Bodies flew through air, slid along the ground and moved between each other in with uncanny precision while a fast paced, swingin’ jazz tune thundered on the soundtrack. For many moviegoers who had come to theaters to see the Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson comedy Hellzapoppin’ in 1941, the dance routine was their first exposure to the exciting new jazz dance known as lindy hop. To generations of fans and practitioners of the dance who came after, it would be considered the greatest lindy hop routine ever choreographed.
Frankie Manning, the man who choreographed the routine as artistic director of the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers dance troupe, passed away this morning in New York City, just a few weeks shy of his 95th birthday.
Although born in Jacksonville, Florida, Manning grew up in New York City. As a teen, he began going to many of the dance halls in Harlem, demonstrating an ability to quickly learn moves of the other dancers and creating new one of his own. In 1935, he worked with his partner Frieda Washington to create the first “air step” or aerial. The pair kept the move a secret, finally unveiling it to win a dance contest at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom.
That same year, Savoy bouncer Herbert White organized several of the Savoy’s best dancers into the performance group Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, with Manning being the one who would choreograph a majority of their routines. The group toured extensively and appeared on Broadway. Demand for their performances became so great, that White would send out numerous groups all under the same name. One group, without Manning, appeared in the Marx Brothers’ 1937 classic A Day At The Races as part of the musical number “Who Dat Man?”
Shortly after the filming of the Hellzapoppin’ routine, see below, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers disbanded as many male members of the group, Manning included, were being inducted into the Army to fight World War II. Manning served in the South Pacific. After the war, he formed the dance group the Congeroos, which toured from 1947 to 1955. The group made one film appearance, the 1948 musical Killer Diller, where they danced to “Basie’s Boogie” performed by Andy Kirk’s orchestra.
After the dissolution of the Congeroos, Manning retired from performing, going to work for the New York City post office for three decades. He would return to dancing in 1986 when he was approached by Lindy Hop enthusiasts who wanted to learn the dance from one its originators. Manning soon found himself teaching to a new generation of dancers around the world. He also provided choreography for the dance hall scenes in Spike Lee’s 2000 film Malcolm X. He also was one of the Tony award winning choreographers of the Broadway musical Black And Blue.
On a more personal note, this news has incredibly saddened me. After film, one of the great loves of my life is swing dancing. I have had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Manning a few times over the last decade or so at a couple of different workshops and dance events. He was always an energetic instructor and someone who loved what he was doing.