Frankie Manning: The Ambassador of Swing

Frankie Manning, one of the inventors of the Lindy Hop, was born in 1914 in Jacksonville, Florida and died in 2009 at age 94. In his later years his birthday jam consisted of dancing with enough women – sometimes 2 and 3 at a time – to equal his age.

Here are some stories from Frankie’s growing up years.

Frankie grew up in Harlem and started going to dances with his mother at around age 12.  He went to his first dance at the Renaissance Ballroom with his mom when he was 14.  He was so excited to be at an adult dance and dancing with his mother. After the first dance his mother grabbed him by the hand and walked off the floor shaking her head. When he asked what the matter was she said, “Frankie, you'll never be a dancer. You're too stiff.” Instead of quitting, he took the comment as constructive criticism. He wrote, “If she had never told me I was stiff, I might never have become a dancer.”

Frankie was also into sports. He said the reason he liked to go to school was so he could play sports. He once deceived his mother in order to play baseball. She had started sending Frankie for violin lessons with his uncle. He enjoyed the lessons but he had to walk past a weekly baseball game to get to his uncle’s house and after a few months he couldn’t resist joining in. His uncle finally called his mother to find out why he wasn’t coming anymore. Frankie’s mom confronted him with the violin that he’d hidden in a closet. He had been carrying his bat and glove in the case.

Frankie felt being an athlete helped his dancing especially once he started doing air steps. As he tells it, “It wasn’t so much because of the strength I developed, but because of the timing and the ability to anticipate or react to what was coming next, like when my partner didn’t do an air step exactly the same way twice.

As a teenager, Frankie practiced hard and danced several times a week with his friends at the Renaissance and Alhambra ballrooms in Harlem. The dances at the time were often ballroom dances plus the Charleston, the Collegiate, and the breakaway. He and his friends were always on the lookout for new steps that they would then share with each other. Frankie said that Lindy Hop grew out of the Charleston, the Collegiate, and the breakaway.

But a whole different caliber of dancing was happening at the top ballroom, the Savoy. The Savoy seemed out of reach to Frankie and his friends since that was where the best dancers went. But by age 19 Frankie had dropped out of school, was working for a furrier, and was dancing at the Savoy.

The Savoy was the only integrated ballroom in the country at the time. According to Frankie, “At the Savoy, it didn’t matter what color you were, black, white, green, yellow, or whatever. I don’t even remember noticing people’s skin color. The only thing they asked when you walked in was, ‘Can you dance?’ They never looked at your face, only at your feet.”

“We used to say that the Alhambra was like elementary school; the Renaissance was like high school; and the Savoy, well, now you’re up in the big time. Going there was like going to college. The Savoy was like home for me and my friends. I’d wake up in the morning and want to be there. It was such a warm place, it seemed like it just embraced you. To me, the Savoy was paradise. When I die, if I go to heaven, I want it to be just like the Savoy.”

Frankie is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, NY. just a few feet away from my sister. Just down the hill are Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, and many other swing greats. People come from all over the world to dance near Frankie's grave in tribute to the man who brought Lindy Hop to life.

Highlights from Frankie’s Life  

1914 Born May 26 in Jacksonville, FL

1917 Moves to Harlem

1932 First son, Chazz Young, is born to FM and Dorothy Young

1933 First ventures to Savoy Ballroom

1934 Invited by Herbert “Whitey” White to join elite group of Savoy Lindy hoppers

1935 Introduces the first Lindy air step, over –the-back

            Introduces stops and synchronized ensemble dancing

1937 Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers appear in A Day at the Races (uncredited)

1941 Congaroo Dancers appear in Hellzapoppin’

1943 Inducted into Army. Serves in New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan

1946 Returns to civilian life

1954 Marries Gloria Holloway

1955 Disbands the Congaroo Dancers and goes to work for US Postal Service

1958 Savoy Ballroom closes

1987 First travels to Sweden to work with Rhythm Hot Shots. Retires from post office

1988 Choreographs section of “Opus McShann” with Norma Miller for Alvin Ailey    American dance Theater

1989 Wins Tony Award for Best Choreography for Black and Blue with Cholly Atkins, Henry LeTang, and Fayard Nicholas

1992 Serves as consultant/performer in Spike Lee’s film, Malcolm X.  Worked with Norma Miller in Debbie Allen’s Stompin’ at the Savoy

1994 Receives NEA Choreographers’ Fellowship

1999 Performs in PBS special Swinging with Duke

2000 Received NEA National Heritage Fellowship. Appears in Ken Burns documentary, Jazz

2005 Inducted into Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs, NY

by Vicky Youcha