FRANKIE MANNING by Cynthia Millman
(with additional information by Bob Crease)
From Harlem's ballrooms at age 13, to the elite Whitey's Lindy Hoppers as dancer and
choreographer, Frankie Manning has always been a major force behind the development of
the dance that is truly an American art form. He is credited with creating not only the first
air step, but also the first ensemble lindy hop routine. Together with his old buddy Norma
Miller, he is regarded today as the world-wide “Ambassador of Lindy Hop,” as his recently
published memoire reminds us.
Born in 1914, Frankie lived in Florida until the age of three, at which time his mother
brought him to Harlem, the birthplace of the Lindy. Growing up in the midst of this Swing
Era playground, Frankie found he was part of a group of dedicated dancers that was to
inspire the dancing and music of the 1930s and 1940s.
When he was 13, his mother sent him to the Metropolitan Baptist Church on 129th Street.
To get there, he had to pass the Alhambra ballroom on 126th. The Alhambra had big-band
dances for youngsters' from 3 to 5 on Sunday afternoons. One Sunday he checked it out and
was soon a regular. When he got better he went to the Renaissance Ballroom on 138th St.
"We used to have a saying," Frankie says. "When you go to the Alhambra Ballroom. It's like
elementary school. When you go from the Alhambra to the Renaissance, you're going to high
school. When you go to the Savoy, you're going to college!" It took Frankie a while to get into
that college as he was given the hook during the first dance contest he entered at the
Lafayette Theatre. But one day he, Frieda Washington, Billy and Willamae Ricker, and a few
others decided to go. Whitey soon asked Frankie and his friends to join the lindy Hoppers.
Frankie was 15.
At that time the first generation Lindy Hoppers, people like Shorty Snowden and Twist
Mouth George, viewed Whitey's crew as upstarts. One day Snowden challenged Whitey to a
contest, three of Snowden's couples against three of Whitey's, to be held at the Savoy.
Frankie was to dance for Whitey. "Shorty had a step where his partner, Big Bea, would carry
him off stage on her back. "I thought I could improve it" Frankie commented " If I'd take the
girl and flip her all the way over." He and Frieda worked on the step in secret, and used it
during the contest--the first air step, what is now called "Over the Back." It brought the
house down, and Whitey's dancers won. A few months later, in the spring of 1936, Frankie
developed the first ensemble Lindy dancing for a routine in the Cotton Club show at the
Alhambra. The act stopped the show and the dancers were ecstatic. Unfortunately, the act
was kicked out; evidently, nobody from outside the Cotton Club show was allowed to stop it.
Based at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, Frankie took his talent on the road as a dancer and chief
choreographer for Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. He performed in several films including RADIO
CITY REVELS with Ann Miller and George Burns (1937) and HELLZAPOPPIN' with Olsen &
Johnson and Martha Raye (1941). He toured the world with jazz greats Ethel Waters, Ella
Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Cab
Calloway among others. While dancing in London in 1937, Frankie gave a command
performance for King George VI. In 1941, Frankie "Musclehead" Manning was featured in a
Life magazine article that chronicled the evolution of the Lindy.
With the onset of World War II, Whitey's Lindy Hoppers disbanded and Frankie joined the
Army. After seeing active combat he was released from the military in 1947 and formed his
own dance troupe, The Congaroo Dancers. They appeared on The Milton Berle Show, Toast
of the Town, and toured with Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis,
Martha Raye, Nat "King" Cole, and Sammy Davis, Jr. As the fifties and rock 'n' roll moved in,
Frankie settled down to family life and a day job.
In 1986, with the resurgence of swing dancing, Frankie emerged from his 30-year stint at the
Post Office to lead a new breed of jitterbugs. This renewed interest in the lindy hop has set
Frankie globetrotting once again, spreading his own brand of dance magic through
workshops, lectures, and performances. In 1989, Frankie was profiled on ABC's primetime
news program. Producer Alice Pifer said, "Frankie Manning is one of our country's cultural
treasures and for too long he did not have full recognition. That's why I felt he warranted a
profile on national television."
Also in 1989, Frankie received a Tony Award for Best Choreography in the Broadway hit
musical BLACK AND BLUE. The New York Times noted, "Mr. Manning is an-over-the-top
choreographer we should see more often. His theatricalization of jitterbug styles is topped
with a spectacular anthology of social dancing and tap in the chorus numbers 'Swinging' and
'Wednesday Night Hop'." Frankie returned to Broadway in 1997 as Creative Historic
Consultant to choreographer the main Lindy Hop routine for PLAY ON that was otherwised
choreographed by Mercedes Ellington .
In 1992, Frankie served as dance consultant for and danced in Spike Lee's film MALCOLM
X. With fellow lindy hopper Norma Miller, Frankie choreographed and performed in
STOMPIN' AT THE SAVOY, an NBC made-for-television movie directed by Debbie Allen.
Since 1988, Frankie has choreographed for numerous dance companies around the world
including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, American Ballroom Theater, Zoots and
Spangles (UK), The Rhythm Hot Shots (Sweden), and New York's own Big Apple Lindy
Hoppers, for whom Frankie serves as artistic director and chief choreographer.
Among Frankie's many honors are induction into the City Lore People's Hall of Fame (1993),
a New York Arts in Education Roundtable Award (1993), an NEA Choreographers'
Fellowship Grant (1994), and an NEA National Heritage Fellowship Award (2000). Oxford
University Press, recognizing his historical importance, included an article on Frankie, and
another on the lindy hop, in their six-volume International Encyclopedia of Dance (1998).
Frankie's eightieth birthday was marked in May, 1994 by CAN'T TOP THE LINDY HOP! a
three-day dance celebration in Manhattan attended by over 700 people from eight different
countries. New York City's legendary Roseland Ballroom hosted 1700 well-wishers for
Frankie's 85th birthday in 1999. Frankie was further honoured when a pair of his dance
shoes was added to the display case of famous dancers' shoes in the lobby of Roseland.
Frankie's activities have been considered newsworthy since the 1930s. As a prime mover
behind the current swing dance revival, the press pays constant attention to his doings. He
has been interviewed for scores of magazine and newspaper articles, as well as many
documentaries and news programs. Most recently, he was profiled in GQ, People, and was a
featured dancer in the PBS special SWINGIN' WITH DUKE.
Frankie is truly a world ambassador of swing dance. His fabulous dancing and radiant smile
have served as inspiration to generations of lindy hop enthusiasts, but he modestly claims,
"I'm not interested in fame and glory; it's just that I would like others to know what a happy
dance this is."