Interviews conducted & article written by Dan Gorman
The Frankie Manning Foundation only came into existence six years ago, but today it is at the forefront of the global swing dance scene. Frankie Manning was one of the originators of the lindy hop at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, and he later played a pivotal role in the swing dance revival, when young dancers sought him out to learn the art of lindy hop. Mr. Manning, who passed away in 2009, left behind an extensive dance legacy, as well as a memoir co-written with Cynthia Millman that has been translated into several languages.
The Foundation preserves Mr. Manning’s life work as defined in their vision, mission, and value statements:
The Vision (“In our wildest dreams…”)
The Lindy Hop will be danced all over the world to live big band music. Everywhere that Lindy Hop is danced, on the dance floors and off, people of diverse backgrounds will treat each other with respect and warmth. The history of Frankie Manning and the originators of the Lindy Hop at the Savoy Ballroom will be well known to dancers and non-dancers everywhere.
The mission of the Frankie Manning Foundation is to carry on the work and the spirit of Frankie Manning in spreading the joy of Lindy Hop, danced to big band swing music, throughout the world.
In accordance with Manning’s own values, and those of the Savoy Ballroom where the dance got its start, the fund seeks to promote projects which are grounded in unity and collaboration, and which enable people of all different backgrounds to participate in this joyous dance.
The Foundation looks to share Frankie’s life and artistic heritage by supporting those who are working to pass on his legacy in the form of scholarships and youth programming. The Foundation is also taking steps to have Mr. Manning’s memorabilia housed in a library where it will be easily accessible. An aspiration for the future is also to create an archive of all video materials connected with Frankie.
I conducted oral history interviews with the Frankie Manning Foundation’s board members to find out how and why the Foundation was formed, what have been its greatest achievements to date, and what is next for the organization. The board members are:
Elliott Donnelley, a passionate Lindy hop instructor, performer, event organizer, and music producer
Mandi Gould, an event organizer and former dance instructor
Cynthia Millman, swing dance instructor, dance historian, and Mr. Manning’s coauthor
Judy Pritchett, Frankie’s long-time companion, swing dance researcher, writer and director of the documentary, Dancing the Big Apple 1937
Myron “Buddy” Steves, president of the Houston Swing Dance Society
Chazz Young, Frankie’s son, professional jazz and tap dancer, and Lindy hop instructor.
The idea for the Foundation came from Buddy Steves and Elliott Donnelly, who wanted to channel any profit from Frankie 95, Frankie Manning’s 95th birthday celebration in New York City, toward a good cause.
Elliott knew Frankie from organizing Frankie’s 90th birthday cruise and other workshops. Additionally, Elliott had worked on the Count Basie centennial celebration.
Buddy and his wife had known Frankie Manning since meeting at a California Lindy exchange in the mid-1990s. Buddy explained, “In 1997, we got tired of going to workshops [in other cities], so we formed a non-profit, 501c3 Houston Swing Dance Society and hosted Lindy Fest with Frankie Manning.”
These qualifications led to Elliott and Buddy to co-chair the Frankie 95 celebration along with Tena Morales, David Jacobi, and a strong team of volunteers.
“When we were looking to plan the [Frankie 95] event early on, we wanted to make this a non-profit event,” Elliott explained. The Houston Swing Dance Society helped put up funding, and then Buddy, Elliot, et. al. put up some money and were prepared to take any loss. The question then became what to do with any profit. According to Elliott, the consensus was, “We should put it toward a good cause” – specifically, a Lindy hop-related cause.
Buddy elaborated: “We hoped to make some money on [Frankie 95], and Elliott and I had the idea we could create a Frankie Manning Foundation. We had a couple of different names, but it evolved into the FMF. The plan was to take whatever our margin was and transfer that into a restricted fund.”
Elliott next approached Judy Pritchett with the idea of a Frankie Manning Foundation. At that point in early 2009, Frankie wasn’t well, and Judy was staying with him to take care of him. Judy ran Elliott’s idea by Frankie, who was, in her words, “tickled with it.” Judy elaborated: “I thought, Oh, Frankie will never go for that! And then they presented it to Frankie and he loved it!” Judy also described some early ideas about the Foundation’s potential projects. “At the time, there was a small group of black people from Harlem who were interested in Lindy hop, and it meant a lot to Frankie. They had a children’s group called the Jitterbug Kids and they were learning Lindy hop and performing. Frankie’s first thought was that he’d like to see those kids learn Lindy hop right and go to Herräng.” The Herräng swing dance camp is the world’s largest lindy hop camp located 2.5 hours outside of Stockholm, Sweden and has always been a very special place for Frankie.
Chazz Young also attended the initial planning sessions with Judy, Elliott, and Frankie: “My father was alive at the time, and the idea was about spreading the lindy hop, to have a foundation where they would find people in different cities who are very interested in the dance, and we would form a board and have these people selected to be sent to Herräng. That was the idea behind it, and I was there when Elliott Donnelly was talking about it to my dad. My dad was very concerned and thought it was a very good idea, to really keep the lindy hop alive and help it to spread. That was early 2009.”
The planner team for Frankie 95 agreed that any profits from Frankie 95 would go to Frankie to start the Foundation, and the organizers would present him with a big check to support his vision on his ninety-fifth birthday. The people on the board pledged to work for the event for free and pay their own way, Elliott explained, “to set the standard that it would be a fully volunteer event.” Unfortunately, Frankie died a month before his ninety-fifth birthday.
Before his death, Frankie had appointed Judy and Chazz to carry on his vision for the Foundation. Given the leftover profit from Frankie 95, as well as a surplus in the Houston Swing Dance Society budget, a public service project devoted to Frankie Manning’s legacy was feasible. Wishing to see the project continue, Judy and Chazz invited Cynthia, Buddy, and Elliott onboard the Foundation’s first executive committee.
Cynthia felt that the formation of a Foundation was a great idea. “Knowing him as I did, he was very interested in seeing the dance continue. That’s what he wanted. He thought it was such a great way to bring joy into people’s lives, and he saw that as his mission in life, to share something powerful with people. So he understood that you have to bring young people into the scene to keep it going. I arranged for him to do a number of children’s programs at the school where I teach, and he was a big hit every time.”
Frankie’s last public performance was actually at Cynthia’s school. Kids had a tremendous attention span for Frankie’s storytelling and teaching abilities. He also worked at some youth groups for free. “He pretty much said yes to anybody who asked him,” Cynthia said. “If you were willing to make it happen, he would come and share with pretty much anyone who was interested.”
“He wanted to share the history,” Cynthia emphasized. “At least a good part of the swing dance revival was shaped by Frankie talking about the history, and giving a voice to what people thought about swing dancing, and how it made people feel.” To that end, Frankie always did a talk about history at his dance camps.
Buddy elaborated on Frankie’s relationship with history: “Frankie was a very unique guy and very cheerful, but he didn’t talk much about things that were bad, whether the racial nature of the U.S. army in World War II or more painful stories [that were not included in his memoir]…. He believed that the joy of the dance was transformative. Our goal at the FMF is to take that innovative, creative spirit and spread that message around the world.” Buddy also added, “We’re trying to preserve and perpetuate the legacy of a guy who was very optimistic about the world, who thought the world would be a better place if everybody were dancing.”
2009–2015: First Achievements
Reflecting on the first six years of the Foundation’s existence, Elliott summed up its work thus far as “twofold. The first aspect has been to keep alive Frankie’s vision of seeing swing dance danced all over the world.” This endeavour of supporting the dance also involves preserving and promoting the story of Frankie’s life. “The second aspect has been to spread Lindy hop to all the communities it hasn’t been before. For instance, when Frankie died, lindy hop wasn’t very active in Brazil and India.” This push to spread the dance to new geographies has been coupled with outreach toward locations where the practice of lindy hop is still in its infancy. Since 2011, the Foundation has awarded scholarships to dancers from Brazil, Korea, Taiwan, Mozambique, India, Israel, Mexico, and Zambia, as well as Northern Ireland and South Africa this year.
Cynthia elaborated, “We look for people in scenes that are developing, and then they can go back and help build the scene.”
Judy sees a connection between geography and Frankie’s imagination: “He really was a dreamer. He wanted to see world domination of lindy hop, and nothing was going to stop him! I was involved for years with his bookings, and because I was on the internet, that meant that I was connected with the places he eventually traveled, I know that nothing thrilled him more than being invited to a new place, where lindy hop was new and he’d never been invited before. To my mind, that has continued to be a goal of the foundation. We want to continue the spread of lindy hop and particularly to focus on areas where it is new.”
For Frankie during his later years, swing outreach also meant getting African Americans back into the dance. “One of the core groups that was missing in the swing dance revival was the African American community,” Elliott explained, “so I think he was always trying to find ways to work with the African American community.”
Judy spoke further about the programs that make Frankie’s vision a reality: “At this point, the scholarship program is what we’re most known for. We use the scholarships in Herräng and other dance camps to build up lindy hop in new geographic places, and in the African American community. Those are the types of people we look to for scholarships.” For youth programs, “one of the programs takes teenagers, but is also something of a family program.” Furthermore, speaking in late 2014, Judy enthused, “We sent two youngsters to Beantown who are old enough for Herräng this year. We had a December 31, 2014 deadline for ambassador scholarships to go to Herräng next summer, and we have gotten zillions of applications.”
Judy works tirelessly to enlist and build relationships with potential scholarship recipients, and to maintain communication with past ambassadors. The volunteer time is consuming, but it’s something that gives her great pleasure. “I love carrying on Frankie’s life’s work.”
Chazz considers the global outreach to be the Foundation’s greatest achievement: “I feel that people from around the world, like Mozambique, Africa, these people didn’t have much money to be able to go to a place like Herräng, and the Foundation sent them to learn more about the lindy hop so that they could take it back to their country. Since then, people from their country have gone to Herräng, and I have gone back to their country to watch them spread the lindy hop.”
Elliott also explained how the Foundation sought to “… organize and spearhead a series of celebrations for Frankie’s birthday” each year after Frankie 95, especially for the centennial. For example, with Frankie 99, the Foundation tried to get 99 scenes from around the world to celebrate the year. And then, of course, Frankie 100 was the truly big event – according to Elliott, Frankie was “a way of bringing the world together around Frankie’s memory, and keeping his memory alive and relevant.”
Mandi Gould explains that now, after passing such a significant year for the 100th birthday in 2014, the Foundation has transitioned to an entire “Frankie Month” during the month of May rather than just focusing on one day. “Frankie always celebrated over the course of several weeks with people throwing birthday parties for him in a variety of locations around the world. Frankie Month will reflect that and give people a chance to implement more programming, like Frankie-inspired dance classes, that can build for the entire month.”
“I think there’s a dynamic in the scene where memories are very short,” mused Elliott, such that some younger dancers don’t know older dancers like Frankie, whose videos are not always on YouTube. “I remember when I was a young dancer, I would focus on the hot dancers, but I didn’t really appreciate Frankie. One of the purposes of Frankie 100 was to put him front and center again…. I think one of the great achievements of the Foundation was ensuring that Frankie 100 happened again in the right way and in the right spirit.”
“I agree with Elliott,” said Mandi. “One of the reasons why I became so passionately involved in carrying out Frankie’s legacy is that when I first had the chance to assist Frankie in a workshop in 2002, I didn’t fully appreciate what an honour it was. Like Elliott and a lot of the newer dancers in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, I was more interested in what was new and cool and I didn’t really appreciate Frankie enough. After I gained a bit more experience, I started to see things very differently and that’s when I really began to value how lucky we were to have Frankie still with us for those years. I’ll always be grateful that I had to the chance to redeem myself by assisting Frankie again in 2006 and 2008 when I really ‘got it’ and valued the experience.”
Although Frankie 100 wasn’t run as a Frankie Manning Foundation event, Elliott and Mandi were two of the driving forces behind the celebration, along with Sing Lim and Tim Collins. Everyone cared enough about Frankie and about creating a fitting tribute for his centennial birthday that the event was run as a complete volunteer effort with well over a hundred volunteer staff members. The proceeds from Frankie 100 were donated to the Foundation after the event.
The birthday celebrations have never been the main project of the Foundation, though, nor will birthday celebrations be a particular focus from this year forward. The ambassador program is really the Foundation’s flagship program. Still, the Foundation finds other ways to help the global Lindy hop scene. The Foundation assisted Erin Stevens who oversaw the with design and installation of a tombstone for Frankie’s final resting place in the Bronx. (A well known swing dance instructor, Erin is credited with helping to bring Frankie’s teaching talents to the public as the swing dance revival was getting underway), Additionally, the Foundation maintains an opportunity fund for special projects and initiatives, such as supporting the Yehoodi live broadcasts and recording George Gee’s big band album, an important part of the music that Frankie loved so much.
Chazz reflected on the Foundation’s occasional humanitarian actions: “That’s what was really so wonderful to me – this organization, the Foundation, has helped many people. For instance, dancer Mable Lee had a very bad accident in Korea and needed help with medical expenses. The Foundation helped by gathering donations from individuals and dance schools around the world to put towards her operation and her flight home.”
Preserving Frankie’s Historical Legacy
“Before Frankie passed away, we did talk about what to do with his personal archive and he did say he wanted it to go into the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem,” Cynthia explained. This project is now Cynthia’s main focus within FMF, but arranging this has turned out to be more complex than originally expected. “Things are moving along, but it’s taking longer that we initially thought it would. “
After Frankie’s death, Cynthia helped select materials from Frankie’s personal effects for historical preservation. “The main part of the memorabilia is vintage materials – photographs, newspaper clippings, programs, press photos that the dancers and musicians inscribed to each other..” A representative sampling of these images appears in Frankie Manning’s autobiography, but there are many images that could not be included because of space limitations. Among these items is a small album of snapshots taken by Frankie on his camera in Paris in 1937 – some of the city, some of the dancers. “To me, these are a little treasure,” Cynthia said.
Additional items include Frankie’s medals from the war, his medals from the Harvest Moon Ball, ,and notebooks in his handwriting that contain instructions for his choreography. Frankie also made home videos of classes and social dances; he found great value in video recording technology. Some of these tapes have degraded, but others remain in good condition. These tapes would have to be digitized before sending them to an archive or posting them online, but Cynthia is hopeful that these films can be made available electronically in the future. Finally, the collection of Frankie’s effects include his personal photo albums from the swing dance revival, as well as books on jazz dance and related topics, but most of these more recent materials, will likely be placed somewhere other than in the Schomburg.
Cynthia also expressed her wish to see the historiography of swing dance grow. “While Frankie was alive, I chose to focus on the part of his life, the history, that only he could describe. This also made sense because our publisher allowed us a specific number of pages in which to tell Frankie’s story, and his long and rich life used up every word. We included a short chapter on the swing dance revival from his perspective to represent what stood out for him, but we were over our word count by then and had to be brief. I’d love to see someone else do a book on the revival. There’s tons of documentation on it, so there are ample resources for someone else to chronicle this important part of swing dance history.”
Chazz sees how profoundly global lindy hop has grown. “We want to continue to spread the love of lindy hop to every country in the world. And we’d like to involve more youngsters, and more African American kids. That’s what my dad would have wanted.”