Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Story of Frankie Manning, Ambassador of Swing

Frankie Manning may not be a name that everyone is familiar with, especially in the world of vegan fashion. But, if you are involved in the swing dancing world, more specifically, lindy hop, he’s a celebrity!
Frankie Manning is the Ambassador of Swing, the god of swing, the man who invented the “air step” and the “bending forward position” in the Lindy Hop dance, also known as “the jitterbug.”

You may be thinking, “Why am I reading a blog about some dude who was a world-famous swing dancer on a vegan belt and vegan fashion site?” Well, it’s because dancing is very important to me. I am not a great dancer, by any means, but when I do go out dancing my worries seem to fade away. I guess you could say that I dance it out. And to me, that is an important key to balance and success. I myself was an avid lindy hopper during a period of my life.

Frankie Manning co-wrote his life story with Cynthia R. Millman in a book called “Frankie Manning Ambassador of Lindy Hop”. Even if you are not a Lindy Hopper, or any kind of swing dancer for that matter, this is an amazing read! I like it so much because Frankie’s life story is so interesting, humble and true! It kind of reminds me of the Forrest Gump story in that Frankie was such as humble guy who lived completely in the moment and all of these great things happened to him.

Frankie Manning lived a long life. He died at the age of 1994 and was dancing right up until the end. I know that for a fact because when he was 92, I took a weekend swing-dancing workshop from him in Toronto. Yes! I met this incredible man and at age 92 he was still dancing and teaching!

Here is a little glimpse into this man’s incredible life. Raised in Harlem by his single mother (who just happened to love dancing) and aunt, Frankie recalls being brought to “rent parties”. These were dances that were held in people’s apartments or houses to help them raise money to pay the rent. Once inside, the atmosphere was filled with people playing the piano, food, bathtub gin for 10-cents a mug and… dancing! The kind of dancing that was going on there was funky! They were doing moves called ‘The Black Bottom’, ‘The Mess Around’, ‘The Charleston’ and the ‘Slow Drag’.

When the music had a faster tempo, there would always be one person who would get a little wild, so everyone else would back up and form a circle around them. Today, this is known as a ‘lindy circle’. As a young boy, Frankie normally hid and watched all of the action from the sidelines. But as he got older, he began practicing some of the funky dance moves that he saw at home. That’s when Frankie started dancing! He was 12 when his mother took him to a well-known ballroom called “The Renaissance”.  From there, Frankie continued dancing and practicing at home.

After high school, while Frankie was playing basketball with some buddies, one of guys started doing a little dance move. Frankie asked “What’s that you’re doing?” “The Lindy Hop” he replied. “Man, where’d you learn that?” and the boy answered “at the Savoy”. He had seen people dance the Lindy Hop before, but not the way his friend was doing it. At that point his goal was to go to this place called “The Savoy” to learn this different way of dancing the Lindy Hop. And that’s just what he did.

Frankie continued to dance at the Savoy any chance he got. And he became… good. Very good! Frankie danced in all kinds of contests held at the Savoy. There was always a big band there, playing live music at the Savoy ballroom. One thing that stands out for me is when Frankie talked about how the Savoy was one of the few places where blacks and whites could comingle together. New York in the 1920’s faced extreme segregation, but at the Savoy no one cared about that – they only cared about dancing. I love that! Dancing breaks barriers and is an international language.

As the story goes on, we are brought to one fateful night where Frankie was in a dance competition at the Savoy. He and his partner Frieda had been practicing a dance move at home in private. It was something new that no one had ever seen! It was a move where Frankie actually threw Freida up into the air, and when she landed, they just continued dancing without skipping a beat. For those of you who don’t know, Lindy Hop is a very fast dance, so incorporating a move like this is a real feat!

Chuck Webb and his band was performing that night and Frankie got to choose what song he and his partner would dance to. There they were, Frankie and Frieda, dancing up a storm, surrounded by a crowd of people. Frankie tossed Frieda up into the air in time to the music. She landed perfectly on beat! Frankie says in his book that it seems like the audience could not catch their breath – they just could not believe what they saw! Their mouths had dropped wide open, but no sound came out. Then, the entire house erupted with energy! People were apparently grabbing each other saying, “Did you see that?” Needless to say, they won the competition!

The year was 1935. Frankie continued dancing and became the best of the best. He become part of Lindy Hop dancing troupes and toured around the globe doing Lindy Hop performances. The dance troupes that he was part of started performing in big movies such as “A Day at the Races“, and “Keep Punching”, to name a few.

They were constantly winning competitions. Eventually, Frankie started playing more of a choreographer and managing role. Life was great until the war. That’s when Frankie joined the army. After the war, he did some dancing, but eventually, in 1955 he joined the U.S. Post Office and stayed there for 30 years! It was in the 1980’s that swing dancing made a comeback. A new, younger gang of swing dancers had formed in New York called the New York Swing Dance Society in the mid 80’s and weekly dances were held.

Frankie was tracked down and he slowly began to teach the Lindy Hop once again! Shoots of new Lindy Hoppers started popping up all over the world. These organizations and dance schools were grateful and to have Frankie, a Lindy master, come and teach workshops. So, the last 19 years of his life, Frankie travelled the globe and taught a new generation the Lindy Hop.

As I mentioned earlier, I met Frankie and attended one of his workshops in Toronto. What an amazing man! I mean, he was 92 and dancing, still! Frankie says he gets asked a lot how he was able to live such a long life. His answer in the book is as follows… “… I think it’s due to a lot of things. Although I am not a health nut, I’ve always lived a pretty healthy life. I’ve never smoked a cigarette I my whole life.” “… I also never go into drugs. It just wasn’t interesting to me. Even though some people have tried to get me into drugs, I’ve never felt the need to keep up with my peers. They’d say  ‘It’ll make you feel good”, but I’d tell them “I feel good already”….  Whenever I did feel a little bit down in spirits, I’d go to the Savoy, and before you’d know it, I’d forgot about everything else. I get high from Lindy hopping.”

My favorite part of the book is what Frankie says on the last page… “They should have politicians from all of the different governments come and dig this wonderful scene to see how well everybody gets along on the dance floor.”

Reader, this book is so damn good! I wish I could tell you more about it, but in this short blog format, it’s not enough, does not convey enough of the awesomeness of who Frankie Manning was.

Frankie Manning would have been 100 years old this year (2014). His birthday is May 26th. Happy Birthday Frankie! In your honor, I am naming a new Truth vegan belt after your legacy. It will be called THE SAVOY. It will be coming out this summer!

 Yours in health, consciousness, and cool fashion, this is Renia Pruchnicki of Truth!
Live Your Truth, and Respect Others'!

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