Frankie Manning… Master of the Lindy Hop From his early days at ballrooms like the Alhambra and the Savoy, to his nearly constant traveling and teaching, Frankie Manning has been dancing longer than most of you reading this have been alive. This living legend is known as an innovator of Lindy Hop and given credit for the first aerial step. He's danced at the famed Cotton Club, and performed with Whitey's Lindy Hoppers in movies. He'll be 89 in May, and shows no sign of slowing down or losing his enthusiasm for passing on his love of this happy dance. For more information about Frankie and Lindy Hop go to his website at www.frankiemanning.com. When did you actually start dancing? I actually started dancing in 1927. At the time I was 13 years old. I like to say I started dancing then because that’s the first time I can remember going to a ballroom, where there were kids around my age that were dancing. It was the first time I actually had an opportunity to dance with a young lady. And was that all swing? At that time it was called swing. Lindy hop had just begun. The youngsters were doing what we had done before, like the Charleston and the dance we called the breakaway, which is the Lindy Hop, period. But at that time it was swing music, so the dance just went along with the music. Had you studied other kinds of dance before you did swing? I didn’t study any dancing, period. I never went to dancing school or anything. I just went to dances and watched other people dance and picked up what I saw them doing. So at the time you called it swing, you didn’t call it jitterbug or lindy hop? Jitterbug wasn’t even a name back in 1927. The word jitterbug didn’t come about until the mid-thirties. Around ‘37, ‘38, ‘39. How long after you started dancing did you actually start performing? I didn’t start performing on stage until 1937, which would be 10 years later. And were there competitions also? They didn’t have competitions the way that you have competitions nowadays. We called them “contests.” There was a contest every Saturday night at the Savoy Ballroom, and you might go there not even thinking about going into the contest. But you would see one of your friends there, and say, “Hey, let’s go in the contest tonight!” and she’d say, “Okay. What we going to do?” And I say, “Well, we going to do this, we going to do that.” So we didn’t have a routine. We would say, “Well, we do this step, we do that step,” we don’t say when we’re going to do it, but we would do it sometime while we’re dancing, you know! And since there weren’t a lot of steps, mostly everyone who danced knew the steps that were being done. Both the fellas and the girls knew the steps. So you just grab anybody. It was more like a Jack and Jill. Only thing, they didn’t put names in a hat and you pick one out. But we didn’t make up any routine; we would just dance. Get out on the floor and dance and do whatever came into our mind at the time. When you started to perform, did you have a regular partner then? When I started to perform, yes, I had a regular partner. I always like to say “my first professional dance partner” was a young lady called Naomi Waller. We went into the Cotton Club in 1937, which was my very first big performance. I did a performance for one day with another partner at the Harvest Moon Ball. We took second prize and we had an engagement to do after that. That made us professionals, but I don’t consider that professional, because we were still amateurs. We just got out on stage and danced, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing! And there are movies of you dancing. When did this movie part of your career start? Actually, the first movie that Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers made was A Day At The Races with the Marx Brothers. We actually got the movie by accident, but it was good! A team of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were performing on stage with the Ethel Waters Show. They had been touring across the country with this show, and they wound up in Los Angeles. They were appearing at a theater there, and one of the producers that was working on Day At the Races happened to go to the show and saw the dancers. He said, “Oh that would be great for the movie!” I didn’t appear in that particular movie, but that was the first movie they made. That one was such a success they called Whitey back for a movie in 1937 or 1938, Everybody Swing, with Judy Garland. Unfortunately, Whitey had a dispute with the producers about how the dancers were being treated and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers ended up on the cutting room floor. Then we were in the movie Hellzapoppin in 1941. When did the teaching part of your career begin? That didn’t start until in the ‘80’s! Actually, I didn’t do teaching the way that it’s done now. But I guess I started teaching as soon as I started dancing. I would get out on the floor and I’d do something, and if I thought it was good I would call somebody over and say, “Hey, come over here. Can you do this?” But it wasn’t like you were going to do 1, 2... we didn’t know anything about counting or anything like that, we just listened to the music and we would say, “Hey, look, this step fits the music, let’s do this step.” I would show it to this particular person, they would learn it, somebody else would learn it, they would teach it to somebody else, then they taught it to somebody else, and that’s the way the steps got spread around. So everybody would learn it. One person would show another person, I don’t say teach, they would show them and that was the way we all learned how to dance... by watching what other people did. One you started teaching; did you enjoy the teaching aspect of it more or the performing? When I first started teaching, I enjoyed that very much. It was kind of... it was educational for me, plus it was comical and humorous because I was used to showing somebody a step and they would get it almost... When I started teaching, people started asking, “What count is that?” And I would think, “What count? I don’t know what count that is!” I’d say, “I don’t know what count it is. I’ll tell you what, I’ll do the step and you count!” So I would do the step and they’d count and they’d say, “Oh it’s on count....” I’d say, “Yeh, okay, that’s what it is!” I’ve been teaching now for a long time and I’m still learning. This has been a lifetime career for you on one dance! This is surprising to me! I don’t know if it’s surprising to you? Well, it was quite a surprise to me when I first started out because when I started dancing I didn’t have the faintest idea or I never thought that I’d be a professional dancer. I just loved to dance, but I wasn’t thinking about going into it as a career thing. I didn’t think about it being what I wanted to do the rest of my life until 1937. Before that I was dancing just for the joy of it. When we got a contract to go into the Cotton Club, I stepped back and looked and I said, “Wow, the Cotton Club!” The Cotton Club was the epitome of the entertainment world. The Cotton Club shows had the best singers, the best dancers, the best bands, the best comedians, the best everything, and when they said, “We would like you to sign a contract for six months here,” I said, “What?! You mean I’m going to be dancing for six months doing something I love to do and get paid for it!” So then I thought, “Okay, maybe this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” But before that I didn’t think so. Obviously, there’s been this new swing craze in the last couple years. How does this compare, or does it compare at all to the original swing craze? The enthusiasm is there. It’s the same as the enthusiasm for the dance when I was coming up because it was something new for them. And now, at this period, it’s something new to these youngsters. It’s just that it’s a different environment altogether. When we were coming up, we danced to live music all the time. There weren’t any tapes and CD’s and all that stuff. We didn’t even know what a disc jockey was. If we went to somebody’s house, there was someone playing a piano, or some kind of instrument for the rhythm, for us to dance to. If we went to a ballroom… it was unheard of if they just had tapes. So it was always live music, a live band. And by us being able to dance to live music, to musicians, we were able to feed off the music that they gave out and they were able to feed off our energy. So it was an interchange between the dancer and the music and that’s the difference that I see now. Most of the time today, it’s tapes. You can only identify with the music that’s coming over the loudspeaker. Back then we could listen to a record, and we could say, “Oh, that’s so-an-so, that’s Harry James, that’s Gene Krupa, that’s Benny Goodman!” We knew who was playing what, because we listened to these guys impressions so much, we knew how they sounded; we knew what they did. Now you listen to music coming from the CDs and the tapes and somebody has to tell you who the person is that’s playing. Before we would talk back and forth to these people and we knew them personally. “Hey, how you doin Dizzy?!" And he would holler back, “Hey, Frankie!” That is the difference between now and then. So it’s a different environment. The enthusiasm is there, but you can’t get the same feeling. These kids nowadays, man; they are something else! I look at these kids, and I say, “Oh man, I sure wish I could dance like that!” Have you seen what we would refer to as American Style Ballroom Style swing or International Style Jive and how do you feel it compares to what you teach? I’ve seen all of it, but it’s more uniform. The ballroom dancer gets out on the floor and they have to hold their head a certain way, they have to hold their arms a certain way, and it looks so... like mannequins dancing, you know. When we were in a contest, we just danced... arms and legs were flying all over the joint! We just danced, you know! We didn’t worry about how we looked. The only thing we were worried about was, “Do we look good to those people out there?” or “Do we look exciting to those people out there? Are they enjoying what we’re doing?” But we never knew how we looked because we didn’t have mirrors. So we couldn’t tell how we looked. We only could tell by somebody else saying, “Hey man, you look like so-and-so.” Now, if you go in a contest, you dance in front of a mirror to see how you look doing it. Has what you teaching changed over the years? Well, it has changed because now at least I know how to count up to eight! I can tell people, “Okay, you put your foot down on this number, or you put it down on that number.” Sometimes, I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about anyway! How much do you travel? Usually I travel every weekend. Last weekend I was in Singapore. I came back from Singapore Tuesday and left again Friday. My friends ask “Are you over the jet lag yet?” I say, “Well, half of my body is still on the way here! And that’s why I’m not going out of the house! Because I want to be here when the rest of my body gets here!” So I’m a little jet lagged from that because just the plane ride alone from Singapore is 21 hours. And you were teaching there. I was teaching there. It was wonderful. I liked Singapore. It was beautiful. I read somewhere that you were the person who’s given credit for the first aerial. Yes, I happened to be the first one in that area. Do you remember how that came about? Did you think, “Gee, today I think I’ll throw my partner in the air!” Actually I was going to a contest again and I was against a fellow that I idolized, Shorty Snowden… George “Shorty” Snowden. He was my idol. I used to watch him at the Savoy all the time and I wanted to dance like him because he was one of the greatest dancers at the Savoy. Shorty and Leroy “Stretch” Jones, those were my two idols and they both had entirely different styles, but I liked both of them. I kind of took something from Shorty, and then I took something from Stretch. I combined it and made something all my own. When Shorty Snowden would do some things I’d say, “Well, I can do that, but I can add something to it and make it different than what he did.” That’s how the air step came about. Because his name was “Shorty” and he used to dance with a young lady named “Big Bee.” She be so big she would pick Shorty up on her back, and just stroll off the floor with him. It was not an air step; it was a lift. She would lift him up and walk off with him and they used to get such a tremendous hand. It was comical, seeing this little 5’ dude hanging on this big 6’ 2” woman. So I thought that instead of a lift, I would make it into a step, with me flipping her over instead of her picking me up, so that’s how it came about. Were you aware at the time that you were starting something big? Nope. I didn’t think of that. When I tried the air step, as you call it, it was my idea. But I was just thinking of it as a step. I didn’t think, “This is going to revolutionize lindy hop!” I just did it. I didn’t know it was going to get that big a response. From that one particular step we started getting engagements in theatres, nightclubs, movies and all of that. And are you aware of your legendary status now? Do you have a feeling of that? I don’t have a feeling of it, it’s just that everybody keeps telling me, “You’re a legend!” and I say, “Yeh, I’m old, but I ain’t that old! You talk about legend. You make me sound like I’m 500 years old! I know I’m almost 100, but I ain’t 500 yet, so I ain’t no legend!” And how old are you actually now? Well, right now, I’m 88. In May, I’ll be 89 years old. So where do you get your energy to still travel and teach like this? Well, a lot of times the students ask me, “Frankie, where do you get your energy from?” I tell them that when they come to one of my classes they come into the class with all this energy, they’re dancing and getting the steps down. When they get ready to go out, they’re tired and I’m walking out with all the energy they just gave me! So I actually get energy from the students. Everyone says, “Oh, Frankie, you’re such an inspiration to us,” but to me the students are my inspiration. When they come in I say, “Here’s the step I want you to do.” And they look at it and say, “Oh, man, I can’t do that!” But then at the end of the class, they’re doing it and they walk out with smiles on their faces and they’re happy. That’s where I get the energy and inspiration, and as long as I can see students smiling, laughing and enjoying themselves, I’m good. Coach’s corner: The one thing I tell people is when you’re dancing just try to listen to the music and picture yourself, or assume that you’re part of that band, that you’re one of the instruments in that band, and you want to make your body do what that instrument is doing. And above all, enjoy yourself! ***************** This interview is reprinted, with permission, from Dance Notes – only $25 for a one year subscription!