The Sultan of Swing
If dancing were a religion, the block of Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st Streets in Harlem would be holy ground. It was there, between 1926 and 1958, that big bands and dancers flocked to swing at the Savoy Ballroom. One of the Savoy’s finest dancers, Frankie Manning, created many of the steps that define the high-energy, low-to-the-ground, limb-flying style. Today Manning, 88, continues to inspire students with his infectious joy and one-of-a-kind swing classes.
In spite of his graceful moves on the dance floor, Manning’s transition from star performer (he appeared in films such as Hellzapoppin’ and the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races, and won a Tony for his choreography for the musical Black and Blue in 1989) to teacher was not as smooth as his Charlestons. He remembers one of his first students asking him, “What’s the count of this phrase?” Manning, a dancer who had never counted music but rather listened to its rhythms, was stumped. He replied: “The count? The count is a piano player, man! Count Basie!”
Manning laughs loudly with the memory. Over the last two decades he has modified his teaching style in order to better communicate with his students. Although his classes rely heavily on demonstration—his body is still loose and spunky—Manning has learned how to break down combinations and, occasionally, count a few phrases. Today he teaches in New York City at the Sandra Cameron Dance Center and tours the world giving workshops and master classes.
Born in 1914 in Jacksonville, Florida, Manning moved to Harlem when he was three. Soon his dancing skills grabbed people’s attention: In his late teens and early 20s he won several of the Saturday night competitions at the Savoy, which held two bandstands and hundreds of dancers. (Today, there’s a plaque on Lenox Avenue at the former site of the ballroom, describing it as “a hothouse for the development of jazz…the heartbeat of Harlem’s community and a testament to the indomitable spirit and creative impulse of African-Americans.”)
In the 1930s Manning was invited to join the Savoy’s “400 Club,” a group of dancers allowed to practice at the ballroom during daytime hours, when the bands rehearsed. Bandleaders like Benny Goodman would ask the dancers, “How’s this tempo?”
Manning remembers this era fondly; today, he says, the bands have less interest in pleasing dancers. “They just play what they want to play,” he explains. For a style like swing this can be detrimental because the music and dance developed symbiotically, with the music and dancers taking inspiration from one another. Most of the Savoy dancers were self-taught. “You’d see some guy do an interesting move and you’d say, ‘Can you do that again?’” Manning recalls. “Half the time they wouldn’t know what they had done! But that’s how we all learned to dance. The way new steps came about was by taking existing steps and changing them or adding something.”
Manning is credited with creating both the Squat Charleston, which he says came into being while he improvised to Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump,” and the low-to-the-ground stance that accentuates a dancer’s speed. Unlike International-style ballroom dancers, swing dancers opt for a more slouched posture that turns a 5’8″ man into a more partner-perfect 5’4″. Paul Grecki, who also teaches at the Sandra Cameron Dance Center and won the 1995 American Swing Dance Championship, stands 6’0″ but is 5’4″ when he’s dancing. The posture gives him the appearance of a marionette on strings, legs flying out from underneath him, capturing the riffs and rhythms of the music.
A Class Act
Pure delight permeates Manning’s teaching. He begins classes by putting on the music and clapping. Students join in. Without a word they start moving and within a couple of steps are in unison doing a modified Electric Slide: three steps right, three steps left, three steps back and a 90-degree change of direction. Manning wears an ever-present grin that’s contagious. Students add their personal touches as Manning calls: “Get funky!” Dressed in sneakers, two-toned wing tips or split-soled jazz shoes, the students warm up their necks with sharp chicken-like pecks.
Class continues with a combination choreographed by Manning. He teaches mostly by demonstrating, taking one of the women in the class and showing how the phrase begins. He builds the combination a couple of phrases at a time, rotating the students so each man dances with each woman. He doesn’t count as much as sing syllables: “boop-de-boop, be-boop-de-do.” When the horns blare in the song, Manning lets out a huge “Ha!”
Manning’s classes are distinguished by the encouraging, playful atmosphere he creates. Demonstrating a move that has the man move to from one side of the woman to the other, Manning shows how to move swiftly: “You want to move to the side of her and not into her—of course, that’s nice too!” The students laugh with him, then are back at work, torsos twisting like rhythmic yo-yos moving toward and away from one another. Feet flicker back and forth through a grapevine or “scissor” step. The dancers let go of each other’s hands and spin at break-neck speeds, until the music changes and they stop in unison, each pair of eyes grabbing hold of their partner’s.
In the 1990s swing enjoyed a renaissance that brought the clothes, music and dancing of the ’20s and ’30s to the forefront of fashion. While the initial surge has subsided, Manning says he notices more young people coming into his swing classes. “It makes me feel ecstatic,” he says. “When I started teaching we were getting people in their 30s and 40s, and we used to say, ‘Where are the younger generations?’ Now they’re taking over!”
Manning teaches students ages 7 to 70. “They all walk away satisfied and that inspires me to do more,” he says. “I’m traveling nearly every weekend.” Manning is in high demand in Sweden, where dancers have learned mainly from videos of great African-American dancers. When Manning heard this he said, “You mean to tell me they’ve been sitting for four hours forwarding and rewinding? But you know, they are the most in touch with the roots of the dancing style.”
What makes swing so universal? “It’s the joy of the dance. There isn’t some set way of doing it, like waltz or foxtrot. Swing dancing came out of a time when people wanted a release from the tension of the Depression.” Manning’s dancing is tangible happiness.
What advice would he give to other teachers? “I would tell them to try to get their students in a groove with the music, so they’re getting into it. Let it soak into their bones so they feel like one of the instruments.”
When the interview was over, it was 9 pm on a Monday in Manhattan and Manning, almost 89, was going out dancing. DT
FRANKIG MANNING ONSCREEN:
A Day at the Races (1937)
Manhattan Merry-Go-Round (1937)
Everybody Sing (1938)
Radio City Revels (1938)
Keep Punching (1939)
Hot Chocolates (1941)
Killer Diller (1948)
Malcolm X (1992)
Stomping at the Savoy (1993)
The Spirit Moves (1950)
Call of the Jitterbug (1988)
National Geographic’s Jitterbug (1991)
Can’t Top the Lindy Hop (1994)
Swingin’ at the Savoy: Frankie Manning’s Story (1995)
Learn To Dance Savoy-Style
Lindy Hop, Levels 1-3
The Shim Sham with Frankie Manning
Photo by Eduardo Patino