Tuesday, January 26, 1999
On January 26, dance legend Frankie Manning took your questions about swing dancing, the Lindy Hop and the glory days of big band music. The transcript is below. (Check our Get That Swing! section for details about the local scene.)
One of the founding fathers of Lindy Hop (and therefore all swing dancing), Frankie Manning was a regular at the Savoy Ballroom in 1930s Harlem, where he invented and performed the first aerial steps. With the touring company Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, Frankie danced command performances before the crowned heads of Europe. Frankie was "rediscovered" in New York in the 1980s, and has continued to spread the gospel of swing dancing all over the world.
Frankie, now 84 and still dancing, shares his invaluable expertise at a series of workshops January 30 and 31, 1999 at the Avalon Dance Studio (410/869-9771) in Catonsville, Md. The Avalon was founded two years ago by Leslie Coombs, a former dance and teaching partner of Frankie's.
Los Angeles, CA: Are the swing dancers of today as good as those back in the 30s and 40s?
Frankie Manning: In comparison of the top dancers of today, not everyone is on the same level as today. I would have to go with the oldtimers. They had more opportunities to dance. The communication between the music and the dancers was better then.
Los Angeles, CA: Have you seen any dance moves in the last few years which were new to you, or was everything pretty much invented in the old days?
Frankie Manning: There are a lot of moves that are different today. For one thing, freezing and posing is something that we didn't do all that often in the yesteryear. I don't think there is so much more that is being done than yesteryear. There is a lot of variation today. There is so many variations on the Charleston today that it's not even funny.
London England: What do you think of the current 'swing' revival based on guitar bands compared to the original big swing orchestras?
Frankie Manning: That's the music that is being played today. So the dance has to revolve around the music that is being played. The live music that is being played today is the big band music. It is not going to change my style of dancing. Everytime music changes you just change the style of dancing.
Redondo Beach, California: Hi Frankie, My name is Max and I go to PBDA (Erine's place) to Lindy. I do the Savoy style Lindy and I love it so much. It has a life and joy and so much more. As far as I'm concerned, that is the only REAL Lindy hop. However, There are some people who teach Dean Collin's so called "Hollywood style." In my opinion, that is an imitation. But it seems like that style is taking over the LA swing scene since Swing clubs like The Derby will have Dean collin style Lindy lessons. What is your point of view for Dean Collin's style Lindy Hop? If I dance with a woman who does D.C. Hollywood style, it is very hard for me to lead since their style is totally different...
Frankie Manning: No, it isn't. Hollywood style is just another name. Every section of the country, every city, every burrough has their own style. Dean Collins actually came from New Jersey. I heard that he would come to Savoy and he would dance the way he wanted to dance. When he went to California he was still dancing the same way he danced here. It's just a matter of adjusting to the feel of a song. If it's hard for the leaders, it's because you're having trouble adjusting. You should adjust to what your partner's doing and not try to overshadow her.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Nowadays, there seems to be a tendency for the general public as well as novice dancers to assume that swing dancing automatically means aerials. "So when do we learn how to throw our partner around?" is a question heard with disturbing frequency in beginner's classes.
As the founder of airsteps, what do you think of this trend?
Frankie Manning: Okay, I get the same question. I always tell them, look I created the aerials, I want to teach you how to dance first. It was eight years before I even did aerials. Learn how to dance first. When you learn how to dance first you can then do aerials.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Hello Frankie!
Two years ago, at a workshop in Detroit, you were asked what it would take for swing to make a comeback. You said good swing bands like you had in Harlem in the '20s and '30s. Do you think that has happened?
Frankie Manning: Well, I don't think they are the same type of bands that we had in Harlem but I think there are some good swing bands out there. One of the bands that I like the most is LaVay Smith.
Seattle, Washington : Frankie, I'm a big fan.
If you were to recommend the greatest old bands to dance the Lindy to, which ones would they be? I'd like to start a collection. I'm guessing you'll start with Duke Ellington.
Frankie Manning: First band I would mention is Count Basie band. That is my man. That is what I would start out with. For me, the easiest song to start out with is "Shiny Stockings," "Moten Swing." If I want to show off, I'd use "Jumpin' At The Woodside" or "Every Tub." I also like the Jimmie Lunceford Band.
Arlington, Va: Though Swing started in the black community, it seems its now big with White 20 year olds. Is that different than before, or is swing dance like Jazz or rock music which eventually goes mainstream?
Frankie Manning: Oh yes, it is much different. We say that we started this and the whites are just catching up now. You can go anywhere in the country that teaches swing these days.
I don't know the answer to that. But after a while, Blacks are going to see what these Whites are doing and they're going to want to do it.
Ithaca, NY: Do you find that people now get too wrapped up in doing the "right steps" and not in interpreting the music?
Frankie Manning: Yes they do. They are concentrating more on the steps than the music. I try to get them to concentrate on the music. I show them how the steps fit the music. They should just enjoy themselves. People are not dancing with the music because they are trying to impress somebody else.
Before, we would initiate a jam session to any music at any time. We just danced. We could do anything we wanted, we weren't trying to impress people. It was just spontaneous.
Beverly Hills, CA: God bless you Frankie - keep up the good word. Last night at the Derby (in L.A.) we were treated to the presence of a Nicholas brother who is doing a documentary on Tap dance in early Hollywood. Who did you look up to when you were starting, and who is your favorite partner?
Frankie Manning: When I first started out, the person I looked up to were Shorty Snowdon and Leroy Jones. My favorite partner was Ann Johnson. We started dancing in the fall of the 1940. When I came out of the army in 1957 I started dancing again.
Austin, TX: Hi Frankie! Is it true that the name "jitterbug" came from a group of lindy hoppers (Whitey's lindy hoppers?) dancing lindy to the song "Jitterbug" in a Wizard of Oz performance in the 40s? --Alexandra Landeros
Frankie Manning: No, the jitterbug came out before the 1940s. I do not know where that word came out from. It was just there in the middle of the 30s.
College Park, MD: Has a lady ever turned you down for a dance?
Frankie Manning: Oh sure. Yes. The last time was during this revival. Her excuse was a very solid one. She was tired and asked if she could wait. Back in the Savoy the girls could pick and choose who they wanted to dance with, maybe they were waiting to dance with somebody they liked.
Logan, UT: Frankie, when it comes to modern swing clothing there is a big emphasis on Zoot Suits and two toned shoes. What were some things you and others would wear in the 20s and 30s when you went dancing? Did everyone have two-toned shoes?
Frankie Manning: In the 20s and 30s we had to wear what we had. Those were depression years. I only had two suits and they weren't Zoot suits. We always wore shirts and ties. We always dressed appropriately. That was just the fashion so everybody wore it. A young lady would appreciate you more if you were dressed tight. Unless she knows you, she is not going to dance with you if you aren't dressed nice. That is just the way it is. If you look nice people just respect you more. Everybody didn't have two-tone shoes. They either had white shoes or brown shoes. Now we have dance shoes, shoes for every occassion. They have the money to do that, then we didn't. Wear whatever is comfortable to you.
Seattle, Washington: Hi, Frankie! It is great to be able to have this opportunity to ask you a question. So here it is: what qualities do you think make a great follow?
Frankie Manning: One that can feel your lead. One that has the ability to do what she wants to do and good balance and good rhythmn.
Ithaca, NY: We hear a lot about Shorty George, but he has become a kind of mythical figure to us. What was he like as a person?
Frankie Manning: He was great, wonderful, humorous person. We used to sit around Shorty and he would tell us stories about how people would dance and dress.
Chevy Chase, MD: Were the Shim Sham or other line dances done at the Savoy?
Frankie Manning: Yes, but not like we do them now. The Shim Sham actually originated in a night club. We would take it to the Savoy, and we would just start doing it. It wasn't organized or anything.
Washington DC: Hello Frankie!
Thank you for your energy and your enthusiasm for the lindy hop. Being one of the founders and still teaching today, you are a big inspiration to us all!
What inspired you to start dancing again in the 80's? Was it a certain event or person?
Frankie Manning: Watching Steven Mitchell and Erin Stevens start dancing again. I didn't think anyone would call me [the way Erin did]. I really didn't see it coming back like that.
Arlington, Va.: Frankie, thanks a bunch for answering questions like this!
A lot of people are recommending swing dancing as a way to meet people, and maybe meet that special someone. Here in DC, it seems like every month a swing couple gets married or engaged. Do have any stories or warnings about mixing dancing and romance? Is it a good idea or a bad one?
Frankie Manning: I think it is a good idea. If this is a dance that brings people together, this is what happens. If you work together with males and females you are eventually going to get together. Dancing is the same way. This is a very special way to meet someone. A lot of couples got married after meeting at the Savoy.
Lucille Middleton, my partner, and I became romantically involved in the late 1930s.
Back in the day it didn't seem that my girl was jealous of me dancing with somebody else. Today, it seems a girl only wants her man dancing with her and noone else.
Bethesda, MD: Many thanks for this great opportunity.
I wanted to ask your opinion of how attitudes of dancers to each other differ now from back then. Are women more bold? Men less polite? Has it changed for better or worse? Or is it all pretty much the same.
Frankie Manning: Both sides, men are less nice and women are more bolder than they were back then, because of equality. Women want to assert themselves more today. Men were supposed to lead back then. Today women ask to lead.
It would bother me if a women would back lead me. I can't do what I want to do or what I want her to do. I think it is a big assett if men and women know how to lead.
Beltsville, MD: You mentioned Ann Johnson was you favorite partner. What was she like? How about the other women in Whitey's Lindy Hoppers? Other than Norma Miller it's hard to find much information about them.
Frankie Manning: They were some very terrific dancers. Ann, she was a good dancer but she wasn't so much a leader or creative. She could catch on to anything you did. Norma and Little May all those girls, were wonderful dancers and created things.
Arlington,VA: I saw an old clip of Shorty George doing the charleston in a circle. Is that where the whip originated, or was it from some other move?
Frankie Manning: It probably originated from some other move. George "Twistmouth" Galloway, he was a rivalist of Shorty and he had this young lady and he would have her swing out in a twist.
Ithaca, NY: Hi, Frankie!
Is it true that the Savoy was a tough place where dancers would rough you up if you copied their moves?
Frankie Manning: That's not true!! If you just stop and think about it. If a dancer created a step and he didn't want anyone to copy it, how far would the dance go. The only way a step can be done is if you teach it to somebody else or you see someone do it and another person do it.
Rochester, NY: I would love to hear more about your life as a dancer. Are you planning on writing an autobiography?
Frankie Manning: Yes. As a matter of fact it is in the works right now. It will be similar to Norma Miller's biography because my life parallels Norma's.
Ithaca NY: Can you tell us what the Savoy Ballroom was like, inside?
Frankie Manning: It was a ballroom. The floor was actually one city block long. Right in the center were two band stands. One band would play a set for about 45 minutes. The ballroom also had a lounging area in copper and gold. It had booths around the sides of the windows. Big windows. It also had booths right alongside the dance floor. That's the way it was. It was sort of an integrated place. It didn't matter what color you were. You were not an oddity. You were as welcome as anybody else, but if you could dance you were more welcome than anybody.
Austin/Dallas TX: Hi Frankie! It's great that you're doing this for us. Do you feel there are certain differences between social dancing and performance dancing, and what are they? What aspects of performance must one incorporate for the purpose of a swing/lindy-hop dance troupe? Are aerials necessary for an exciting performance?
Frankie Manning: There is a big difference. When you get on stage you are dancing to please people. If you are dancing professionally you have a routine. Dancing socially, you just do whatever you want to do.
Aerials add to the excitement of the performance. Most definitely. That can be very exciting.
Melbourne, Australia: Are there any teachers today that you think accurately reflect the Savoy style as people would have danced it in the 30's?
Frankie Manning: Well they don't actually reflect the Savoy style but the form of dancing. The Savoy style isn't different than any other way of dancing done. The way I teach it is the way I learned to dance at the Savoy. Every body at the Savoy had their style.
Baltimore, MD: What would Chick Webb have done if you told him you're a Basie man?
Frankie Manning: I think Norma kind of answered that in her book. When Basie first came in, Chick wasn't too pleased because we were dancing to him that time. It was all received. I still prefer Chick to Basi
Herndon, VA: Frankie,
Do you do anything special in terms of exercise or anything else to avoid injury and keep up your schedule?
Frankie Manning: I try to excercise regularly. At this age I just have to stretch my bone out. I don't do anything special, like life weight or anything. I just think that I am very fortunate to not have any injuries.
I attribute dancing to my longevity. When you are dancing with someone you lose your stress from the day. You get to feeling good while you are dancing. Dancing the Lindy Hop is a wonderful cure for any ailment.
washingtonpost.com: That should do it! Many thanks to Mr. Manning for entertaining us in our live discussion, and many, many thanks to all of you all over the world for joining us and submitting questions!