Black History Month Video Vault: Frankie Manning and The Lindy Hop

Flips, splits, and tricks - oh my!

Frankie Manning and the famous "Lindy Hop" dance style he helped to popularize were both exciting and a little nerve-wracking to watch. For this week's video vault selection, we'll watch a couple of clips featuring Frankie Manning, the swing dancing legend.

First, a little history about Frankie. Although he was born in Jacksonville, Florida on May 26th, 1914, Frankie Manning primarily grew up in the Harlem neighborhood in New York City. After moving to Harlem with his mother when he was just three years old, Frankie came of age during the height of the swing dance craze. During his teenage years, he discovered the Lindy Hop, a vibrant partner dance that originated in Harlem in the 1920's. He was exposed to the Lindy Hop at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, an infamous, racially integrated jazz nightclub where Manning watched and learned from inspiring dancers like Shorty George Snowdon and Leroy Stretch Jones.

The Savoy Ballroom in Harlem New York
The Savoy Ballroom, home of the Lindy Hop, in Harlem, NYC

The Savoy was a place for people to learn, practice, compete, and hone certain dancing. The ballroom had a sprung floor that was replaced every three years to provide optimal dancing conditions. One of the most popular and energetic dances performed at the Savoy was the Lindy Hop. Sometimes known as the Jitterbug, the Lindy Hop would become Frankie Manning's signature style.

After a while of perfecting his dance styles, Frankie Manning created and debuted his famous "Air-steps", or aerial dance moves, during a competition at the Savoy. In the video clip below from the 1941 movie, Hellzapoppin, you'll see Frankie Manning and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, a professional dance group, performing an athletic scene featuring some of Manning's iconic steps. Notice the powerful and energetic tosses and flips performed by both women and men, as well as the quick footwork. Manning and his partner, Ann Johnson, appear together at 1:55.

As seen above, Frankie Manning was a crucial member and choreographer for Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, the professional performing troupe of Savoy Ballroom swing dancers, that was formed in 1935 by Herbert “Whitey” White. The Hellzapoppin' dance number was also choreographed by Manning.

When asked once about his favorite air-step, Manning described, "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." 

As time went on, fearless Frankie ended up joining the army and being drafted during World War II, causing a temporary end to his personal dance career and a permanent end to Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers.

Whitey's Lindy Hoppers: (Left to Right) Frankie Manning, Naomi Waller, Jerome Williams, Lucille Middleton, Billie Williams, Mildred Cruse.
Whitey's Lindy Hoppers
(Left to Right) Frankie Manning, Naomi Waller, Jerome Williams, Lucille Middleton, Billie Williams, Mildred Cruse. 

After the war, Manning created a dance company, The Congaroo Dancers, and toured with musical legends like Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole. While the company enjoyed moderate success, by the time the 1950's came around, swing dancing had fizzled out of style. Manning could no longer find substantial work in the dance industry, so he became a postal worker and lived a relatively pedestrian life.

Frankie lived a relatively "normal" life as a family-man, husband, and father until the late 1980's when swing dancing once again became popular. Manning's dance career again took off.

Through workshops and masterclasses, performances and choreography, Frankie Manning once again became the ultimate Lindy Hop guru and a swing superstar. He won a Tony Award in 1989 for his choreography in the musical Black and Blue and also choreographed and starred in the NBC made for TV movie, Stompin’ at the Savoy, directed by Debbie Allen.

In 1992, Manning helped choreograph and perform in Malcom X, a film by Spike Lee. In the scene below, you'll see many similarities from the Hellzapoppin' dance number such as the flips and jumps. For extra credit, see if you can spot 78 year old Manning in a blue suit on the dance floor.

 

Before his passing in April of 2009, Manning went on to choreograph for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and was the Artistic Director and head choreographer for the Big Apple Lindy Hoppers dance company.

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