During the 1980’s while hairstyles and fashion sense were going through a questionable but also most fantastic time, Frankie Manning was quite happily pulled from his peaceful life as a postman of 30 years to show the world once again how lindy hop was really done. This was a man who had been a member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, performing, choreographing and creating so much of the foundation of what we know as lindy hop today. He learned to dance in the great ballrooms of Harlem, the Alhambra, the Renaissance, and the most famous of all the Savoy. These were ballrooms full of swinging jazz and floorboards bouncing with dancers. “That music just made you feel… like you wanted to move with it.” Frankie was like so many of us, entranced, excited and inspired by the music and its energy. And like us he learned by watching others, except for him there was no video to rewind or classes to attend, instead he was there in the middle of it all every night, and would later become the most famous lindy hopper in the world.
From those days of watching and learning from his idols like George “Shorty” Snowden, Frankie started to develop a style of his own. Being taller and lankier, he adapted the dance to suit his own movement experimenting with the music and how it made him feel. It was in the 'Cat’s corner' a section of the Savoy’s dancefloor where impromptu dance exhibitions and competitions took place, that Frankie threw the first aerial in lindy hop with his partner Frieda Washington. Over 2,000 stunned onlookers watched in awe as she rolled over his back, legs in the air, a moment Frankie rates as one of the best nights at the Savoy. It’s strange to think about this dance without aerials, today even non-dancers think of us flipping and flying when they hear the words ‘lindy hop’ and it was because of Frankie that this is even a thing. Watch the infamous Hellzapoppin dance scene by Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers if you haven't already, to truly see how powerful these aerials were. It’s an insane piece of choreography by Frankie himself for the 1941 Hellzapoppin film that demonstrates this troupe’s extreme skill, trust, and the wild excitement lindy hop can be.
No matter how exciting or successful these dancers lives were back then, in 1939 Lindy’s Hop’s heyday came to end when WWII meant so many of the leads including Frankie entered the army and were sent away. Their lives changed dramatically from flying showman to fighting soldiers. The public’s interest dwindled as with little money, fewer people and other pressing priorities, dance and entertainment soon faded away. Though they tried to spark interest after the war, the lindy hop had lost momentum and times had changed.
For 30 years Frankie didn’t dance.
Come the 1980's Frankie’s life changed again, this time because swing was having a revival. For 30 years he had been a postman in New York City when out of the blue he received a phone call enquiring if he was “... Frankie Manning the dancer? “ the dancer from those films, from the Savoy, from Whitey's Lindy Hoppers Troupe, the man who had made a name for himself all those years ago. I am sure he couldn’t have been more surprised to have received that phone call, let alone what followed. His life became one of constant travel, teaching workshops all over the world. He began choreographing and performing again and most memorably bringing with him his joy, humour and passion for the dance which was surging back into popularity. Frankie Manning was no longer just a postman but once again a dancer, this time at the age of 72.
When you watch video’s of this time, snippets of his classes, Frankie’s energy, patience and sense of humour continuously come through. He has a stream of jokes that make the whole class laugh, he encourages self-expression and making the dance your own, but most apparent is his love for sharing the dance with this new generation. Frankie wanted everyone to feel how good it feels to dance.
Just as Frankie has influenced so many over his years, today he continues to do so with this month's Rugcutters show here in Melbourne, inspired not only by him but by the world in which he was a part of during the 1930’s. Frankie was in a hub of talented musicians and excited dancers that worked together within the walls of such places like the Savoy. They created a space whereby people could create, inspire and feel a release from the harsh world of the Depression outside, and in doing so left a legacy about the relationship between jazz and dancing. Frankie’s part in that world was instrumental to the lindy hop we know today. The people he met and so many of his collaborations between film, musicians and dancers, have become hallmarks in our history. Echoes of Harlem have been working on creating a show that pulls together these elements of Frankie. They looked into his time at the Savoy and saw that while it was an amazing performance space and the place to be at night, Frankie and his peers would hang out there during the day, using it to practice as the bands rehearsed. There they would swap ideas and experiment with movement and dance, a collaboration between friends. This is the environment which has inspired much of the show. It aims not to recreate Frankie and his exact movement, but his energy, creativity and romantic love for the dance partnership. It provides an insight into the creative excitement that the Savoy and that time in history was, for these dancers and Frankie himself.
Now I myself was never lucky enough to meet him, nor take a class, but I can tell you about my experience as a student learning from his peers, his own students and his friends. They speak so highly of him as an individual, his big heart, generosity and most definitely his cheeky sense of humour. I notice more and more these days in classes, teachers referencing not only him but the many other influential dancers, musicians and artists of that time. I feel like they are becoming more aware of how important it is for us as students to hold on to those roots, to know where this dance comes from. But also holding on to Frankie's spirit and philosophy on dancing. It's easy to get hung up on technique and the desire to be better, but so much of what Frankie believed and taught was about feeling good. He is the best reminder to us all about truly enjoying the moment, because really (and I think Frankie would agree with me here) dancing has to be one of the most wonderful ways to spend your days.
I understand that hearing so much praise for him, for those of us who never met him, it can feel a little unbelievable. I remember during a ‘Frankie Talk’ at Herrang last year, a member of the audience asking the panel honestly if there was anything about him that wasn't painting him as perfect or 'god like'. It’s so easy to forget that he was just a human who made mistakes as we all do. But what Frankie did do well, was build a community for swing dancers. A community that encouraged you to play with rhythm, to truly listen and enjoy the music, and to be able to share that with each other. Frankie is someone who you should keep coming back to, be it the videos of him as a young man throwing aerials like they are easy as pie, or him teaching at age 92 having a whole room captivated by his enthusiasm and advice. He encompasses so much of the good stuff, and reminds us of the simple reason we keep coming back each week, dancing makes us happy. I love that for Frankie dancing doesn't have to be grand or showy, just do what the music tells you.