Afternoon with Frankie Manning
By Joe Donato,
I did it! I finally made it to the Philadelphia Swing Dance Society’s annual Frankie Manning workshop. It only took about four years of hearing about it, and missing it before I finally committed. One of the original pioneers of Swing, Frankie Manning, led two workshops of over 100 dancers at the Commodore Barry club early this month. In between the dancing, we all sat down for an extensive “chat” with the 94 year old Ambassador of Swing. With him being near the end of his career, and me being at the beginning of mine, I was hoping to glean as much wisdom as I could from this seasoned sage. Here's what I learned:
I learned that though the world has changed dramatically, it seems human nature has stayed the same. Frankie had his first exposure to the Lindy as a young child, and he wasn’t unlike many of us during our first exposure to the dance world. He stood by his grandmother’s side looking in to the big circle of peers dancing. She encouraged him to join the other kids in the circle, but his feet were glued to the floor out of fear. His grandmother had to push him into the circle. Frankie said with a smile “at first she couldn’t get me in there, but once she did, she couldn’t get me out”. Surely, many of us can relate.
Like many artists and entertainers testify, the church played a role. As kids, they would hear the sounds of singing and dancing coming from the Baptist congregation down the street. Eventually they were invited to join in. They didn’t know what was being preached, but it didn’t matter. All they knew was that with all the music and dancing and energy, it was a party and they wanted in. He didn’t know anything about what they were celebrating, but since they were enjoying it so much, it was fun to be there. Clearly it was a good thing. Hmmm, again, more parallels to my own life!
Somewhere around 1927, Frankie was given the opportunity to go to a formal dance with his mother one Saturday night. He got himself all gussied up like a kid on Christmas Eve and was all ready to go by 7:00. He presented himself to his Mother, only to hear her say “Frankie, the dance isn’t for another two hours.” Those two hours were two of the longest hours of his life. When he finally did make it to the dance, his mother remarked “Frankie, you’ll never be a dancer”. He asked her “why not?” She said “you’re too stiff!” Comments like that, flowing from a respected authority figure to an impressionable young kid with an eager heart, can do more harm than good. How many of us have allowed a discouraging word or belief to keep us from pursuing the things that bring us joy? Well, lucky for the world, Frankie didn’t. Ten years later, when he was performing with Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club, he confronted his Mother about the statement. She didn’t even remember ever saying it!
When it came time for questions, I knew what I had to ask him. Reflecting on my "Why Men Don't Dance" article, I solicited his take on why so many men today do not have any interest in dance. He first clarified that this is nothing new. Getting men to be intrinsically motivated to dance has been an issue all throughout the ages. In their minds it is not a “macho” activity like football or weightlifting. But there was an extra challenge in his day, Read on...
Someone asked him about formal training and any pre-conditioning he had before he became a professional swing dancer. His answer was “none.” None, that is, to the formal training. Today we have schools where people can spend big bucks to learn but there weren’t any Fred Astaires or Arthur Murrays back in his day. But the pre-conditioning? Well, that was built into the culture. Back in Harlem, they danced every single night. There was a ballroom on almost every corner, in addition to the many nightclubs, and ALL of them (both the ballrooms and the nightclubs) had live music. Dancing was simply part of a balanced nutritious lifestyle. Again, another parallel to my current way of life!
He played a video compilation of Lindy Hoppers over the years, starting in 1927, and working right up to a Lindy routine from last year’s season of “Dancing with the Stars.” He added his own running commentary when inspired, saying things like “yeah, I don’t do that one anymore.” But he wasn’t about saving all the glory for himself. He made it a point to tell us each and every name of the dancers in the video. He referred to them with an air of reverence along with what sounded to me like a sort of homesickness. He had two words to describe the females he’s danced with over the years: “brave souls”. You see, back in the day, when the men were inventing a move, there was no break-down analysis of every single isolated technique and muscle movement. Each new move was an experiment. When men were developing what are known as “air moves”, they would simply say “let's try something new”. The woman would say “OK”, and next thing you know, he was throwing her over his head. The women simply had faith in the men!
Did those experiments pay off? They did for Frankie. For example, there was the royalty. Aside from hobnobbing with the Count of Basie, and the Duke of Ellington, who would have guessed that Swing dancing would some day lead to him dancing for President Clinton and meeting the Queen of England? He recalled how after getting to perform for the King and Queen, she extended her hand to him. He was so out of his element, he curtsied. Each year when he does his workshop, people can’t help to wonder if it will be his last. We’ve been wondering that for close to a decade now. Meanwhile, here he is, at age 95 still leading workshops with the joy of a kid on Christmas Eve. May we all be so blessed as we pursue our passions.
***This article was written in 2008. In less than a year, Frankie had passed. That was his final workshop with the Philadelphia Swing Dance Society, and one of his final workshops ever. Click here to see his amazing funeral procession.
Click here to see the "Global Shim Sham" compilation video recorded on what would have been his 95th birthday.
Click here to see the famous swing scenes from the 1941 classic "Hellzapoppin" featuring Frankie in his prime.