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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Remembering Frankie 1914-2009

Linda & Frankie, 2006
As thousands of swing dancers around the world get ready to commemorate the legendary swing dancer Frankie Manning in this the month that marks his centennial year celebration, I turn inward to my personal reflections on the man and what he brought to me and to so many people.

We were lucky. Frankie was here to hold our hands and count us in when we were learning how to swing dance. It is his voice I hear in my head when I dance, like so many of our students say they hear Chester's.

I feel it is part of our job as dance teachers to not only teach the dance, but the legacy behind it. Frankie Manning is that legacy.

For those of you who have not read his book, the Ambassador of Lindy Hop, which I had the great fortune of editing in manuscript form, or who have not seen the documentary, Frankie Manning: Never Stop Swinging (airing on PBS on May 16 at 10:30pm), or were not swing dancing yet when he was still teaching up until almost his 95th birthday, here is a synopsis of Frankie:

Frankie was eight years old in 1922, the heart of the jazz age. His mother loved to dance but she couldn't afford a baby sitter so she took her young son around to her "social events", which mostly included rent parties (dance parties held in someone's apartment in which a 25cent admission would be charged and bathtub gin was 10cents a mug to help pay the rent) and dance halls. Soon Frankie had one aspiration: to be a dancer. But the first time he tried to show off to his mother, she admonished, "You'll never be a dancer, you're too stiff."

Boy, did he prove her wrong. He became one of the leading dancers of Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, selected by the ballroom's bouncer-turned-businessman Herbert "Whitey" White to be a part of the cats corner (an invitation-only area of the ballroom) and eventually to be part of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, the award-winning performance troupe. Segments of the troupe performed at various venues around the world, including the Cotton Club and in films, including famous dance sequences in the movies Hellzapoppin and in the Marx Brothers' Day at the Races (join us for a special screening of  Day at the Races on May 11 at 2pm at the Rosendale Theatre).

He created the first air step, tossing his partner in the air and landing in time with the music. He won awards. He choreographed. He toured. He performed professionally into the 1950s, when with a family to support he retired from professional dancing and got a job at the post office, where he worked for the next 30 years.

We should all have multiple chapters to our lives. The 1980's brought Frankie's.

A strange thing started occurring all over the world. After decades of independent body flailing that people called dancing, late night movies started sparking an interest in what looked like a really cool way to dance with a partner. People began rediscovering this old dance called Lindy Hop. And they wanted to know how to do it. So they reached out and found some of those dancers and brought them back to the dance floor.

When dancer Erin Stevens found Frankie's name in the phone book and called him, the famous phone call went like this:

Erin: Is this Frankie Manning the dancer?
Frankie: No, this is Frankie Manning the postal worker.

It took a lot of convincing to get him to teach her and her then-partner Stephen Mitchell. Some of you may know the sweatshirt our student Chris Cullen had specially made for me that says. "The Only Count I Know is Count Basie." That was is a famous quote of Frankie's when he was asked to teach. He was a performer, not a teacher. And he hadn't done that in thirty years.

But ultimately he did teach and in doing so, he changed our history, leading a tidal wave of dance enthusiasm around the globe. So huge that no matter where you go in the world, you can find swing dancers.

He changed our lives and the lives of so many people as more and more became swing dancers and some of those he taught became teachers. Global change. One man. Not bad. How did he do it? With wisdom and grace.

He was a performer with a personality that lit up a room. He had astounding energy. He was 92 when we brought him to teach and share stories in the Hudson Valley, but you would never have guessed his age.

He was also modest. It was never about him. It was about the dance. He did what he loved and he loved what he did, and everyone loved him, and he loved everyone and it showed.

Here's one of the best film compilations I've seen about Frankie made for his 95th birthday celebration in NYC, which was held shortly after his passing.

Working on his manuscript was a terrific honor for me, and I am forever grateful for the privilege to play a small part in bringing Frankie's book to light. Cynthia Millman, his co-author, had been working diligently on the book for years. I was eager to read it, eager to find out how such a famous man could have gone underground for thirty years, how people all over the world suddenly wanted to know how to swing dance, how it all happened. By lending my editorial skills, I was able to read it all in manuscript and help shape Frankie's huge number of terrific stories and Cynthia's incredible research.

Frankie's voice lives on in the pages of his book, in the many films (like the one I've included here), documentaries and video clips that people shot of Frankie both personally and professionally over the years. Frankie lives on in every dance move we do, and every dance move we teach. And most of all, Frankie lives on as a voice in our heads, a picture in our minds, with love in our hearts, and as we spread our passion for lindy hop every time we hit the dance floor.

And he lives on in you and in each and every one of the students we teach to swing dance.

1. May 2. Frankie Tribute Dance in Albany by Chester's Cool Cats & Kittens
2. May 3. All About Frankie Workshop in Kingston, NY 6-7:30pm
3. May 3. Frankie Tribute Dance at 2nd Saturday Swing Dance Infusion 7:30-10:30 performance at 9pm
4. May 5-June 2. Frankie-inspired swing outs in Lindy Hop class series Monday nights 8-9pm in Kingston
5. May 11. Frankie Tribute Day. Screening of Marx Brothers A Day at the Races, Video Tribute & Q&A with Judy Pritchett at the Rosendale Theatre, followed by a Swing Dance Party at the Belltower.


Weekend of May 22-26. Frankie 100 Centennial Bash in NYC.
May 23-25. Frankietrifecta in NYC.

BUY THE BOOK! The Ambassador of Lindy Hop
SEE THE DOCUMENTARY! May 16, 10:30pm: Frankie Manning: Never Stop Swinging channel 13, PBS
Chester Freeman, Cynthia Millman, Linda Freeman, Frankie Manning


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