Depression-era dancer and the creator of the Lindy Hop, Frankie Manning is being honored with a Google Doodle on what would have been his 102nd birthday.
He died in 2009 in Manhattan.
According to the Frankie Manning Foundation, the great man once said, “I’m not interested in fame and glory. It’s just that I would like others to know what a happy dance this is.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. His Mother Inspired His Love of Dancing
Manning was born in Florida but raised in the Harlem section of New York City. His parents were not together and he lived with his mother while spending his summers in South Carolina, according to his official biography. His mother was a dancer and as a reward for him helping her set up for a Halloween dance, Manning was allowed to watch the ensuing party. He was surprised to see her dancing in such a conservative style compared to the looser style he’d seen at house parties. Manning described those dance sessions in an interview with the Temple University Press saying:
I wasn’t thinking of it as being important to me, but I was thinking about how much I enjoyed dancing—my friends and I getting together and having a wonderful time. The music was just so—I don’t know, what’s the word, exhilarating—that I wanted to dance to it. I had a regular job. I didn’t think I’d be a professional dancer.
I didn’t feel professional until 1937, when I went into the Cotton Club. Then I thought, maybe there is something to this, and that people want to see me.
His mother believed Manning was too stiff to become a dancer. He used this as inspiration and practiced at home in the bathroom with a broom. In his biography, Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop, Manning said:
After my mother told me I was too stiff to be a dancer, I felt pretty sad. I honestly thought that I was dancing like everybody else at the Renaissance Ballroom…
My mother wasn’t trying to get me to improve; she was just telling me the truth…
If she had never told me I was stiff, I might never have become a dancer. In fact, that’s when I really got interested in dancing.
Later, Manning would dance at the Savoy ballroom, New York City’s only integrated dance hall at the time. Competing in a dance contest in 1935 with Frieda Washington, Manning performed an aerial swing in front of 2,000 people. The incident was celebrated in a New York Times feature.
Manning had been competing against another prominent dancer named George “Shorty” Snowden, who later coined the term, Lindy Hop. In Manning’s New York Times obituary, it says the dance was successful because it allows “both partners to improvise rhythmically at the same time.”
2. He Disbanded His Dance Troupe, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, So He Could Serve in WWII
Following his successful stints dancing at the Savoy ballroom, Manning and other dancers were formed into a troupe known as White’s Lindy Hoppers, named for the choreographer Herbert White. His Kennedy Center biography says that he was a former prize-fighter and bouncer prior to becoming a dancer. At the height of his success, White would appear in the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Racers.
The group would star in the vehicle movie Helzapoppin’ together.
A tribute website to the Savoy ballroom says that during this time, prior to World War II, the Lindy Hop dance had spread to three continents.
One of Manning’s dancing partners was the “Queen of Swing,” Norma Miller.
The group broke up when Manning, along with the other male dancers, enlisted to join the U.S. Army following the outbreak of World War II. In his book, Manning detailed the racism he suffered while serving in the army.
After returning to New York City, Manning formed the Congaroos in 1947, another dance troupe.
3. He Became a Mailman Prior to His Career Revival in the 1980s
That group would last until 1955 when Manning became a mailman and moved to Corona in Queens. In the 1980s, Manning’s career had a major revival. The revival was inspired by choreographer Al Minns who had been teaching the Lindy Hop at the Sandra Cameron Dance Center. Prior to his death in 1985, Minns handed over the reigns to Manning.
He wouldn’t officially retire from the postal service until 1987 having joined in 1955, according to the New York Times.
From there, Manning would teach the dance across the U.S. Later, his teachings would extend to Europe where he worked with The Rhythm Hot Shots in Sweden. Manning had a standing invitation to teach at the Herrang Dance Camp every year, a street in the town of Herrang is named for him.
4. He Passed Away a Month Before a Major Birthday Party Was Being Held in His Honor in New York City
Manning died in April 2009 at the age of 94 in Manhattan. He was buried at Woodlawn Cemetary in the Bronx. At the time of his death, Manning had been living with a woman named Judy Pritchett for 23 years, according to his Guardian obituary. His only marriage, to Gloria Holloway, ended in divorce in 1989, though the couple had been separated since 1976, though the couple had two sons, Charles and Frank, according to Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop.
Manning passed a month before his 95th birthday. A major celebration had been planned in New York City for the occasion, which took place over Memorial Day weekend. Dance troupes from all across the world uploaded videos to YouTube for the Frankie95 celebrations.
The party set a Guinness world record for the largest number of people dancing the Shim Sham at one time in Central Park. The money raised from the party helped to set up the Frankie Manning foundation.
5. The Lindy Hop Dance Was Named for Charles Lindbergh
The dance marathons of the 1930s were used as a way for people to earn much-needed prize money during the depression. It was George “Shorty” Snowden who coined the term Lindy Hop. At the time, Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight from New York City to Paris was very much in the public consciousness. It had jokingly come to be known as the Lindy Hop.
Snowden had been asked at the end of a marathon what the dance was called, his instinctive reply was Lindy Hop.