Swing-Dance Legend

| 02 Mar 2015 | 04:28

    when i started working on a documentary for channel 13 about new york city swing-dance legend frankie manning, it seemed obvious i had to move quickly. neal shapiro, president of 13's parent company, wnet.org, gave me the go-ahead to start shooting right away. after all, frankie, as everyone called him, was almost 94 and still traveling the world dancing and lecturing about the lindy hop, a more acrobatic form of swing dance. surely, we figured, that couldn't last long.

    but then i met frankie.

    our two-and-a-half-hour on-camera interview took place at the refurbished cotton club in harlem last spring, a few days after he'd returned from singapore and just before he took off for texas, france, australia and canada. he was nonchalant about his schedule, as if it were not at all remarkable for a nonagenarian to visit four continents in a month. and he didn't seem remotely tired. he recounted details of his dancing career from the 1930s to the present in vivid detail, describing how he thought up a new way of tossing his partner in the air, or how the crowd had cheered and whooped at a particular show more than a half-century earlier. to make a point about how swing-dance steps flowed naturally from big-band music, he hummed a few bars, twisting his hands and feet in rhythm. he had the richest, most genuine laugh i've ever heard, which he used to punctuate almost every sentence.

    as soon as frankie returned from overseas, i brought my video camera to the wednesday night lindy classes he taught at so you think you can dance studios on eighth avenue. with about 20 young and middle-aged dancers mimicking his every move, frankie demonstrated a routine he'd choreographed to a swinging ella fitzgerald rendition of "mack the knife." ordinarily, frankie walked with a cane, but ella's voice seemed to have curative powers; when the music started, he set the cane aside. frankie danced, clapped and sang with abandon, displaying the grace and the zest that had made him a superstar at the savoy ballroom 75 years before. he took his teaching role seriously, too. he shouted out the names of steps-"camel walk!" "ride the pony!"-and he wasn't satisfied with half-way efforts. "sassy girls, sassy!!" he instructed.

    by the time i'd spent a few days with frankie, i was convinced he'd be swinging well past 100. so i was truly shocked two weeks ago when frankie manning died from complications of pneumonia, a month shy of his 95th birthday.

    to set aside assumptions based on age-even if that age is 94-was just one of the lessons i learned from talking to and observing the master of swing, and from watching scores of hours of videotape chronicling his career since the era of the great depression. he dropped out of high school, he explained, because he "didn't really have an incentive [to graduate]. i don't think they encouraged any of the african americans at that time to be real professional people." but as far as i'm concerned, frankie had a ph.d. in living life to the fullest.

    from the time he first entered the great ballrooms of harlem in the 1930s, frankie knew how to savor every moment. dancing to live music by count basie, duke ellington or cab calloway was the thrill of a lifetime, he told me.

    fame came quickly; fortune didn't. the group he danced with, whitey's lindy hoppers (named for their manager, herbert "whitey" white) appeared in major hollywood movies like hellzapoppin', but their names rarely turned up in the credits, and their paychecks were small. they danced for sellout crowds, but many of the hotels, restaurants and nightclubs that profited from their performances wouldn't let them in as customers because they were black.

    yet the bigotry that was a part of life for black entertainers in the 1930s and 1940s didn't leave frankie bitter. "i'm kind of tough-skinned," he explained to me. "it just rubbed off my back." and he didn't let the racism he encountered determine his views of all whites. he struck up a close friendship with the only white couple ever to dance in his lindy hopping troupe: harry rosenberg and ruthie rheingold of the bronx. the reason for his admiration was simple: they were terrific lindy hoppers.

    "we didn't know black or white. we knew dancing," frankie said. "we didn't look at somebody and say that person is a different color than you. we just looked at his feet and said, 'can you move them feet?'"

    in 1943, frankie was drafted into the army and saw combat in the pacific in world war ii. he danced for a few more years after the war, but as the era of swing faded, so did the career prospects for a professional lindy hopper. frankie got a desk job at the main post office in manhattan. he stayed there for more than 30 years.

    when a swing dance revival got underway in the late 1980s, it took hold quickly in new york city. lindy classes sprung up from the dance studios of the upper west side to the 92nd street y. but frankie manning wasn't aware of any of it until he got a call from a fan who found his number in the phone book. after some convincing, she got him to teach her some lindy moves. within two years, frankie had retired from the post office and began traveling the country teaching young people eager to learn the lindy.

    soon, he was the choreographer/guru to a new group who called themselves the big apple lindy hoppers. frankie was one of four dancers hired to choreograph the broadway smash black and blue, for which he won a tony award. spike lee brought him in as a consultant and dancer in malcolm x. he was interviewed for ken burns' acclaimed "jazz" series on pbs.

    frankie began making special guest appearances at ballroom dance classes at the reebok sports club on columbus avenue, where he cultivated a new set of upper west side swing fanatics (see sidebar). he became a star attraction at lincoln center's popular outdoor midsummer night's swing series.

    each may, massive celebrations were organized for frankie's birthday, in new york ballrooms, overseas or sometimes on a cruise ship. the highlight came when the band struck up his favorite song, "shiny stockings," and frankie danced with one woman for each year he'd been alive, always saving a special dance for judy pritchett, the companion he'd met in the 1980s through a shared love of swing.

    he called his 2007 autobiography, co-written with dance student and friend cynthia millman, the ambassador of lindy hop. it was a role frankie served with distinction. at every workshop, he lined dancers behind him to lead them in a raucous version of the "shim sham," one of the simplest swing dances for a novice.

    when the crowd called out, "what time is it?" frankie shouted, "boogie time!" then he clapped, stomped and shimmied in time as students half his age struggled to keep up.

    frankie wasn't perfect, and he didn't claim to be. his marriage to gloria holloway, which produced two children, ended in divorce. as a teenager, he'd had a son out of wedlock, chazz, and frankie told me he regretted not spending more time with chazz as a child. but he was able to overcome the estrangement. inspired by his father, chazz became a professional dancer as well. in later years they traveled the world together, teaching joint workshops and dancing side by side. their duet to jimmy lunceford's "'taint what you do (it's the way that you do it)," was as much a joy to perform as it was to watch, they told me.

    "it's such a thrill when he and i are on the stage," chazz said. "it just makes me feel so good that he's still having such a wonderful time dancing."

    another frankie and chazz reunion was to be one of the highlights of "frankie95," a new york city event starting may 21 originally planned to celebrate the legend's 95th birthday. frankie95 will go on, featuring swing-dance competitions, live big bands and dance workshops at laguardia high school on amsterdam avenue and other venues, and a special lindy hop for kids class at the professional children's school on west 60th street (saturday, may 23, 4:30 p.m.). but the five-day gala has been transformed into a memorial tribute to frankie. a service, open to the public, will be held at fifth avenue presbyterian church on friday may 22 at 10 a.m. immediately afterward, dancers will go en masse to central park, where they hope to set a world record in frankie's memory: the most people lindy hopping simultaneously in one place.

    by all accounts, frankie was looking forward to his birthday party. apparently, leading huge gatherings of exuberant swing dancers never got tedious. and that might be the best lesson i learned from frankie manning: when you find something you truly love, just keep doing it.

    toward the end of our interview last spring, i asked frankie whether he ever thought it might be time to quit lindy hopping. he gave me a sharp look, as if i'd said something pretty stupid.

    "i'll stop dancing when my feet don't move." he paused. "and then i might just sit in a chair and try to do it."

    a few months later, during a summertime workshop tour, frankie fell on the street in paris and broke his hip. after surgery, of course, he was eager to start teaching again. the last piece of footage i have of him is from this march at the annual lindyfest in houston, texas. with rows and rows of ebullient young dancers behind him, frankie is leading the shim sham seated in a chair just as he'd anticipated, his whole upper body swaying, his feet gliding and tapping to the beat.

    julie cohen is the writer, producer and director of frankie manning: never stop swinging. her production company, betterthanfiction, creates programming for network, cable and public television and the web. lindy hop love

    by day, alan sugarman and michele redway of west 70th street are typical upper west siders-a lawyer and a technology expert for the federal reserve bank of new york, respectively. but when the sun goes down and the music comes up, they are part of the city's swing-dance community, avid big band fans who love to lindy hop.

    sugarman and redway are part of the movement, with frankie manning as its honorary patriarch, which brought swinging back in style at the end of the 20th century. they were strangers who met and ultimately found love through the lindy.

    for sugarman, swing was just a new way to enjoy the 1940s music he had always favored. a visit by frankie to sugarman's dancing class at the reebok sports club proved inspirational.

    "he was 83 years old," said alan, who was about half that age at the time. "i thought. 'if he can do this, i can learn this.'"

    soon, he was hooked.

    redway was a more ambitious dancer. she joined a manhattan troupe that performed in competitions and even some music videos. like any new york lindy hopper worth her salt, redway got the opportunity to dance with frankie. "it was almost disconcerting how strong he was," she said.

    sugarman and redway first crossed paths in 1998 at "lindy in the park," a weekly gathering of swing enthusiasts at bethesda fountain to learn new steps.

    they got to know each other better after redway's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" while performing the charleston with an all female group wearing bandeau tops. a friend had recommended wearing the waistband of control-top pantyhose under the bandeau in place of a bra. but during the performance, the pantyhose rolled up, taking the top with them and leaving michele bare-chested in front of a live audience.

    sugarman is cagey about whether he actually witnessed the display, but the incident became so widely known in swing-dance circles that it served as a conversation starter between the two. they began dancing together at the swing events that took place almost nightly. eventually, they started going as a couple to sweden, where frankie and his son chazz taught at an annual dance camp.

    when sugarman decided to organize and fund frankie's 85th birthday celebration at the roseland ballroom in 1999, redway stepped in to help, cooking homemade meals for the band.

    they married in 2006. although they no longer lindy hop nightly as they once did, they say frankie and his legacy left an indelible mark on their lives. they're eager to join with thousands of other swing dancers, from new york city and around the world, to do a shim sham in his memory at the tribute next weekend.

    -julie cohen