The legendary swing dancer Frankie Manning, known as the Ambassador of the Lindy Hop, died last month at the age of ninety-four. During a career spanning eight decades, Frankie Manning’s influence on the dance floor was felt around the world. A new documentary, Frankie Manning: Never Stop Swinging, looks at his life and legacy. [includes rush transcript]
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JUAN GONZALEZ: We end today’s show looking at the life of legendary swing dancer Frankie Manning, known as the Ambassador of the Lindy Hop. He died last month at the age of ninety-four. During a career spanning eight decades, Frankie Manning’s influence on the dance floor was felt around the world.
A new documentary about his life premieres tonight on WNET-Channel 13 here in New York. It is titled Frankie Manning: Never Stop Swinging. In a moment, we will be joined by the film’s director, Julie Cohen, but first an excerpt from the film.
NARRATOR: Within weeks, Frankie could mimic George’s steps. Soon, he was inventing moves of his own.
FRANKIE MANNING: Sometimes you just hear a riff in music, you know, like about something like, say, jum-pum-dun-bum-bum-daan. And you just try to — OK, what does that sound like? Jum-pum-dun-bum-bum-duun. And that music is saying to you, “Hey, do this, man.”
JULIE COHEN: Did you think of yourself as a choreographer?
FRANKIE MANNING: Ah, no. No, I didn’t think of myself as a choreographer or anything like that. I just danced.
NARRATOR: Inspired by Shorty George’s famous lift, Frankie approached a dance partner with an idea.
FRANKIE MANNING: I want to pick you up on my back, and I want you to roll over my back. I want it to be a step, a continuous movement, where you get on a back and you keep rolling and come down in front of me.
NARRATOR: It was the first of many aerial moves. He called them air steps, and that would become Frankie’s trademark. Frankie and the other young dancers from Cat’s Corner, now known as Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers or Whitey’s Hopping Maniacs, started getting gigs up and down the Eastern Seaboard and at the hottest venues back home.
ANNOUNCER: This program is coming to you from the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York City.
JULIE COHEN: How big a deal was it to dance at the Cotton Club?
FRANKIE MANNING: Whoa, are you kidding? Only the best in the entertainment world worked at the Cotton Club — Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington — and to work with these people in the same show with them, oh, man.
NARRATOR: The bands may have had the big names, but it was the dancers, with their lightning-fast acrobatic style, that electrified audiences wherever they went.
CHAZZ YOUNG: Wild, fantastic girls being thrown everywhere. It was just the most exciting thing that I had ever seen.
NARRATOR: Even as Frankie became a celebrity Uptown, there were still doors that were closed to him and the other Lindy Hoppers, because there were black. He remembers a night in the 1930s, when he and a group of dancing buddies went to see a big band show at the Roseland Ballroom in Midtown Manhattan.
FRANKIE MANNING: When we got down there to go in, the guy wouldn’t let us in. You know, so he said, “Well, you can’t come in.” And I’m kind of hard-skinned, you know, like — or tough skin, I should say, and it just rubbed off my back.
NARRATOR: On tour, things were worse. Many of the clubs that profited from the group’s performances wouldn’t let them in as customers. After the Lindy Hoppers did a knock-out opening number for Billie Holiday and the Count Basie Orchestra at a Boston hotel, they sat down to watch the rest of the show.
FRANKIE MANNING: One of the waiters came over and told us we couldn’t sit there, you know. So we went on back to our room.
NARRATOR: When they told Holiday what had happened, she went and talked to the hotel management.
FRANKIE MANNING: She said, “Well, if these kids can’t come out and hear me sing, then I’m not going to sing anymore.” Eventually, the management said, “Well, OK, we’ll set up a table for them to sit at.” You know, ordinarily, you know, we might not have gone out like every show to hear her sing, but since they didn’t want us out there, we said, well, we’re going to be there. So we went out every night and just sat at the table and listened to her sing.
AMY GOODMAN: Frankie Manning, from the documentary Frankie Manning: Never Stop Swinging. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. Julie Cohen, the writer, producer and director of the documentary, is here. It’s airing tonight in New York on WNET, tomorrow at thirteen.org all over the country.
Julie, the obstacles that he faced?
JULIE COHEN: Well, you saw there that Frankie and his whole troupe, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, had just sort of an incredible situation to deal with, where they were being invited and in fact making money for a lot of nightclubs, restaurants, hotels all over the country, places that wouldn’t then seat them just to come in and enjoy a program.
The amazing thing about Frankie was the way he chose to just kind of push past the situation and see things in a positive light. You know, there’s a swing song from his era, “Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative,” and that’s really the way Frankie lived his life. He managed not to hold racial prejudices himself and in fact became quite close friends with a white couple who danced in his troupe, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, in Harlem. And his view of that was, you know, “We didn’t look at people and see black or white; we looked at their feet and said, ‘Can you move them feet?’” If someone was a good dancer, they were OK with Frankie. If they could swing.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we look forward to seeing the whole thing tonight on WNET, 10:30 in New York. Rest of the country, thirteen.org, starts tomorrow. Thank you so much, Julie, for joining us. Julie Cohen is the director, the writer, the producer of Frankie Manning: Never Stop Swinging.