About ten years ago, when I attended my first Lindy Hop workshop in Boston, my teacher was a remarkably spry 85-year-old by the name of Frankie Manning. Lindy Hop, a hipper, livelier, eight-count version of swing dance, originated in New York City's legendary Savoy Ballroom in the 1930s. Frankie Manning was one of Lindy Hop's pioneers.
Last week, one month shy of his 95th birthday, Frankie passed away. It's sad that he's no longer around to teach and impart his joy of life and movement to others, but I have no doubt that, as I write, he's busy up in heaven teaching the angels how to dance.
Here's more about his amazing life. First, from the Los Angeles Times (April 28, 2009):
The effortlessly nimble Manning was a star attraction of Harlem's Savoy ballroom and brought to swing dance a flair for the theatrical that helped catapult the Lindy Hop from ballrooms to stage and screen, said Cynthia Millman, who co-wrote Manning's self-titled 2007 memoir.
His nickname developed from the chants of dancers, "Go, Musclehead, go!" as they watched Manning's strong and closely cropped head glisten with sweat as he kicked and spun himself, and his partners, into human propellers.
Appropriately, the dance reportedly owed its name to transatlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh, when one Savoy dancer told a reporter, "We flyin' like Lindy!"
Manning's chief innovation was popularizing the thrilling "air step" move in which a female partner is tossed in the air and lands in time with the music. After introducing this choreographic accent, sometimes called an "aerial," he and fellow Lindy hoppers developed dozens of others in which partners fling each other around, over and between various limbs.
Manning and several notable big bands helped make the Savoy an epicenter of swing. It was an elegant, racially integrated dance hall boasting two large stages where the big bands of Count Basie, Chick Webb and Cab Calloway could duel rhythmically.
Some of the Savoy's finest dancers, including Manning, were recruited to join Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, a dance performance team that appeared in Hollywood movies such as "Hellzapoppin' " (1941).
As part of the team, he was the opening act for singers including Billie Holiday and performed before King George VI of England in 1937.
When he returned from Army service during World War II, he started his own troupe but the music scene had changed radically. First came the rise of bebop jazz, which was largely undanceable, and then the advent of rock 'n' roll.
With a family to support, Manning spent 30 years as a postal clerk, until a popular swing reawakening in the 1980s.
At the time, Manning was approached by a pair of young swing enthusiasts who found his name in the phone book. He agreed to teach them a few steps, leading to a career resurgence that made him a headliner at Lindy Hop workshops around the world.
Here's a wonderful interview with Frankie, which was broadcast in 2006 on KUOW's Radio Intersection. Click here to listen if you have iTunes. Otherwise, you can find another link here.