with a huge swing dance event. It brought in a total of more than 2000 dancers, who traveled from more than 47 different countries in honor of Manning. More than that, the festival celebrated Swing music and the Lindy Hop in general. It even created a range of different historic events that helped to draw more attention to all three of these amazing things and to hopefully draw even more attention to the foundation that seeks to help change the world. Though he may not have been as well known outside the swing dance world, Frankie Manning was most definitely more than just influential.
Frankie Manning Foundation
The foundation created in Frankie Manning’s honor is dedicated to continuing the spread and the teaching of the Lindy Hop to people all over the world. They look for ways to promote unity and to encourage collaboration so that those from all different backgrounds can participate in what has become an amazing dance experience. They seek to foster camaraderie and respect amongst all people, not just dancers of the Lindy Hop (though they’d like dancers throughout the world to be doing just that).
Even to those who were in the industry and who were considered among the absolute best of the best in the field, Frankie Mannie was a gift. He was truly one of the most amazing swing dancers of all time and he was most definitely one of the most influential to the field. Being responsible for the creation of several moves and changing the way that people dance swing forever, Frankie Manning now lives on in the legacy of dance that he has created, both in his students and in the foundation that was created in his honor, as well as by those who continue his birthday celebrations around the world.