Long Live the King

Frankie Manning passed away one year ago today. This was a piece I wrote after the death of Frankie Manning for The Jam Cellar email and Lindy Bloggers. Originally published April 28, 2009 on Lindy Bloggers.

We all knew it would come some day. And, likely someday soon. After all, he is was no longer the spry and lively 87-year-old he once was. But why now? Only a month before his 95th birthday festival? With so many Lindy Hoppers still needing to look at him and remember what it’s all about? When we simply weren’t ready to let him go? (We’d never really be ready, unless he was in pain.)

If you’re reading this today, you’re a very special person. You are a part of the last generation of Lindy Hoppers who will have danced during the time of Frankie Manning. So, hopefully you had the opportunity to take a class where he addressed all the women in the room as “the beautiful ladies,” or stood behind him in a shim-sham, or saw a smile blossom on his face, which all have a similar effect.

If you don’t know who he is, his dance resume is pretty incredible. He introduced air steps, the “bent over look,” and women’s swivels into Lindy Hop, along with countless other moves we still do today. He was known as the biggest thief in the Savoy Ballroom, stealing moves and changing them before anyone would realize he had done it. He choreographed the greatest group Lindy Hop footage we have. And he taught the world to Lindy Hop, even in his eighties and nineties. But the important thing about Frankie Manning is how these accomplishments pale in comparison to the person you met when you shook hands with him.

Here was a man who performed across the world and talked to kings and queens, at a time when only well-off white Americans could afford air travel, and black men from Harlem were hardly ever thought worthy to shake hands with anyone of a different color. Here was a man who worked in a post office for 3 decades when the dance and the music he loved couldn’t support him anymore, and without a complaint. Here was a man who had his own share of personal problems, on top of all the social problems he faced, and yet, when you saw him smile, it was as if he hadn’t a care in the world. When you met Frankie Manning, you didn’t just see a great dancer. You saw a great man.

Before a few days ago, I often joked that Frankie was a benevolent godlike-being who was slowly having his body parts replaced with stronger, longer-lasting robotic ones. It was part of a childlike fantasy that I’ve allowed myself to actually believe—that perhaps Frankie would outlive us all. He already seemed younger than most people I know—he laughed the way an eight-year-old boy would, and giggled about women. He even swung-out young. He would bow to the queen, scrunch his shoulders and send her out with a smile. No pretension. No trying. No worries.

But the past few times I’ve seen him in public, I’d notice his mouth would sag into a frown, and his eyes looked heavy. At his age, even if you’re in the best of health, it seems like the secret is to avoid finding yourself in a hospital bed. But that’s a really hard thing to do. Medications and illness are unavoidable, and trying to fix the smallest things can easily become deadly to a 94-year-old. It had nothing to do with his birthday party, I tell myself, it was nothing we had control over.

I also have to keep reminding myself that death is only sorrowful for those who miss the dead. For the dead, it is probably some form of sweet, deep sleep. Though Frankie smiled like he didn’t have a care in the world, I suspect he had many cares. There is some form of peace in knowing that he does not have those worries anymore. And, if the deaths that are the least painful to us are those who have lived a life full of love, joy, great experiences and great accomplishments, I can’t think of a better candidate than Frankie Manning.

In France and England, the death of a king was heralded with the phrase “Le Roi est Mort. Vive le Roi!” or “The King is Dead. Long Live the King.” What seems like a spiritual contradiction was really simply a political statement: Once one king was dead, the heir to the throne immediately became king, so that no country was never for a moment without it’s rightful ruler. I however, prefer the spiritual contradiction. The King of Lindy Hop died April 27. But his spirit will live forever in those who know how to swing.

Frankie, we miss you already, and we really can’t thank you enough. Hopefully we can repay you by carrying on not just your dance, but your attitude, with us always. Sleep well.

3 responses to “Long Live the King”

  1. I was lucky enough to take a lesson from him in Philadelphia at the Commodore Barry Club … I guess this was about 4 years ago. My only regret: not taking a photo with him … but for some reason, I thought the line was too long for such a request and I would look too groupie’ish. In retrospect, how silly of me!

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