Frankie Manning: the Passion

FMF logo 1By Adam Milligan

This time two years ago I had no idea what a rock-step was, had never attempted a swing-out and, in all honesty, had probably never heard of Frankie Manning.

I’ve had a long-standing love of rock’n’roll and I grew up thumping a small drum kit to the rhythms of Buddy Holly & the Crickets but I later discovered swing music and started to fancy myself as the reincarnation of Gene Krupa however it had never occurred to me until recently that it was possible to actually dance to this stuff in a cohesive fashion. Salsa was my gateway drug to the world of partner dancing but once I learnt that there were also lindy hop classes in my home city of Belfast I bid adiós to mambo steps and switched to swing; and as they even had cake at my first class this appeared to confirm I had made the right decision.

Fast forward two years and it’s safe to say I’m hooked on lindy hop but I’m also keen to learn more about its background and those who shaped it and there are obviously none greater in the lindy hop pantheon than Frankie Manning. I have picked up bits of info on Frankie from the classes and workshops I’ve attended but having just started a blog about swing dancing in the past two months it pushed me to delve deeper, which is how I came upon the Frankie Manning Foundation and their call for volunteers. I was asked to contribute an article about Frankie from an angle of my choosing and being given such a broad remit for such an important figure was a little daunting, especially when there are already plenty of easily accessible resources that detail all of the key events in his life (and, as ever, Wikipedia provides a good place to start) but it occurred to me that something was rarely presented in many of the emotionally-neutral chronological pieces on his life and that was a prominent mention of his pure and unbridled passion for lindy hop.

By all accounts, Frankie had a gregarious personality and a genuine knack for teaching but had these not also also been allied to a radiant passion it is likely that lindy hop would not be as popular as it is today and I felt that this was something that deserved to be more celebrated.

I have spent many years in education, first as a student and now working at a university, and along the way I’ve met academics who have really affected me – mainly for being fantastic but occasionally for being completely awful and the key distinction between those groups was either an abundance or absence of passion for their own field. The great educators just bubble with excitement for what they do and entice you to feel the same way. Some have more traditional methods whilst others head off on the most amazing technicoloured tangents but no matter what they say, it sticks, and you can only become infected by their zeal.

The not so great ones, however, occasionally challenge your natural instinct to keep breathing and I can remember one particularly prosaic lecture where, in an attempt to entertain myself, I assembled a variety of confectionery items and other things with labels still attached and set about deciphering barcode. The raw excitement of that lecture has somewhat obscured my memory of what it may have been about but I know that by the end of it I could look at the thickness and arrangement of the lines and determine the numbers that should be typed beneath them.

These may seem like slightly random anecdotes but I share them because they are genuinely relevant and not only to the university lecture theatre but to teachers in a wide variety of disciplines and that includes dancing. Truthfully, I have not yet encountered any apathetic lindy hop teachers (who I have found to all have an infectious contentment with their lot) but I have found it to be the case in other styles. It’s not that such teachers don’t have a passion for dancing but it seems that this passion is not something they want to risk sharing with their students and to borrow a sporting analogy: the best athletes don’t always make the best coaches.

Frankie, however, not only seems to have been a fantastic dancer but was also able to translate that into being an excellent proponent of the hobby he loved so dearly.

As a newcomer to the lindy scene, having only started dancing last year, I never had the opportunity to learn from or even meet Frankie, so I can only share second-hand stories. Nonetheless, what really comes through from the people I know who met him, learned from him or danced with him is how utterly happy lindy hop made him and how Frankie had a steadfast desire to share his elixir. And so, with this in mind, I chatted with a few folk I know who took it from his hand and drank deeply. Potentially, there are plenty of people I could contact who had well known connections with the man himself but I have specifically sought out the ones who have directly influenced me in my brief but blossoming relationship with lindy hop and whose passion to continue Frankie’s legacy has been clearly apparent to me. There’s no better place to start than in my own home city of Belfast (which, along with London and Manchester, was one of the venues for Frankie’s first visit to the UK as part of a Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers tour in 1937) where I have benefited from the effervescent tutelage of Sharon Matchett, Richard Turner, Adib Ma’ani-Hessari, and Bahia Ma’ani at Swing Belfast and it is Bahia who had first-hand experience of Frankie’s passion when they shared a dance at a social celebrating his birthday.

I can well imagine Frankie being seriously in demand in any social never mind the one on his birthday and Bahia admitted that this also happened to be fairly early on in her lindy career so the usual fears of inadequacy at first socials were likely further magnified by the status of the person she was dancing with, which is probably why, Bahia confesses, she was too scared to speak to him. But that didn’t stop Frankie from beaming at her throughout and putting her at least a little more at ease.

By itself, a single dance may not illustrate much but Bahia remembers being amazed, not only by his obvious joy and the gentleness of his lead, but how Frankie kept getting up and going despite the high energy demands of a night of dancing and even in his old age it was clear that his passion for lindy hop had kept him young and healthy when other octogenarians were developing more sedate proclivities for crosswords, velcro and beige.

Echoing Bahia’s sentiments is Paul Neary – the incredibly affable Australian responsible for bringing swing dancing to Galway and, along with the help of his fiancée, Sarah, hosts two fabulous workshop weekenders, the only Lindy Hop Championships in Ireland and is at the vanguard of swing dancing’s expansion across the Emerald Isle. But Paul was also privileged to learn from Frankie directly – firstly at classes in his native Melbourne in the early 2000s and shortly after at the famed Herräng dance camp in Sweden.

Paul also emphasised that any time Frankie could dance he would dance and that apart from taking a few breaks to allow his body a moment to recover there was nothing that was going to stop Frankie from doing what he loved, but it was in the workshops that Paul was most aware of the effect Frankie’s ardour had on others.

At his first workshop with Frankie in Melbourne, Paul recalls that when Frankie walked into the room you just knew who was in charge. Now, I’m just shy of 6ft tall (1.8m for those reading in metric) and, having stood beside him on several occasions I know that Paul is one of the few lindy hoppers I’ve met with a clear view of the top of my head, but even he remarked that Frankie cut an imposing figure regardless of his advancing years.

However, Paul also remarked that whilst Frankie had a big physical presence (and a booming voice to match) that had the potential to be intimidating, you were instantly drawn to him by his magnetic enthusiasm, subtle humour and warm intonation: “the way he spoke of dancing – it was in such a voice that he always sounded happy when talking about it and you were automatically enamoured with what he was saying.”

Paul joked that Frankie had an ‘old-fashioned’ playfulness when interacting with follows but this vintage way of doing things was also reflected in his style of teaching as he preferred going over the classic moves he had learnt with Whitey’s rather than their newer variants – content which, had it been taught by anyone else, may well have bored some, but Frankie’s electric enthusiasm ensured everyone remained thoroughly invigorated.

Photo by Patrica Board

According to Paul, Frankie’s commitment to presenting not only the classic moves but also the stories, culture and history behind them was a hallmark of his teaching and, from my own experience at least, this is something that clearly resonated with Scott Cupit, another Australian (what’s in the water down there?) and the humble mastermind behind Swing Patrol – a lindy hop collective with a UK base in London but, when combined with its BerlinMelbourneSydneyand Tasmania siblings, probably reach more people on a weekly basis than any other swing crew on Earth.

I first met Scott at the London Swing Festival, a fantastic weekend of workshops, competitions, displays and socials run by Swing Patrol (and coordinated by Scott’s wife, Laura), where Scott was teaching alongside the wonderful Trisha Sewell. One of the moves that Scott and Trisha taught us was the ‘Mini-dip/Minni-dip’ and Scott explained to those who were unaware (myself included) that it was so named, not because it had a larger variant, but because Frankie was in Minneapolis when he was asked what this new move he was teaching was called – prompting Frankie to use his location as inspiration.

I mentioned to Scott that this kind of anecdote utterly fascinated me and he was quick to implore how he felt it was a key part of honouring Frankie’s legacy to share background information such as that and to educate aspiring and even experienced lindy hoppers just where exactly the dance they love came from.

Scott regularly stressed just what a privilege it had been to have learnt directly from Frankie and it was clear that he had been infected by Frankie’s sheer love for lindy from their first meeting as, after attending his first workshop with Frankie, Scott (then still based in Australia) made the firm resolution that he “didn’t care what it cost, we had to bring him to Melbourne!”

And if anyone was in any doubt about just how passionate Frankie was for lindy hop they needed only spend some one-on-one time with him to know that he didn’t need to be talking to an entire class of students for that passion to seep out.

One of Scott’s duties when Frankie visited Melbourne was to drive him between venues and this provided Scott a rare opportunity, as an audience of one, to hear some of Frankie’s many stories from his days in the Savoy and his subsequent travels and Scott easily recalls that Frankie’s eyes would just light up when talking about swing dancing and how listening to the swing of the big bands still continued to make him just want to move.

Additional to some more light-hearted advice about the dangers of dating a non-dancer Frankie told Scott how much he wanted to build the reputation of lindy hop so that it could enjoy the same international public recognition that other dances styles benefited from and I think it is safe to say it is well on its way.

There are many who should be celebrated for their contribution to the global lindy hop community, whether as the originators or as those driving its modern expansion, but only Frankie can truly lay claim to both, and as much as lindy hop exists because of Frankie, equally it seems that Frankie existed because of lindy hop and the passion for it that bubbled within him.

FMF logo 2Contributed by Adam Milligan

Adam Milligan is a Lindy Hopper from Belfast, Northern Ireland and keeps a swing dance blog, theswingslate.blogspot.com.

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