Frankie Manning is widely considered to be the greatest Lindy Hopper of all time. But dancers who have only recently started dancing might not understand the complexity of what that means.
Here are a few reasons:
Incredible dancer in his day
Frankie Manning was clearly a great dancer in the original swing era. His role in the climax of Hellzapoppin’ alone shows a combination of skill, flow, power, personality, and humor unrivaled in other dancers. A look at his autobiography shows how creative and productive he was, inventing many moves, aerial steps, and choreographies like the Big Apple.
But also I’d like to point out what an inspiring young man he was in many ways: He forged his own way in a highly competitive dance environment and never stopped creating and striving for excellence.
He took care of many of the younger dancers on their travels around the world, acting as their manager, older brother, or friend as the need arose.
And all of these traits were with him when he became a war hero in the Pacific, where some of the most gruesome battles of World War II were waged. (I have heard some stories in confidence I am not at liberty to retell. However, I hope it’s enough to say he deserves the title ‘hero.’)
Social dancer in his older age
One of the most important and overlooked contributions Frankie has made to dancing, however, is by social dancing his style of Lindy Hop in his older age, thus allowing modern people to see (or feel) what it was like to dance with an original Savoy ballroom dancer, to understand what non-stage-performance swing dancing could be. (None of the other great original pre-war Savoy leads were able to social dance much in the modern Lindy Hop scene.) And that social dancing was very inspirational to the modern scene.
On a personal note: Aside from having a large move vocabulary and very eye-catching dynamic to his dancing, he was also striking in that he looked like he loved every step he did — which is still one of my personally most inspiring images of Frankie.
Able to teach and pass on information in his older age
Just as Frankie was one of the few original Savoy leaders who was able to social dance in the modern era, he also was one of the few who was able to teach his dance. (By several accounts it wasn’t a natural skill. Having never taught groups of non-dancers from the ground up before, he had to learn how to use counts and other modern teaching tools.)
In the last two decades of his life, thousands of people around the world had the opportunity to take a class with one of the greatest original Savoy ballroom Lindy Hoppers.
There was also another powerful element to this: Seeing an incredibly energetic eighty, eighty-five, and ninety-year-old man seemed to remind people that it was possible their lives could be as joyful and long-lasting.
Anyone who has seen an interview with Frankie, or read his book, knows how much joy Frankie got out of story-telling and being a lovable ham. And he was good at them.
Good storytelling makes people listen. It makes them interested, and emotionally invested. Frankie Manning’s personality and story-telling got people to pay attention to the joy — sometimes light-hearted, sometimes devoted passion — he felt was at the soul of Lindy Hop and swing music. His performing personality allowed him to shout his message about what Lindy Hop meant to him loudly and project it all around him.
Sure, this does not make him greater in and of himself. But I’d argue that it does considering the message he was shouting:
The way he looked at the dance and life
From what I knew of him personally, and in talking with others, I believe Frankie Manning knew exactly how much power he wielded in the scene. And, thankfully for us, and with great credit to him, he was always very careful with that power.
For instance, it was very very rare you ever heard Frankie say a negative word about anyone in the world of Lindy Hop, or say anything bad about another dancer’s dancing. This didn’t mean he didn’t have plenty of opinions about the dance, and plenty of stories about bad things that happened in his life or in the dance. But he seemed to instinctively feel that would get the dance nowhere.
(He did not completely hide the truth; He passed on those opinions and stories to individual people he felt comfortable telling. However, when it came to the scene as a whole, he would not be the one to tell them.)
Instead, he concentrated on the positive: he taught dancing the way he loved doing it and told stories that left people inspired to dance. He encouraged people to find their own voice in Lindy Hop, just as he did when he was younger.
(A very personal note: For me this is a very important thing to remember. When I first started dancing and found Frankie, I honored him by putting him, alone, on the highest pedestal in my dancing life and my dancing philosophy. But Frankie knew he was not the only great voice in the original dancers, and he didn’t want people to simply imitate him or his ideas.
Over the years, I’ve changed what it means for me to honor him. When I celebrate Frankie this weekend, the goal is not only to remember him and the many things he personally meant to me and our scene, but also to not forget all the other great dancers that inspire me as I continue to grow my own voice and love of Lindy Hop. I want to pay him the compliment of honoring what I believe Lindy Hop meant to him.)
And two more small things
On top of all of that, there were two specific ways Frankie would change people. One was Frankie’s smile and laugh. It’s hard to convey what it was like to see Frankie Manning start a class, and sooner or later he’d crack a joke about something in the way he experienced Lindy Hop and then that huge smile would explode across his face, followed by a laugh that would throw his head back.
The other was when he’d be talking about actually dancing a step instead of simply walking through it, and he’d start to scat a powerful rhythm. (It was as if that rhythm was always going on in him, and most of the time he kept it in unless he needed to use it in class.) It looked like he was incapable of standing still when this rhythm came out of him, and you would soon begin to see the swing take over his body and lead him through the step. He’d look as if he had just taken a spoonful of his favorite meal.
Then he’d get everyone to grab a partner, and say, “Ah, one, two, you know what to do… Ha-ha-ha!”
These were small things, tiny moments of broadcasting unfiltered joy to an entire room. But it was the kind of thing that made people want to Lindy Hop for the rest of their lives.
All of these pieces are hard enough to come by on their own. For all of them to appear together in a person is why Frankie Manning has become not just a person we honor, but a symbol for what inspires so many of us in this dance and in our lives.
So, when we come to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birthday this next weekend, know that we do so not just because he was a great dancer, but because he was a great man. And not just because he was a great man, but because he was, in many ways, the best person we could hope for to teach us what it meant to Lindy Hop, before handing over the keys.
May 26th is his birthday.
Wherever you are on that day:
Ah one, two, you know what to do.