In part two Frankie’s rise to the top of the Lindy Hop world and subsequent career as a perfomer, choreographer, and mentor are examined followed as well as the events that led to him taking up a career in the post-office. Much of the content comes from Frankie Manning’s biography, “Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop.” This information was originally compiled as part of an exhibit celebrating the life of Frankie. Read on below for a time line of this great man who has been an inspiration to thousands world wide.
All quotes from Frankie Manning have been taken from the following source: Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop by Frankie Manning and Cynthia R. Millman. Temple University Press, 2007.
• Frankie first ventures to the Savoy Ballroom.
Open 7 days a week – 9pm to 4am.
Ladies’ Night (half price for ladies)
Savoy 400 Club (special night for Savoy members including top dancers)
Society Night (social clubs put on community affairs that were generally less swinging)
Kitchen Mechanics’ Night for folks who were working all week
Another Society Night (social clubs put on community affairs that were generally less swinging)
Popular social dance night
The Savoy Ballroom located in Harlem, New York City, was a medium sized ballroom for music and public dancing that was in operation from 1926 to 1958. It was a popular dance venue from the late 1920s to the 1950s and was known downtown as the “Home of Happy Feet”. Unlike the ‘whites only’ policy of the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom was integrated and whites and blacks danced together.
The ballroom was on the second floor and a block long. The northeast corner of the dance floor, was known as the “Cat’s Corner”. The ballroom had a double bandstand that held one large and one medium sized band running against its east wall. Music was continuous as the alternative band was always ready in position ready to pick up the beat, when the previous one had completed its set.
Chick Webb was the leader of the best known Savoy house band during the mid-1930s and in 1934 a teenage Ella Fitzgerald became Chick Webb’s vocalist. The Savoy regularly staged “Battle of the Bands” that usually occurred between a house and a guest band. Two of the most famous “battles” happened when the Benny Goodman Orchestra challenged Chick Webb in 1937 and in 1938 when the Count Basie did; the general assessment was that they both lost, to Chick Webb.
THE SAVOY WAS THE PLACE TO GO
“If you loved music and you loved dancing, the Savoy was the place to go. At the Renaissance, going to the Savoy was our one ambition because they had the best bands and the best dancers. It had been on our minds for a year or two, but we were afraid to venture there because we put the Savoy on a pedestal. Nobody but the greatest dancers went, or at least those who thought they were.
The entrance of the Savoy was at street level. You went down one flight to check your coat, then you walked back up two flights to the ballroom, which was on the second floor. As I was climbing the steps that led to the ballroom, I could hear this swinging music coming down the stairwell, and it started seeping right into my body….
The Savoy was the ballroom because it had the best orchestras, and from that they got the best dancers. Even though a lot of people went to ballrooms just to listen to the music, back then bands played for dancers. After all, they were called dance bands.
These were the depression years (which didn’t make that much difference to my family since we were poor anyway) and dancing was an outlet for people because there wasn’t much else they could do. We all stayed in Harlem, but you could find someplace to step out every night of the week. Going to a ballroom became our social life.
Even though we were poor, we always dressed up. People in Harlem felt that they’d get more respect if they dressed well. Guys felt that the better they looked, the more likely a young lady would be to dance with them. I only owned two suits, but I always wore them with a shirt and tie and nice shoes, not two-tones, just black or brown ones. This was the fashion, and everybody dressed that way.”
• Frankie wins Lindy Hop contest with Hilda Morris at the Apollo Theatre and the prize is the change to perform with Duke Ellington.
• Invited by Herbert “Whitey” White to join elite group of Savoy Lindy Hoppers.
• Frankie introduces a more horizontal style of Lindy Hopping.
• Wins second place in the Lindy Hop competition at the first Harvest Moon Ball with partner Maggie McMillan.
• Follower’s begin twisting
• Frankie introduces the first ever air step, the over-the-back
• Introduces stops and synchronized ensemble dancing.
HARVEST MOON BALL
The premier dance contest in New York City from 1935 until 1974 was the annual “Harvest Moon Ball” held at Madison Square Gardens and sponsored by the ‘Daily News Welfare Association’. This event was so popular that the 20,000 seats were usually sold within two days of going on sale. Until the ballroom closed in 1958, Savoy dancers virtually regarded the Lindy Hop prize as their own, despite its name being changed to Jitterbug Jive and then to Rock ‘n’ Roll. The fact that they failed to win it on a few occasions demonstrated that victory was far from automatic but the end result of seemingly endless training and hard fought battles.
FOLLOWERS BEGIN TWISTING
“Up until then, the girls always did the backstep, a rockstep, on the swing-out, just the same as the fellows. One day, Whitey and I were sitting in a box at the Savoy alongside the dance floor when Twist Mouth George came over with Edith Matthews and said, “Hey Mac, watch this.” … he swung Edith out about three or four times, and she twisted each time… instead of doing the rock. It was the first time I’d ever seen that in the Lindy Hop…. Whitey started nudging me under the table, whispering, “Get that. Get that.” He knew I was very good at copying people… I said, “Hey, that’s great. Do that again,” and watched intently.
When they left, Whitey asked if I could do the step, then he swung me out and I did what I had seen Edith do… I brought over Helen Bundy… and told her to twist with the music. Then we started showing it to the other girls…. Once the rest of the girls learned to twist, they started to add their own little touches and began advancing it.”
THE FIRST AIR STEP
I said, “Okay, Frieda, I’m ready,” and we swung out. I flung that girl so far across the floor that we almost took up the whole ballroom! This was one time when we really danced to the music, and it seemed like the band was catching everything that we were doing…Yeah, keep up with me, guys! I was feeling everything that they were doing, and the band was hitting every step that we did… Everything was going so right that even the crowd was rocking with us.
It was coming down to the end of our turn, so I said, “You ready to do the step?” “Yeah, let’s do it.” That’s exactly what she said. I remember it as if I was there right now. I swung her out and did a jump turn over her head while Chick said, “SHUUMMP!” Then I jumped so we were back to back and flipped her. While she was going over, he played “CHI- CHI- CHI- CHI- CHI- CHI-CHOO.” And when she hit the floor right on the beat… “BOOMP!”
The crowd had been clapping in time with the music and yelling, “Go Musclehead!” (my nickname), but when Frieda landed, for one second, it seemed like everyone in the audience caught their beat. Their mouths opened, but no sound came out. It was as if people weren’t sure they had really seen what they’d seen, like they were trying to figure out what we had just done. They were awestruck. Then all of a sudden, the house erupted! Everyone jumped up and started stomping, clapping, hollering, and grabbing each other saying, “Did you see that?” “What the heck did he just do?” “He threw that girl over his head!” Folks were just carrying on. It was turmoil!
• Whyte’s Hopping Maniacs appear in downtown reopening of the Cotton Club.
• Wins third place in the Lindy Hop competition at the Harvest Moon Ball with Naomi Waller.
ELLA FITZGERALD & CHICK WEBB
At the end of June, we got work at the Apollo for the first time, as an act, that is. We danced to Chick Webb’s orchestra featuring Ella Fitzgerald. (During the next five years, we would perform at the Apollo with many popular Harlem orchestras, including Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Tiny Bradshaw, Buddy Johnson, Erskine Hawkins, and Lucky Millinder, but we worked there with Chick Webb more than with any other band.)
Ella Fitzgerald was supposed to come on after us, but during our first performance the applause was so loud that she couldn’t even get on stage! The stage manager called us back to take another bow, but we kept saying, “What do you mean? Ella’s out there!” She had to move back to the wings while we did an encore before the audience would let us go.
The management felt that we had kind of stolen Ella’s thunder, so after that they changed the order around and made us close the show behind her. But she wasn’t mad; she wasn’t that kind of person. Ella and I were already good friends from the Savoy – in fact, we used to call each other “bro” and “sis” – and she was happy for us.
• Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers appear in A Day at the Races (uncredited)
• Whyte’s Hopping Maniacs tour France and England with Le Cotton Club de New York.
• Whitey’s Hopping Maniacs appear in Radio City Revels (uncredited)
• 8 Big Apple Dancers commence year-long tour of New Zealand and Australia.
• September 1st, Germany invades Poland. Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand and Canada declare war on Germany soon after.
• Whitey’s Jitterbugs perform on Broadway in Swingin’ the Dream.
• Arthur White’s Lindy Hoppers appear in Keep Punchin’.
Many of the dancers developed specialties to distinguish themselves and wow the crowd. As Dawn Hampton, my good friend and one of my favourite dance partners today, likes to point out, “All of the Lindy Hoppers at the Savoy had their own individual style. It’s not like everyone was going to class and learning someone else’s way of dancing.” A lot of the girls came up with their own way of swinging out. Some would back away from their partner; others would go out facing away from him, then flip around – whatever fit their fancy. No one ever told them they weren’t doing Lindy just because their swing-out was different.
• Frankie wins second place in Lindy Hop competition at the Harvest Moon Ball with Ann Johnson.
• The United States enters the war.
• Congeroo Dancers appear in Hellzapoppin’.
• Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers appear in Hot Chocolate (“Cottontail”) with Duke Ellington.
• White Congeroo Dancers sail to Rio for Brazilian tour.
• Frankie is drafted into the Army where he serves in New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan.
• Frankie is released from the army and returns to civilian life.
• Frankie’s new group, the Congaroo Dancers, debuts at the Roxy Theatre.
• Four Congaroos appear in Killer Diller.
• Whitey passes away, September 1950.
• Mura Dehn produces and directs documentary, The Spirit Moves (circa).
The Spirit Moves
• The Rock n’ Roll Era begins.
• Marries Gloria Holloway (two children: Marion and Frank Jr).
• Disbands the Congaroo Dancers.
“I kept things going with the Congaroos for a while, but the work wasn’t too steady, and things really started to slow down…”
• Goes to work for the U.S. Postal Service.
“Working at the post office was difficult at times because I missed being in show business, but I did all right because I was busy raising a family…”
• The book Jazz Dance by Marshal and Jean Stearns is published. (Jazz Dance: The Story Of American Vernacular Dance)
• Frankie separates from Gloria Manning (they are divorced in 1989).