Passing the Torch
NOTE: The quoted portions of this segment are taken from an uncut transcript of an interview with Frankie Manning. The interview comes from Season 4 (1997/98), Show 11, of the City Arts program produced by Thirteen/WNET New York.
In the early 1930s, Lindy Hop competition abounded at the Savoy Ballroom. By this time many of the younger dancers were beginning to seriously challenge the older dancers of the first generation. For a long time Shorty George was recognized as the top dancer at the Savoy. Frankie Manning, 10 years younger, was a fast rising star.
One of the signature comedic closing moves used by Shorty George and Big Bea involved Bea locking arms, back to back, with Shorty and carrying him off the dance floor as he wildly kicked his feet. While in this case it was purely for comedic purposes, the young Frankie Manning knew that in some dance styles, lifts were a part of the main form of the dance.
Ballroom dancers had incorporated lifts into their dance for many years. However, in the Ballroom style, lifts were limited to gently lifting the follow up and softly placing her down in a manner akin to Ballet. What if you were to incorporate such a move into the Lindy Hop style? In Frankie Manning's own words,
So, I saw this and told my partner, Freda, I said, 'I got an idea for a step!' I mentioned this step that Big B did with Shorty, [where] she takes Shorty up on her back. She said, 'Yeah, I know that step, but I ain't gonna be taking you up on my back.' I said, 'No, I want to make a step out of it. I want you to flip over my back.' So, she and I practiced for about two weeks every single day.
This is how Frankie Manning described his inspiration for what would become the first aerial or air step in Lindy Hop swing dancing. When asked by the interviewer "Do you remember the first time you did the aerial?" Frankie's response was,
Yes, I remember the first time I did the aerial. That was one momentous moment. I was in a contest at the Savoy Ballroom when I did this step. And the contest was against my idol, Shorty Snowden, who we call the father of Lindy Hoppin' because he named it the Lindy Hop.
During this interview, Frankie Manning went on to describe the competition:
Well, we were in the contest against five other teams that were the greatest dance, Lindy Hop teams, I'll say, in the world, because they were from the Savoy Ballroom or around that area in Harlem. They had danced and I was the last to dance in this contest. Freda and I were out there dancing and the Chic Webb band was playing and we were just swinging out and Chic Webb was catching everything we were doing, and I said, 'Okay, Freda, are you ready to do the step?' And she said, 'Yeah. Let's go for it!' So I jumped over her head and I flipped her and she landed on the floor. And when she landed she went "boomp" and Chic Webb caught the music when we landed. The Savoy Ballroom was packed because it was a Saturday night and everyone knew about this contest. And when we actually did the step it was like quiet, like nothing. Everyone asked, 'What happened? What did he do?' Then all of a sudden the Savoy just erupted. Everybody started screaming and hollering and stamping and carrying on. From the excitement that they generated I thought, 'Man, maybe I did something.'
An interesting sidebar to this story: In the preceding passage, Frankie Manning mentions how Chick Webb was "catching everything we did" and how he "caught the music when we landed." Here he is referring to the unique interplay that existed between the dancers and the musicians. While most readily understand the concept of dancers performing to music delivered by musicians, during this period in swing dance history it was not uncommon for musicians to take direction from, and pattern their music to match, the dance steps performed by the dancers. In this case Chic Webb, as the bandleader and drummer, was hitting the breaks and shines that he saw Frankie and Freda doing on the dance floor. The distinction here is that it was a case of Chic Webb "catching everything" Frankie and Freda were doing, not Frankie and Freda catching everything Chick Webb and his band were doing.
When asked, "Did you win?" Frankie responded,
Actually, to tell you the truth, the people seemed to be so excited and were crowding around me and Freda asking, 'Hey, man, where did you get that step,' or 'Can you teach me that step?' Mr. Buchanan didn't have a chance to say who the winners were, so he said, 'Well, I guess the youngsters won.' So, yeah, I guess we did win.
So yes, they won, and Frankie "Musclehead" Manning really did do something. He launched the beginning of a new era of Lindy Hop Swing.
Video: Dance clips and brief interview
that mentions the first air step.
That same year, Shorty George and Big Bea appeared in an Eddie Cantor film and in other respects remained busy traveling with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and performing at places like the Cotton Club and Small's Paradise. By this time, Twistmouth George was well into his solo career and Stretch Jones was concentrating on his work with Shorty George. As the new generation of lindy hoppers began to take hold, the first generation was moving on with their own individual dance and professional pursuits.
The introduction of air steps continued to fuel the Lindy Hop fire. The northeast corner of the Savoy Ballroom was regarded as the Cat's Corner where the best dancers congregated to trade moves and steps. Some were fortunate enough to be members of the 400 Club which allowed them to come to the Savoy during daytime hours to practice alongside some of the best Jazz and Swing bands ever assembled. At that point in Lindy Hop history, the number of known great Savoy lindy hoppers stands at about thirty. While too many to profile in this brief account, their names are listed below:
- Louise "Pal" Andrews
- Tiny Bunch
- Eunice Callen
- Wilda Crawford
- Mildred Cruse
- Joe "Big Stupe" Daniels
- Joyce "Little Stupe" Daniels
- Eddie Davis
- William Downes
- Elnora Dyson
- George Greenidge
- Connie Hill
- Leon James
- Ann Johnson
- Dorothy "Dot" Johnson
- Frances "Mickey" Jones
- Thomas "Tops" Lee
- Maggie McMillan
- Frankie Manning
- Lucille Middleton
- Norma Miller
- Al Minns
- Mildred Pollard
- Billy Ricker
- Willa Mae Ricker
- Naomi Waller
- Ester Washington
- Freida Washington
- Jerome Williams
- Russell Williams
But of these many talented dancers, the one star that shines above all others, is Frankie "Musclehead" Manning.
Frankie "Musclehead" Manning
Frankie Manning was born May 26, 1914 in Jacksonville, Florida. At age three he moved to Harlem with his mother who was also a dancer. Frankie likes to joke that he has been dancing at least nine months longer than he has been alive, with those first nine months being inside his dancing mother's womb. He began dancing in his early teens at the Alhambra Ballroom on Sunday afternoons. During his middle teen years, he moved up to the Renaissance Ballroom to attend early evening dances. Finally, in his later teens he graduated to the famed Savoy Ballroom. At age 18, this would have been 1932 when the first generation lindy hoppers were in their heyday.
Both a gifted dancer and serious competitor, Frankie was a standout in the Cat's Corner and frequently won Saturday night dance competitions. As a member of the 400 Club, he was also allowed to practice in the club during daytime hours. There he developed his own unique style that included flat backin his posture to a near horizontal position while performing fast tempo dance steps influenced by the Charleston. Judy Pritchett wrote in
The Archives of Early Lindy Hop:
Frank Manning's dancing stood out, even among the greats of the Savoy Ballroom, for its unerring musicality. Fast on his feet and with a keen ear, Frankie gave physical expression to the beat, the feel and the excitement of the swing sound played by the great Big Bands.
Like the Savoy Ballroom, Shorty George Snowden and Lindy Hop itself, much has been written and is readily available online concerning Frankie Manning and his role as the great Ambassador of Lindy Hop. A role he maintained until the morning of April 27, 2009 when, at the age of 94, he passed from this earth among friends and family. Frankie's untimely passing came one month prior to a grand 95th. birthday celebation that had been over a year in planning. This event was indeed held, as Frankie would have wanted, and was attended by over 2000 dancers from over 30 countries around the world. Many written, photo, and video accounts of this "grand celebration of a dancing life well lived" can be found by searching the internet using the search words "Frankie95"
As you read further in this account of Lindy Hop history, you will learn more about Frankie Manning's many contributions to Lindy Hop Swing.
Video: Frankie Manning in Bib Overalls with Ann Johnson
The last (fourth) couple up in this performance.
From the movie "Hellzapoppin" 1941
Video: Frankie Manning performing the Lindy style Charleston
Video: Frankie Manning interviewed at age 90
In May 2007 the biography "Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop" was released. Publisher's Weekly had this to say about the book that chronicles the life of Lindy Hop's grand gentleman:
Frankie Manning spread swing dancing's popularity throughout the world while touring with Whitey's Lindy Hoppers in the 1930s and '40s. Dance writer and swing dancer Millman conducted extensive interviews with Manning for a vivid account of his career. Manning became a star in Harlem's popular Savoy Ballroom with his unique style, including dancing at a sharp angle to the ground like a track runner, speed and musicality. In a dance competition, Manning astonished the crowd with the first-ever Lindy aerial, or air step (where the man sends his partner flying). Later Manning toured with jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and performed in several films, including Everybody Sings with Judy Garland. After a long hiatus from dancing, he was a consultant for Spike Lee's Malcolm X and coached a new generation of dancers in the swing dance revival of the '80s and '90s. While the first-person accounts of Manning's life capture his vibrancy, humor and charm, the narrative is interrupted by short sections of historical notes; their formality is at odds with Manning's ease and charisma. Still, this vivid memoir by one of swing dancing's innovators and stars is a must for lovers of dance, jazz and African-American history.
36 b&w illustrations. (May 2007)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Whitey's Lindy Hoppers
As you might expect, word soon got around about the hotshot dancers at the Savoy Ballroom. During this period the Savoy was well known as an integrated dance venue. This was at a time when other ballrooms and dance halls went to great lengths to separate the races. It has been reported that on a given night, as many as 15% of the dancers at the Savoy would be white. This undoubtedly helped the word get out about what was going on up in Harlem. Before long, "...requests came from downtown socialites and rich folk who wanted to have Lindy Hoppers perform at their lavish parties..." And there to answer their requests was a man by the name of Herbert "Whitey" White.
Herbert White was an African American man who acquired the nickname Whitey because of the streak of white in his hair. He was a former boxer and current bouncer at the Savoy. When Whitey heard about the invitations being extended to the young Savoy dancers, he recognized a business opportunity. Aside from being a capable bouncer and aspiring businessman, Whitey also had an eye for talent and a knack for mentoring young dancers. Judy Pritchett wrote in
The Archives of Early Lindy Hop:
The following videos contain documentary film footage of early Lindy Hoppers.
Whitey, who got to know the young dancers well, was able to hand pick exciting dancers who were also socially adept and reliable. They were invariably delighted to make a few dollars doing what they loved. A father figure to many of these dancers, Whitey would send them downtown to those fancy digs with the admonition, 'Remember, ain't nobody better than you.'
Lindy Hop Goes to the Movies!
Throughout the mid 1930s Whitey employed the top dancers (at one time more than 70), from the top ballroom in the country. Again, from Judy Pritchett's
Archives of Early Lindy Hop:
By late 1936, Whitey's dancers had officially made the big time. His top dancers worked a 6 month gig at the famous Cotton Club under the name 'Whitey's Hopping Maniacs.' Meantime, Whitey pulled together a second group of top dancers to perform for the first time under the name 'Whitey's Lindy Hoppers' in their first major Hollywood film, the Marx Brother's zany A Day at the Races.
Over the years, Whitey's Lindy Hoppers appeared in a number of films, including,
. . . and Around the World!
Frankie Manning appeared in many of these films. When he wasn't filming, Frankie was in charge of the dancers at the Cotton Club and those who traveled overseas to Europe and Australia. Frankie served as chief choreographer for all of Whitey's dance groups. At one point, Whitey offered to name the Cotton Club dancers Manning's Lindy Hoppers, but Frankie declined that gesture. With Frankie in charge of the stage, club and international performing acts, Whitey remained on the movie sets in Hollywood.
When Whitey's dancers were not on the road performing, they always came home to the Savoy to shine in the famous Cat's Corner. By now dedicated professionals, they never forgot that they "...were always, first and foremost, social dancers and true jazz dance improvisers." Much like the great Jazz and Swing musicians of the day, they could perform tight choreographed routines for the stage, only to later let go, unencumbered, with improvised dance steps on the social dance floor.
Another dancer, though not a member of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, also figured prominently in the history of Lindy Hop (and West Coast Swing). Born Saul Cohen in Columbus, Ohio on May 29, 1917, he grew up in Newark, New Jersey where he began dancing with his older sisters at the age of 14. His biographer, Peter Loggins writes,
Along with many other young Jewish and Italian early teenagers, he was soon attracted by the dance styles coming out of Harlem, which inevitably propelled him on his way to the Savoy Ballroom.
In 1935, when he was eighteen years old, Saul Cohen was named New Yorker magazine's dancer of the year. Recall that this was the same year that Frankie Manning introduced the first air step.
In 1937, Saul's curiosity about dance history took him to New Orleans, where he claims to have discovered the true birthplace of swing dancing. There he performed with local orchestras, and occasionally traveled in road shows. He eventually settled in Los Angeles, living for a time in the back of a drive-in diner in return for performing janitorial duties. The owner of the diner also owned several nightclubs around town, and thanks to him, Saul was soon back dancing and making a name for himself. It was during this time that Saul happened upon a lost wallet that contained the name Dean Collins. Thinking his own Jewish name might hinder his employment opportunities, he adopted the name Dean Collins and used it throughout his professional dance career.
Again, in the words of Dean Collins' biographer:
In 1938 Dean met Johnny Archer who became a life long friend and the two became room mates in Venice Beach on the corners of Venice and Hoover. Also at this time Dean got together with two dancers by the name Jack Maddis and Bill Alcorn, whom he taught and performed with for a short while. He got his first lucky break in 1939 when RKO called him for an interview. He showed up for what he thought would be an $11 a day extra job, and walked away with a $100 a day job to choreograph the dance sequences in Let's Make Music, which came out in 1940. This started his long career dancing in small bit dance scenes, making him one of the most filmed "Lindy Hoppers" on the movie screen.
Dean appeared in an early scene of the movie Hellzapoppin (1941) social dancing with Martha Ray to the tune of Watch the Birdie. Later in the film was the renowned routine performed by Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. Dean Collins' many film credits include:
Whitey's Lindy Hoppers introduced Hollywood to Lindy Hop, but they did so on a commuter basis, returning to Harlem and the Savoy when their filming and other performances were finished. Dean Collins laid down roots on the West Coast. There he shared what he knew about classic Savoy style Lindy Hop with local dancers who were already evolving their own unique swing style. They in turn, influenced Dean and his dancing. The coming together of these two styles resulted in what we now refer to as Hollywood or smooth style Lindy Hop. A style that can be described as slotted, low key, and very smooth, as opposed to the Savoy's wide open, high energy, air step intensive style. This contrasting smooth style of Lindy Hop is thought by many to be the original or prototype style for what would later be referred to as West Coast Swing.
Aside from giving Lindy Hop widespread exposure on the movie screen, one of Dean Collins' most significant contributions to the dance was developing methods for teaching Lindy Hop. Again, the words of his biographer:
Although few people were doing the Lindy Hop in Los Angeles before Dean arrived, it was Dean who brought the formula of the Lindy Hop from the Savoy Ballroom. Dean was without a doubt a technician of dance, who not only had the dance broken down into it's various patterns but was also able to teach it. At a time when Lindy Hop was a street dance and the only way to learn was through trial and error practice, Dean Collins was an influential pioneer in the field of Lindy Hop instruction which started in the 1930's. Mary Collins told me that Dean's love was really in teaching, he had hundreds of students across the country but his more famous students were Shirley Temple, Ronald Coleman, Cesar Romero, Abbot and Costello, Patti Andrews, Joan Crawford and yes, he gave private lessons to Arthur Murray!
While much has been said about Dean Collins, it should be mentioned that for every dance lead there must be a follow. In Dean's case it was Jewel McGowan. A native of California, Jewel was a natural swing dancer and Dean Collins' dance partner throughout the 1940's, both on screen and during personal appearances. Jewel McGowan is thought by many to be the greatest female swing dancer that ever lived.
The Golden Era Draws to a Close
To bring things back into chronological perspective:
Whitey's Lindy Hoppers enjoyed continued success and held on through 1941. By that time, Whitey opened his own nightclub "The Savoy" in Oswego, New York.
1941 was also the year that the movies Hellzapoppin, Hot Chocolates Cottontail, and Buck Privates were released.
On December 1st, 1941, Whitey's Lindy Hoppers embarked on what would be their last overseas performance tour. On that day they boarded a ship to South America's Rio de Janeiro.
Six days into their tour, on Sunday, December 7th. 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the Second World War. This world event marked the beginning of what would eventually break up the greatest Lindy Hop performance group ever assembled.
During the war years, Dean Collins and Jewel McGowan continued to promote swing dancing through performance, teaching, screen appearances, and competitions. Big Band Swing was the popular music of the day, and regional versions of swing dancing were cropping up all over the country.
The August 23, 1943 issue of LIFE magazine featured Lindy Hop as its cover story and declared it America's national dance.
A few former members of Whitey's lindy hoppers continued to perform during the early 1940's in various performance groups. One group, the Harlem Congaroos, was managed by Willa-Mae Ricker until Frankie Manning returned from the army.
In 1942, Frankie Manning (and several other Lindy Hoppers) were drafted into the US Army. Frankie did not return until 1947. When he returned, he discovered that popular music had taken a different direction and that the Golden Era of Lindy Hop Swing had passed.
Up Next: Decline and Remission: 1945-1983
Lindy Hop swing dancing began to lose its popularity toward the end of the war. Replaced by East Coast Swing, Jitterbug, Jive, Whip, Shag and Western (early West Coast) Swing, Lindy Hop was already being regarded as old fashion. This was, in large part, due to the evolution of popular music.
Into the 1960s and beyond, partnered dancing all but disappeared during the Funk, Rock and Pop-Rock music years.
Partnered dancing did not return to widespread popularity until the 1970's Disco boom. That too left traditional Lindy Hop Swing behind, as West Coast Swing grew and adapted to the contemporary non-swing rhythms of funk and soul music aimed at pop culture's solo dancers.
Lindy Hop Swing's period of decline and remission between 1942 and 1983 are discussed in more detail in the next page of this series on The History of Lindy Hop Swing Dancing.
Part II: Decline and Remission: 1945-1983