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:

 

Films


A Day at the Races (1937)


Manhattan Merry-Go-Round (1937) 


Everybody Sing (1938)


Radio City Revels (1938)


Keep Punching (1939) 

Hellzapoppin' (1941)

Hot Chocolates (1941)

Killer Diller (1948)

Malcolm X (1992)

Stomping at the Savoy (1993)

 

Documentaries


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)

 

Instructional Videos


Learn To Dance Savoy-Style

Lindy Hop, Levels 1-3

The Shim Sham with Frankie Manning

 

 

 

Photo by Eduardo Patino

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

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For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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