Today would have been the 101st birthday of Mr. Frankie Manning, the “ambassador of swing” and one the finest humans I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. I was fortunate enough to start swing dancing in the late 1990s in New York, right during the peak of the neo-swing resurgence and when Frankie Manning was a regular figure in dance studios and on the social dance floor.
I can’t say I really appreciated Frankie that much when I was starting out. I idolized dancers like Ryan Francois and Jenny Thomas, Steven Mitchell and Virginie Jensen, and a bunch of hippie kids from upstate called Minnie’s Moochers. Frankie was a very kind, soft-spoken man who I understood was a legend in the lindy world, but I didn’t really interact with very much until years later.
As Frankie’s fame grew in the 2000s, I began taking more of his workshops and going to talks he gave. Frankie didn’t teach regular classes, except for a small group of a dozen or so dancers that he gathered once a week to teach and socialize with. I was very honored when I was invited to join this exclusive group, and enjoyed learning directly from the master for a few months. And even better, I was invited to eat with him and the bunch afterwards at his favorite Mexican spot.
Over the years, it was really wonderful to see Frankie blossom from a fairly reserved, soft-spoken retired postman to a confident, gregarious, belly-laughing senior spokesman for lindy hop. Hearing some of the same stories over and over, you could see him getting better as a raconteur, hitting the punchlines of his jokes with a bang! and honing in on the lesson of the story at the end.
His teaching technique got better and better over the years too. When I started taking Frankie workshops, a student would ask him what count some step was on, I remember him getting confused and his partner having to answer. In later years, he would explain that he didn’t really care as much about the count as when you hit it on the music, punctuating what he was wanted you to do by scatting while he was demo-ing a step. “Shish-kaboom BA! Ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum.”
Frankie is many things to many people. To me he is a reminder that you can choose to never stop growing, learning and expanding your circle, no matter what date is on your birth certificate. At an age when many people are winding down their careers and planning their retirement, Frankie was becoming a better teacher, a better spokesman, a better storyteller every day.
I don’t know if I’ll still be dancing up a storm in my 80s and 90s. But I plan on still learning, still exploring, still connecting with the wider world around me. More than any step or choreo, that’s what Frankie taught me.
In honor of Frankie, here’s a recreation I did of one of Frankie’s signature moves that graces the cover of his autobiography. Here’s the book version…
And here’s my photoshopped version…
Happy birthday, Musclehead, wherever you are.