Swing Memories–Frankie Manning’s 85th
New York, 1999
A few months after I fell in love with swing dancing, I went to a college on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere, Tennessee. There were only 1200 other people there. I had made the decision to go there before I realized how little swing dancing there would be. (It’s alright, I loved my college experience and wouldn’t switch it for any I can think of. Except for one where I was less awkward, but that’s not the world’s fault.)
My only ties to the Lindy Hop I was trying so hard to learn was a complete set of Frankie Manning and Erin Stevens video tapes, and a well-worn copy of the Can’t Top the Lindy Hop video set, which had some dancing that was so bad-ass it actually made me want to buy a bright yellow coat.
Can’t Top The Lindy Hop was a Lindy Hop workshop and dance weekend put on to celebrate Frankie Manning’s 80th birthday party in 1994. I already knew Frankie Manning was possibly the coolest and most loveable person that had ever lived, just from the videos and the 1999 Southwest Lindy Fest I had attended, where he gave one of his talks. (It was one of the ones where he told stories he had told fifty times before as if they had only happened that morning, and he was so full of life and youth that it still makes me smile just thinking about the way he told his stories. For this reason, I highly recommend checking out “Swinging at the Savoy,” a Living Legends video cassette that has him telling a bunch of stories.)
(I also had the internet, where, not being able to see any Lindy Hop, I finally broke down and asked a guy who ran a Lindy Hop website about it. I believe I wrote him something to the effect that I had been trying to figure out dance steps by watching “Swingers” and “Swing Kids.”
That last sentence is not a mistake. The reply I got back was “Don’t watch swingers and swing kids. Watch Frankie Manning and Hellzapoppin. That’s when I looked into the Frankie tapes, I seem to recall, and had them shipped to my dorm room. I also found a documentary on dance in our library that had an interview with Frankie and Norma and about half of Hellzapoppin. That half of Hellzapoppin officially sold me. I knew before I died, I wanted to express my joy by the art of swinging out and throwing women.)
A few months later, I was finishing up my first year of college when I found out his 85th birthday party was going to be another event and it was selling tickets. Without a second thought, I almost emptied out my already impressively small checking account for tickets to New York.
During the trip, I stayed with some college theater friends of mine who were spending a semester studying acting at a New York school. They lived in an village apartment the size of a modern SUV, where the kitchen and the shower were one in the same, and where there was always the smell of marijuana being smoked four feet away, even though I never saw anyone four feet away from me. For the week I was there, I remember I lived pretty much off of street hot dogs and the cheapest New York things to do, like staying in the apartment and staring out the window. I remember distinctly one of my friends had night terrors, and one night he shot up in his bed and started yelling at me until I apologized so loudly he woke up, wondered what had happened, and went back to sleep.
When the actual event came around, there weren’t any workshops, just one big dance at the Roseland ballroom, one of the famous NY ballrooms of the jazz era, and, more poignantly, one of the white-only ballrooms Frankie Manning was not allowed into in his youth. The thing I remember most about the general atmosphere of the dance was the wall of follows around the dance floor running six feet thick (they didn’t sell specifically leader/follow tickets).
I was dressed, if I recall correctly, in my dark maroon zoot suit. That last sentence is not a mistake. And, I was on the lookout for what I was lead to believe were a group of incredible followers all my own age: the DC girls. I found them easily enough, and can at least recall dancing with Naomi Uyama and Gretta Thorn, the latter who told me we should dance collegiate shag when the song got too fast for my (very rough) Lindy. I told her I didn’t know how to shag. I remember being blown away at how good the girls were, and how well dressed–complete vintage, including hair styles. Oddly enough, I didn’t fall in love with them on site, which was a common problem for me in college. The reason, looking back, is not because they weren’t beautiful, charming and my age; they were. It was because my mind was nowhere near that at the time, for several reasons. One of the most important being that I was there to meet Lindy Hop. I had heard all about it, knew we’d hit it off, and now I was standing in a room with it.
I heard murmurs throughout the crowd of who was there: Rhythm Hot Shots, Marcus and Barbl, Sylvia Sykes. Someone mentioned Eric and Sylvia were dancing off in the distance, names I had only heard of a few months previously as the new up-and-coming couple, and I tried to see who they were. But it was impossible to see anyone through the packed dance floor. Though I was having a great time, it disappointed me that things weren’t like Can’t Top the Lindy Hop, where all the greatest dancers performed and the dance floor footage was all well-lit incredible dancers dancing on the sidelines where everyone could see them.
Nearing the end of the night, I had seen Frankie’s smiling face, did the shim sham and saw a jam from WAY outside the crowd of people. There had been a few performances, Frankie danced with all the ladies, and they brought out hundreds of sweet potato pies.
But on the whole, I had spent most of the night doing my five basics five hundred times in a crowded, dark corner. Granted, this was probably exactly what I needed at that time in my dancing career, and I don’t recall being disappointed by how things turned out. But at the time, though I wouldn’t have admitted it, I hadn’t seen anything as special or inspiring to me as the video tapes of his 80th birthday promised.
I left the dance early that night–stopping on my way out to look at Frankie Manning’s dance shoes, which were hung their in his honor. The shoes, I remember, were so thin and worn they were floppy.
I had heard there was a dance club still open that night called Swing 46. I walked there, found a vacant booth I could sit at, that happened to have a view of the dance floor. My feet were very tired, and, I remember, exhausted emotionally, though I couldn’t explain why. Perhaps it was because I was alone and had no one to share my emotions of excitement with. I sat in my booth and just wanted to watch the Lindy Hoppers dance, to see what a lead and follower could do on the dance floor to a song, something they don’t show you in instructional tapes.
After five or ten minutes, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“This seat taken?”
I said “no” out of habit, then looked up at who it was. It was Frankie Manning. While I had spaced out watching Lindy Hop, I didn’t realize I was soon holding down the only empty booth in the entire place. He sat down with a clone, and I questioned which one was actually Frankie. But Chaz Young, Frankie’s son, soon cleared that up when he started talking to me all about his father, who just sat beside him either smiling large or frowning in tiredness. We were soon joined by a depressed looking Asian woman in a cast, who introduced herself as SING LIM! The girl who danced with Ryan Francoise in the gorgeous Can’t Top The Lindy Hop jam! She was depressed because she had a cast on her leg, but she was nice enough to talk to me for hours too, even though I was, remember, a freshman in college and could probably only say the words “Woah, that’s awesome” or “Woah, that sucks.”
Frankie learned that I was from Atlanta, and he had a grand daughter who was going to school there, so we talked about that for awhile. I talked with Frankie and his friends for three hours that night, listening to stories, seeing every dancer I had ever heard of come up and give him birthday wishes. I realized many of them were probably wondering who this young, very white kid in a fine looking zoot suit was, who was close enough to Frankie to sit with him and Chaz in a booth, and I tried to appear cool and natural to encourage that image.
Around three in the morning, the 85 year-old-Frankie was finally tired and ready to call it a night. They all said goodbye, and I continued to wait in the booth until four, just staring in shock at what had just happened.
In case you ever had any doubts, that’s the kind of guy Frankie Manning was. He didn’t mind spending three hours of his birthday having an innocent lover of Lindy Hop he’d never met before stay in his booth, and he treated him like a friend.