~ A Brief Interview with Lindy Legend Frankie Manning ~
By Tam Francis
For anyone of you longhairs who don’t know who Frankie Manning is, just keep swinging and you soon will. Frankie Manning is credited as the man who invented air-steps (aerials) done in time with the music while doing the lindy hop, as well as an instrumental figure in the resurgence of swing dance world wide. He was one of the original Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in which he was a lead dancer and choreographer. He danced a wicked swing in Helzapoppin, and choreographed many dance sequences for movies including the Marx Brother’s, Day at the Races, and Spike Lee’s, Malcolm X. Manning received a Tony Award for his choreography in the Broadway hit Black & Blue.
Frankie Manning was coaxed out of semi-retirement when dance instructors Erin Stevens and Steven Mitchell were looking for someone to teach them more Lindy Hop. Their enthusiasm inspired Manning to start teaching and touring again. I had the pleasure of not only meeting and interviewing Frankie in the summer of 1998 at the Swing Dance Catalina Dance Event, but being taught by him. I included my first lesson with him (years before in Pasadena) in my fictional novel through my character June.
This May 22-26, 2014 people from around the globe will converge on New York to commemorate his 100 birthday he passed away April 27th 2009). I am happy to share my interview with Frankie when I sat with him on a sunny day, from the shores of Catalina Island.
Tammy Francis: Did everyone in your family dance? How did you actually learn?
Frankie Manning: No, my father never danced and he told me he had two left feet. My mother danced in a social club, The Jolly Flapperettes, but she never taught me how. One time she took me out on the dance floor, when I was real young, and tried to show me. When we left, she told me I’d never be a dancer. (laughs) My parents would take me to parties and I’d watch all the people dancing, and then go home and try to imitate them.
Tam: So how did you learn?
Frankie Manning: Well in those days everybody went to The Savoy and I would watch my idols Shorty George Snowdon and Leroy Stretch Jones, they were the best. Everybody would say to me, “Frankie, you look like Shorty or Stretch.” I wanted to look like Frankie. They danced more upright so I started getting bent over like and lower to the floor. I used to be sometime horizontal coming out of a swing out. Then they started saying, “Frankie, you look like you’re flying.”
Tam: Speaking of flying, how did you invent aerials?
Frankie Manning: I don’t know what this word aerials is, they’re air-steps done in time to the music. Sure you can do a lot of air-steps with a little Lindy, or you can do Lindy with air-steps. Well, the first one, Over-the-back came out of this contest. I was up against Shorty and Stretch. Shorty and Big Bea, they used to do this thing when they left the stage, Big Bea would pick up Shorty on her back and carry him out. The crowd would go wild. So, I used that idea.
Tam: Who’d you talk into letting you fling them around?
Frankie Manning: My dance partner Frieda, a spunky young lady. So, I said to her, “You know the thing Big Bea and Shorty do?” and she said, “I ain’t carrying you on my back.” I laughed and said I had this other idea of her rolling over my back. So she thought about it for a minute and said, “Okay, how do we do it?” “I don’t know,” I said. So we went and got the mattress off the bed and she climbed on my back until we figured it out. We would practice all day, just one air-step to get it right every time to the music.
Frankie: Fortunately, no. There were knocks and bruises, but never anything serious.
Tam: What’s your favorite air-step?
Frankie Manning: The one where you toss the girl around the back and throw her out really far, then pull her back over your shoulder catching her by the ankles. When I was doing Malcolm X, that’s the one that Denzel Washington wanted to do. He said. “That’s it, I want to learn that one.”
Tam: What was it like to hear Big Band music for the first time?
Frankie Manning: I came up with it, there was no first time. It was everywhere and all we listened to was Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, all those guys. There was nothing else until Be-bop came and that was hard to dance to.
Frankie Manning: When Chubby Checker came out with The Twist, people started separating. They found they could dance by themselves. Then, for a while the Hustle came back which took lots of the Lindy Hop moves. Then dancing separated again, and after that fell out of fashion.
Frankie Manning: Guys are getting smarter again (laugh). They all want to hold a girl.
Tam: Why did you quit dancing?
Frankie Manning: I married a great girl who could dance, but was not interested in being a Hopper. She was a nurse and we settled down and had some kids. She would be saying, “Frankie, you’re always gone dancing…” So, I settled down, got a job (at the post office), and took care of my family.
Tam: Tell me about dancing at The Savoy.
Frankie Manning: Any night you went was a good night. There were two band that played continuous music so as the one band stopped, the other started up. There was no break in the music. We had this club called the 400 Club for serious dancers only. There was also Cats Corner where we would Swing Jam and strut our stuff. There’d be movie stars, but nobody would pay them too much attention, which is why they liked coming there, and a lot of them came to see the dancers. Everyone was all dressed up to dance and we danced in our good clothes.
Frankie Manning: (gives a look and laughs) I don’t feel like a star, I’m just a dancer, and well, if I inspire people to dance, that’s it.
For more information about Frankie and the Frankie Foundation, visit the official Frankie Manning Website. Do you have any Frankie Stories? Have you seen Hellzapppin and Day at the Races? What’s your favorite thing about Frankie?
Tam Francis is a writer, blogger, swing dance teacher, avid vintage collector, and seamstress. She shares her love of this genre through her novels, blog, and short stories. She enjoys hearing from you, sharing ideas, forging friendships, and exchanging guest blogs. For all the Girl in the Jitterbug Dress news, give-aways, events, and excitement, make sure to join her list and like her FB page! Join my list ~ Facebook page