Frankie Manning, “Never Stop Swinging”

This just in: Tonight (Thursday) at 10:30 on WNET/Ch. 13, a documentary on Frankie Manning, the late King of Swing.

Sorry for the late notice: I just noticed myself. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be broadcast outside of the New York area, but the above link says it will be available in streaming media after tonight.

In case you’re wondering who Manning is and why he’s a big deal, read the post, and watch the video, below.

Just weeks before his 95th birthday celebration,    Frankie Manning, king of the Lindy Hop–choreographer and dancer–passed away. (The birthday will now proceed as a memorial.) My friend, Foot contributor Paul Parish, wrote yesterday:

Hey Apollinaire,

I want to call your attention to this:

Manning is the one in overalls.

An amateur dance history scholar has done the world the fabulous service of resetting Frankie Manning’s most famous dance — the number from the movie Hellzapoppin’ — to the music it was created for. Count Basie was all his life Frankie Manning’s favorite composer — and composer is not too strong a word; Gunther Schuller gave Basie’s construction an entire chapter in The Swing Era -but in 1941 the studio did not want to pay Basie’s royalty for the song, so someone from the studio wrote new music to fit — but it’s not inspired, and THIS is.

Basie used repetition for polyrhythmic effect. Riffing is a complex process of throwing a motif around the orchestra and creating shifting accents that come from behind and sock it to you…. This is a fabulous example. It’s like guacamole — the bland creamy saxophones, and then the peppercorns.

Wonder what you’ll think. [I think: I could watch this all day. I love the switch between those wide-looping flips–with the thunk of a pause as the dancers land from high up–and the speedy scat of their feet. I love all the details: the way the woman tickles the belly of the man who’s just flipped upside down in her arms; the way the “cook” jiggles his lady cook up and down like he’s the piston on a whirligig and her beating legs are the passenger cars; the snap of the knee to the back after one member of a couple has just reeled the other out–a little accent before they’re reeling back in; the well-aimed kick Manning’s girl gives to his bottom after he’s somersaulted over her back, and his flying landing’s ballon–to use a fancy word, and why not? This is fancy stuff even as it doesn’t ask you to think so; the cake walk two dancers do prone–on the floor, the man shimmying backwards on one half-beat while the woman crabs forward, legs flying as in a chorus line, on the other; the way the “cook” plays the horn as his girl leads him forward, his leg splayed in a half-split; the pointy, keeping-time steps, all of them. And I love the spirit of it: the goofy sexiness, the circus virtuosity mixed up in the musical genius, and that it shows us how to live in the breaks–between shifts of thankless labor and between beats. It’s one of the best dances on camera I’ve ever seen.]

I’ve got personal feelings in this — during the Lindy revival a decade ago, I “studied” it five days a week, and Frankie taught my teachers, and came out here every February and taught huge group classes. I am proud to say, he and Judy were “in the house” for my birthday jam at the Doghouse, February 19, 1995. Thank God people wanted to dance with me.

He was a great man, modest in a way, like Balanchine. He always gave credit to the tradition and to the dance itself as an organizing device that let people come together for “three minute romances” and gave great joy in hard times. He was very generous with interviewers, and with groups of students was wonderfully informative on the early days. And he always praised the musicians — it was all about the music. It reminded me of my West-African dance classes, where you always go up and thank the drummers. Same tradition — polyrhythm the dance is called by the drummers.

But this video is very timely — he was really an admirable man, and lots of people miss Frankie personally. After his days of fame — and they were famous: he danced for the crowned heads of Europe, Queen Mary, all of that — and having created the dance that got the USA through World War II (after WWII, jazz went in the direction of “listening music,” and “jump blues” evolved into rock and roll. Juke-box dancing bled energy away from the big ballrooms, though exhibition Lindy did not die out), Frankie went to work for the post office, where he was discovered decades later by people who wanted to learn to dance like him. As his story came out, for many of the new swing kids of the ’90s, the way he faced these facts was a model for how to deal with the diminished thing they were facing as a life where ’60s-style opportunities were never going to be there.

Oh there’s too much to say about this, too — the dot-com boom was looming, and most of the swing kids I knew were programmers and they were working all day and came out at night to dance and have nicely boundaried 3-minute romances with often spectacular adventures when you hit the breaks…..

Nicely boundaried” is a terrible phrase — but what I mean is the conventions of leading and following set you free to improvise within the dance. Going at high speed, two people could make it up as they went, as the music evolved, and set up emerging opportunities for turning spinning stomping kicking falling off a log Susie Q, breaking away, pulling back together; and given the conventions, you could size up your partner pretty fast in terms of their speed in the uptake and how amusing their moves were. When the partnership was hot — and the music was your third partner — you often couldn’t say where a movement idea came from. In that, Lindy is a lot like contact improv.

Most serious Lindy dancers in San Francisco learned to lead and follow, regardless of gender. The coolest thing of all was the constant negotiation between partners, which made dancing look like a school for how to find a partner you could bear to live with in monogamy. And lots of them did get married.

Thank God Frankie taught everybody how: he had tremendous natural authority, and could give you the trick of the thing with no apparent effort. He’d walk in the room with a hundred people and leads were on the left, follows on the right, within 15 seconds. He’d show a figure and say, “One, two, you know what to do.”


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