Back during the Harlem Renaissance, he swept the lindy hop of its feet and transformed big-band dance. More than sixty years later, Frankie Manning got a renaissance of his own.
A version of this article originally appeared in GQ and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author. Hear Elizabeth Gilbert discuss this essay and more on the Longform Podcast.
Frank Manning had his name listed in the telephone directory, just like anybody else. Just like any regular person. So, in the spring of 1984, when a young woman named Erin Stevens called the operator looking for him, the operator said yes, indeed, there was a Frank Manning living in the New York metropolitan area. To be exact, there was a Frank Manning residing in Corona, Queens. Erin dialed the number. A man answered the phone. He had a friendly voice, the voice of an elderly individual.
“Is this Frankie Manning?” Erin asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Is this Frankie Manning, the famous dancer?”
There was a long pause. It was a pause that seemed to contain years. It was a pause that seemed to contain decades. Then the man on the phone replied, very politely, “I don’t dance anymore, baby. I just work at the post office.”
Erin Stevens knew full well, though, that Frankie Manning used to dance.
Frankie Manning, in his time, danced his way across the United States, Europe, Australia and South America. He danced in Hollywood and even choreographed movies like A Day at the Races. He danced in traveling shows, opening for stars like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole. He danced for Orson Welles and Greta Garbo. He danced on the ocean liners and in the newsreels. He danced at the World’s Fair. He danced at the Cotton Club, Radio City, the Royal Albert Hall, the Moulin Rouge, the Paradise Club, the Tropicana, the Palladium, the Apollo, the Strand and the Roxy. And he danced, as they say, for the great crowned heads of Europe.
All this was a long, long time ago. Back before the big war.
Frankie Manning was one of the greatest lindy hoppers who ever lived, but you’ve probably never heard of him. Maybe you’ve never even heard of the lindy hop. Maybe it doesn’t sound like much to you. Maybe “lindy hop” sounds simple and innocent because of that baby word, “hop.” But the lindy was not a simple dance, and it was not very innocent, either. The lindy was powerful, lusty, quicker than whiplash. It was a baby of the Charleston. The lindy was famously sexy. A man and a woman lindy hopping worked together like pistons, pulling near and pushing apart, swinging each other out of sight to the driving rhythm of a live big band.
The lindy was a Harlem dance, and Frankie Manning was a Harlem boy. He was a strong, handsome, dark-skinned kid with a big, shaved head. As a young man, he had a nickname that was known throughout his neighborhood. Everyone called him Musclehead. His head was a beautiful thing—a Michael Jordan head, decades before Michael Jordan. But when Frankie Manning danced, he danced hard, and all the muscles in his skull would bust out from the exertion of it. Up at the Savoy Ballroom, the people would crowd in a circle around Frankie Manning as he danced, and they’d all be stomping their feet and sweating and shouting, “Go, Musclehead, go!”
This was the Harlem of the 1930s—a swinging, dancing, glittering Harlem. And this was the Savoy Ballroom, the jewel of Harlem, “the Home of Happy Feet.” The Savoy was Frankie’s domain. He danced there every night. He’d hear that swing music driving before he even hit the dance floor, the jazz already pounding as he came up that gorgeous set of marble stairs, with the chandeliers shimmering above. By the time he hit that lush ballroom—blue and gold, long as a city block, equipped with two bandstands, packed with 1,000 swinging people—Frankie Manning would already be dancing.
He’d be in his best suit, looking, in his own words, “sharp as a cat.” He’d find some beautiful girl, give her a whirl. She might be black, might be white. Didn’t matter. The Savoy was the only integrated ballroom in New York City, and everybody got it on with everybody else. White debutantes, black maids, white college boys, black soldiers—they all pressed together at the Savoy. They came to dance, and to watch the dancing, too. Specifically, they came to watch that privileged area of the ballroom called Cats’ Corner, where hot guys like Frankie Manning performed and competed.
Go, Musclehead, go!
The dancers in Cats’ Corner were the best dancers in Harlem, which in the 1930s pretty much meant they were the best dancers anywhere. When Frankie Manning traveled the world with the dance troupe Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, they had only to advertise “direct from the Savoy Ballroom” to sell out the house. People knew exactly what that meant back then. People knew exactly what the black Savoy dancers were. “Unquestionably the finest,” reported The New York Times. “Remarkable.”
A natural choreographer, Frankie invented “air steps” for the lindy hop, remarkable acrobatic moves where he’d throw his partner over his back and head. Nobody had ever done this before, and it blew people’s minds. Sixty years later, his moves still dazzle. I’ve seen old footage of Frankie Manning snapping his partners in the air the way you would snap sand from a beach towel. I’ve seen photographs of Frankie throwing a girl so high her feet were on the same level as his head, and he was a tall man.
Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers stole every show they ever performed in. The great tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson referred to them as “that raggedy bunch of crazy kids.” But the crowds loved their showboating. When the Lindy Hoppers cut loose at Radio City, for instance, they were called back for five encores by a standing, cheering all-white audience. Frankie was a pretty big star. He hung out with Joe Louis, clowned with Groucho Marx, loved Louis Armstrong like a brother. He counted Sarah Vaughan among his best friends and knew Dizzy Gillespie “back when he was called John.” Frankie stayed in fine hotels, loved the most beautiful chorus girls of the day. He was at the top of his game. He was the best.
And then the war came.
Frankie Manning was drafted. He served in the South Pacific for five years, and when he came back to America, swing music was finished. The big-band era was over. Bebop jazz had arrived, and there was nothing for Frankie to dance to anymore. He performed one night with his old friend Dizzy, struggling to find the rhythm in Dizzy’s improvisational stylings. After the show, he confronted the trumpeter: “What the fuck was that?” Dizzy gave a big grin. It was the future of jazz.
Frankie tried for a few years to keep his career alive, but there was no work. By this time, he had a family to support, and so, in 1955, he quit dancing altogether. He joined the post office. People have to make hard choices. This was Frankie’s.
Did he ever look back with longing on his glory days? He says he did not. “There’s no use crying over what could have been,” Frankie Manning told me. It was over. He’d once been a dancer; now he was a postman. He never told his new friends about his old career. He even had a friend who used to say, “Frankie, I’m going to take you out one of these nights and teach you how to dance.” Frankie would just smile, never mentioning that he’d once danced a command performance for the king of England.
For thirty years, he worked in the post office. And he never in his wildest dreams imagined the day would come when he would be a dancer again.
“And I have some wild dreams,” said Frankie Manning.
So it happened that three decades passed. Then there was that fateful telephone call, placed by Erin Stevens, in the spring of 1984.
Is this Frankie Manning, the famous dancer?
I don’t dance anymore, baby. I just work at the post office.
Erin had come all the way from California to find Frankie Manning. She’d come with her dance partner, a young guy named Steven Mitchell. Erin and Steven were among a growing group of young dancers who had recently rediscovered the dance music of the 1930s—music that sounded incredibly fresh to ears jaded from a lifetime of rock-and-roll monotony. Following the big-band sound, Erin and Steven had become obsessed with the lindy hop. The dance was largely extinct, though, and there were few clues left about its origins. They researched for years before stumbling over Frankie’s name.
The truth is, he didn’t want to see them at first. “I’m retired from dancing,” he kept saying. But he finally agreed to teach them what he could remember. Over the next week, Erin and Steven went out to Frankie Manning’s house in Queens every day. They danced with him on his living-room carpet. They would dance all morning, and then Frankie would rush off to work at the post office. It had been decades, of course, since Frankie had been a Lindy Hopper. He had no vocabulary for lindy anymore, no way of explaining it. The lessons moved slowly. But one afternoon they had a major breakthrough. Steven finally said, “Frankie, do me a favor. Just dance one dance with Erin. Just dance with her.”
They put on a record—Count Bassie’s recording of “Shiny Stockings.” Frankie took Erin into his arms and began to move. All his smoothness returned. He fell right into his lovely, natural eight-count swinging’ Savoy-style lindy step. He laughed and laughed. He swung that girl right out, and Steven watched with revelation.
”That one dance changed my life,” Steven recalled. “That was the heart and soul of lindy hop. That’s what we’d been searching for the whole time.”
Of course, dancing to “Shiny Stockings” with young Erin Stevens changed Frankie Manning’s life, too. It brought the dance back into his bones. And it led him to the status he is enjoying so much today: Beloved National Treasure.
After being rediscovered by Erin and Steven, Frankie Manning became a name all over again. Such a renaissance you have never seen. Within a year of dancing with Erin in his Queens living room, Frankie was in constant demand as a teacher, performer and choreographer. For many people in the dance world, it was like finding out Fred Astaire was still alive and willing to give workshops.
He started teaching lindy all over the world. Then the media caught his story and loved it. Frankie was profiled on 20/20 and Good Morning America and in the pages of The New York Times. He was interviewed by the Smithsonian. There was a documentary made of his life, called Swinging’ at the Savoy. He was awarded National Endowment for the Arts grants for choreography. He danced at Lincoln Center. He was hired as a consultant for an Alvin Ailey ballet. He was an adviser on Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. He did such a good job choreographing the Broadway musical Black and Blue that he won a Tony Award for his efforts.
Thirty years away from dance, and the guy was winning freakin’ Tonys!
He’s 84 years old now, and you should see him. He is such an attractive person. He still has that big, handsome bald head—a Yul Brynner head, years after Yul Brynner. He looks a good twenty-five years younger than his age. Long divorced, he’s dating a nice lady name Judy, who is a good thirty years younger than his age. He has a great, strong chest, and when I danced with him, I could feel the muscles across his back, which I liked very much.
He dances every day now, just as he did when he was a young man. Please remember that Frankie Manning is 84 years old when I tell you that he virtually lives on the road. This year alone, Frankie has taught swing seminars in Denver, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Houston and Phoenix and made appearances in England, Singapore, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Japan.
“Had you ever been to Japan before?” I asked him.
“No, I had not.” Frankie said. There was a small pause, and then he added, “Well, not as a dance instructor.”
Frankie Manning is always precise with the facts, so I asked him in exactly what capacity he had been to Japan before.
“As a member of the United States occupying forces,” he clarified.
One of the smaller dance seminars Frankie taught at this year was held in Baltimore, where 400 people came for a weekend of lindy-hop lessons and big-band dancing. I sat in on a few classes. It was a real joy to watch Frankie Manning teach. Denzel Washington, who studied under Frankie for the lindy-hop scenes in Malcolm X, said, “He’s young, he’s fun, he’s smooth, and he’s got total positive energy. When we were learning the lindy hop with Frankie, we tried to have as much fun as he was having. We were just trying to keep up with him.”
After any class Frankie teaches, his students line up to have their picture taken with him and to get his autograph. They’re crazy about him. They wear T-shirts emblazoned with his face. The girls can’t seem to stop themselves from kissing him.
”He’s the lindy God,” one young man told me. “He’s the cat who does everything cool.”
He’s also the cat who has infinite patience and good humor. This gifted man, who once soared as a dancer, will stand there all day long, slowly counting, “And-one-and-two-and-three…,” keeping time for a group of earnest clodhoppers who haven’t the first molecule of rhythm. Watching Frankie Manning teach lindy hop to beginners would be like watching Duke Ellington teach “Chopsticks” to a second grader.
Even if they don’t get it,” Frankie said, “they’re having fun, and that’s fun for me to watch.”
But he teaches more than the steps, anyway. He has a bigger lesson plan. Frankie teaches intimacy. He teaches men and women how to be with each other. It is Frankie Manning’s belief that the men and women of America lost a great deal of intimacy when they stopped dancing together as partners. It is Frankie Manning’s belief that most of the communication problems between modern men and women can be worked out on the dance floor. The couple that sways together, after all, stays together.
“Men and women,” Frankie said, “used to come together to dance. Back in the ’30s, if I was dancing with you, I would talk to you. How was your day? How’s your family? How are you feeling? We could spend time together and have a conversation. That’s how you got to know a person. When men and women stopped dancing socially, they lost the connection, the closeness.”
Frankie thinks that modern men, in particular, do not know how to behave properly anymore. And so he teaches them. In the course of his dance classes, Frankie teaches his male students manners, kindness and, not least in importance, grooming. “You have to look good,” he tells the men. “When you ask a girl to dance, the first thing she does is take a step back and look you over. You gotta give her something good to look at, fellas.”
For Frankie, style, dignity, dance and romance are connected. For his students, it is the possibility of resurrecting exactly those things that is so appealing. One of Frankie’s best students, a young professional modern dancer named Mickey Davidson, explained her attraction to lindy hop this way: “Here I am, this head-of-the-household single black mother, carrying the world on my shoulders. But when I dance with a man, I have to relax and surrender. I have to trust that, for just two minutes, this man is going to take care of me. As a woman, you don’t lose anything with that surrender. You need it sometimes.”
“Look at each other!” Frankie Manning always insists when he’s teaching a class. “Stop looking at your feet! Look at each other!” He tells his male students again and again, “Hold her close. Hold her closer. You have to dance with every woman like you’re in love with her.”
Love? Well, love is a tall order. A lot of people these days don’t love their sexual partners, much less their dance partners. But love is exactly what Frankie demands. Even if it’s just for two minutes. He interrupted a class once with this statement: “Fellas, the lady you are dancing with is a queen.”
We all laughed—men and women alike. Frankie waited for the laughter to ebb, and he said it again: “She is a queen.”
He was serious. “She is a queen.” He was going to keep saying that until we all heard him, until we all understood exactly how serious he was. The room got very quiet.
“And what do you do to a queen?” he asked. “You bow to her. When you’re dancing with a woman, you should be bowing to her, all the time. That’s the feeling you should have. She is letting you dance with her. You should be grateful, fellas.”
He turned the music back on. At that moment, I happened to be dancing with an awfully handsome off-duty fireman, who took me into his arms—very close—looked me in the eyes and smiled lovingly. I started to feel a little woozy.
“That’s better,” said Frankie Manning.
Of course, Frankie teaches dance, too, during those dance classes. He teaches technical, formal style points, too. It’s not all etiquette. He does want you to learn how to move your ass.
“Get down!” he says. “Get low! Get sassy! Stay low to the ground! Don’t be afraid to bend your legs! Lower! This ain’t no Riverdance, people!”
Frankie has no shortage of students to teach, because swing has returned to American culture in a big way. Dormant since before the war, swing is big again now. Swing is everywhere. The swing resurgence started in, of all places, the punk communities of California. While there were always a few dancers interested in swing for its rich historic value, it was the punks who made it back into an actual scene. In the late ‘80s, the hard-core kids started thinking punk had become too mainstream, too diluted, and they saw this retro movement as a way to turn things in the opposite direction. All over Los Angeles, thrash guitarists took to wearing gabardine suits and playing trombones. Skinhead girls grew their hair out and started styling it like Betty Grable’s. All those ex-punks formed a cool little subculture, which has since erupted into something much bigger. Swing is, in the words of one young dancer, “frighteningly huge now.”
The swing movement has become so mainstream that the Gap is using swing dancers to advertise its khakis on TV. Swing dancers have even been featured in rap videos. And it’s not just a hip, urban phenomenon anymore. Unless you live in the middle of absolute nowhere, swing has probably come to your town, too. I’ve met 14-year-olds from suburban Maryland who are into swing. They listen to Benny Goodman in study hall. They have swing bands at their proms. I asked one such girl if her parents could dance.
“No way,” she said, exquisitely disgusted.
“What kind of music do your parents like?” I asked.
“Led Zeppelin,” the girl said, and rolled her eyes.
The students Frankie Manning teaches these days are predominately white. There is no getting around this. The lindy may have begun life as a black dance in Harlem, but it is largely a white dance today. There are several explanations given for this. Some people say black dance continued to evolve after the ‘40s and lindy was absorbed into newer dances. For instance, a lot of Frankie’s steps used to show up on Soul Train, and they still show up in today’s hip-hop moves. In other words, the argument goes, black kids don’t need a swing revival, because they never stopped swinging.
Others argue that the swing revival will remain a predominately white, elitist experience as long as it remains so prohibitively expensive. Big bands are costly to hire, so swing dances can run $30 a ticket. The vintage clothing alone (not to mention its dry cleaning) will bust your bank wide open. Besides which, lindy is now taught in dance schools, and there is simply not a tradition in America of black people paying money for dance classes.
Whatever the cause, it annoys Frankie that there aren’t more black faces out there studying lindy, but he won’t dwell on it, because Frankie Manning will not dwell on any question of racial imbalance. Racism and its effects are not subjects Frankie likes to discuss. He won’t go there. Everybody knows that about him. His refusal to give questions of race anything more than a curt dismissal can be frustrating at first. If you let him get away with it, he’ll dismiss the entire history of American racism with this one diplomatic line: “There are good people and bad people of every color.”
True, but an awfully big simplification.
“Sure, I experienced segregation myself,” Frankie said when pushed. “When I was traveling through the South in the ‘30s, there were lots of places we couldn’t eat. We’d drive our bus up t some restaurant and they’d say, ‘No niggers allowed.’ We’d try to tell the folks, ‘Hey, man, we got Nat King Cole on this bus. We got Ella Fitzgerald on this bus.’ But they didn’t care who we were. They didn’t want any of us around.”
Was Frankie damaged by this? He sure doesn’t seem damaged. He shrugs it right off, even in recollection. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “Let anger eat you up?” Frankie never let racism degrade him, but, then again, he wasn’t raised in a culture of degradation. He was raised in Harlem, and Harlem was different. Harlem in the 1930s was something like a small black nation whose citizens had real political, economic and intellectual autonomy.
Frankie, as a gifted performer, was constantly surrounded by blacks who were not only rich, famous and talented but also greatly self-assured. To them the Jim Crow South was a freak show, often more ridiculous than intimidating. Norma Miller, one of Frankie’s old dance partners, told me she laughed her head off the first time she traveled in the South and saw separate water fountains for black people and white people.
“I was like, You have got to be kidding me!” Norma recalled. “That was the stupidest system I’d ever seen. And I said so, too. Oh, they hated me in the South, but I always spoke my mind. I didn’t give a shit. I’d been to Europe, honey. These people were goddamn rednecks.”
Unfortunately, the rednecks were often in charge. Back in the ‘30s, there were countless venues in America where black artists could perform but not sit in the audience. Frankie Manning and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers opened a show once for Billie Holiday at a fancy hotel in Boston. It was a monthlong engagement. The first night, after their performance, Frankie and his dancers slipped into the audience to watch Billie sing. They were immediately thrown out. “No colored people allowed in the dining room,” said the manager. (“And this was Boston!” Frankie said, still amazed.) After the show, Billie found the Lindy Hoppers sitting glumly backstage and asked, “Don’t you like my singing? I saw you in the audience, and when I looked again, you were gone.” They explained what had happened. Billie called over the manager of the hotel. She told him, “My friends can sit in that audience or I don’t sing another note here.” After much negotiation, the Lindy Hoppers were finally given a table in the dining room. It was a table in the back, but it was a table nonetheless.
“And you can sure bet we sat there every night,” Frankie said, grinning.
That happens to be a story of victory, which is exactly why Frankie will tell it. There are other stories, I’m sure, that didn’t end so triumphantly, but we won’t be hearing about those. Tougher, more tragic stories may well be part of America’s history, but they aren’t part of Frankie’s. Not the way he chooses to tell it.
Others may tell it differently. When I asked Steven Mitchell—Frankie’s young, black dancing disciple—if he believed Frankie’s career had been limited by race, Steven looked at me as if I were some new breed of idiot. “Are you kidding?” he said. “Frankie Manning should be a household name. He should be revered. He was every bit as important to American dance as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. But he was black. He went as far as he could go, but it wasn’t far enough. Whatever small fame he has today, it’s not enough. It will never make up for what was lost.”
It’s true that when the swing era came to a close, Frankie couldn’t make a transition into some other branch of show business. He’d been pigeonholed as a black lindy hopper, a novelty act, and he could never be anything else. So why isn’t he pissed off about it? Because Frankie is bigger than that. Because Frankie was born a good-natured man, goddamn it, and he intends to remain one. Because Frankie has spent a lifetime refusing to make our racism his problem.
“I call Frankie ‘the Black Man’s Revenge,’” said his student Mickey Davidson, “because he’s always done just what he pleased, despite the prejudice. In an era when a black man could be killed for even looking at a white woman, he had all the white women he ever wanted. He had all the every-kind-of-woman he ever wanted! In a time when blacks couldn’t travel, he saw the world. In a time when blacks had no power, he was a star. Now he’s got his post-office pension, and he can relax and do whatever he wants. He’s always lived his life how he wanted to. And he did it without fighting or hollering or burning anything down.”
Well, there was some fighting.
Remember that Frankie Manning spent five years in the United states Army during the Second World War. He was stationed in the South Pacific, which provided some of the ugliest fighting American soldiers saw during the war. Frankie will only sketch the broadest details of that time. Yes, he served in a black battalion, under white officers. Yes, he invaded New Guinea, with “the bombs and bullets falling on everyone.” Yes, he was awarded some medals, “you know, for bravery and all that stuff.”
He leaves his military history at that, but his girlfriend, Judy, adds the grim detail that Frankie also experienced hand-to-hand combat against Japanese soldiers. The tragedy is, he was probably quite good at it. What is hand-to-hand combat if not a gruesome parallel of dance? But what a waste of a dancer’s grace. And he will not talk about that.
When it comes to war stories, Frankie always leads the conversation back to the few happy memories of his service. There’s one story he particularly likes to tell. Frankie took a troop ship to the South Pacific, along with hundreds of other terrified young GIs. There was a female singer on that ship who entertained the boys. Every night she’d put on a show. It was a little something to keep the soldiers from thinking about exactly when and how they were going to face the possibility of death. And every night she used to sing this popular tune of the day called “Whatcha Know, Joe?” The lyrics went like this: Whatcha know, Joe? / I don’t know nothin’! / Whatcha know, Joe? / I don’t know nothin’!
And so on, and so on. It was a dorky song, but the boys liked it. One night, when the lady was performing, Frankie—himself a world-class performer—could no longer resist joining in. When she sang, “Whatcha know, Joe?” Frankie popped up from his set and shouted, “I don’t know nothin’!” It brought down the house. The soldiers thought it was hilarious. So every night after that, she would look for Frankie Manning whenever she sang that song.
“Whatcha know, Joe?” she’d sing, and he’d sing out in reply, “I don’t know nothin’!”
The other soldiers would die laughing. It may not sound like much of a joke, but consider the circumstances. Now, one night, the lady was singing as usual. She got to that favorite tune and sang, “Whatcha know, Joe?” but as Frankie was about to respond, the lights went out.
“When the lights went out on our troop ship,” Frankie told me, “that meant an enemy submarine had been detected. That meant everybody had to sit there in dead silence. You couldn’t make a sound, or that submarine would hear you and blow you out of the water. You never knew if you were going to live or die. You never knew how long it would last.”
That particular night, the blackout lasted about twenty minutes. An eternity. The men sat in silent fear in the dark. Then the lights came back on. Frankie jumped out of his seat.
“I don’t know nothin’!” he shouted.
The troops roared with laughter and relief.
To me, that story is Frankie Manning. That story is exactly what happened to his career. He was performing happily and successfully one moment, and the next moment the lights went out. Only, for Frankie Manning, the lights went out for thirty years. Thirty long years at that post office, never knowing if he’d come out of it. But Frankie wasn’t afraid, and he didn’t despair. He just waited in the dark. And when the lights did come back on, in 1984—so suddenly—he was ready.
He’d never really been gone. He’d just been waiting for his cue.
The regulars at Wells are mostly black men in their eighties and nineties. Some of them are old stars from the Savoy; some are just lifelong social dancers. They’re all vibrant individuals. In fact, the only harsh word Frankie Manning ever spoke to me was when I asked him about one famous Wells regular, an elderly man named Buster Brown.
I said, “Buster Brown used to be a great tap dancer, didn’t he?”
“Buster Brown is still a great tap dancer,” Frankie corrected me, sternly.
One Monday afternoon, before heading over to Wells, Frankie Manning took me on a tour of Harlem. We cruised the neighborhood in his Buick Regal. Frankie started the tour by pointing out a church on 132nd Street and saying, “The Lafayette Theatre used to be right there. I entered an amateur contest there one night. The crowd hated me. I got dragged offstage by a guy with a cane. That’s the first time I ever danced for an audience.”
But the Lafayette Theatre is gone now, and so is the bar that used to be a block away, called the Hoofers Club, where all the tap dancers used to hang out. The Dickie Wells nightclub on 133rd Street is also gone. The nightclub called Smalls’ Paradise is still there, but it’s boarded up and the windows are full of cement. Smalls’ Paradise was once owned by a tough character named Ed Smalls. I asked Frankie if he knew Ed Smalls, and he said, “I didn’t want to know Ed Smalls. See, he had this little chorus girl for a girlfriend. But she liked me, and I liked her, and we used to…” Frankie grabbed my hand, stilled my pen and said, “You ain’t writin’ this down, baby.”
Then he finished his story. I wish I could tell you what Frankie Manning said about that chorus girl. I really do.
Then we drove over to 135th Street, where Jesse Owens, in a publicity stunt, once raced against a horse. We passed the YMCA where Frankie used to play basketball with the guys from Cab Calloway’s band. Then over to the site of the former Lincoln Theatre. Frankie’s mother knew an usher at the Lincoln who would let Frankie in for free every day after school. He’d watch the movies, comedians and dance shows all afternoon, until his mother came home from work. The Lincoln Theatre, Frankie’s baby-sitter, is gone now. So is the apartment house on 138th Street where he once lived. So is the bar on St. Nicholas Avenue where Billie Holiday used to sing.
“Harlem used to be so great,” Frankie said. “It was all music and dance. That’s why the people came here from downtown, because it never stopped. I can still see it how it was, with the cars pulled up to the nightclubs and the people all dressed up. I don’t drive around Harlem very much anymore, because, to tell you the truth, it makes me too sad. It’s all gone.”
Nothing is more gone than the Savoy Ballroom. Not a brick of that fantastic building remains. There’s an ugly low-income housing complex on the site now.
“They just came one day and ripped the Savoy down,” Frankie said. “Can you believe that? They didn’t even put up a plaque to commemorate it. All that history, they just tore it down. The only thing left is me to tell you it was ever there.”
He shrugged, then smiled. “And that’s the end of your tour, baby.”
The Harlem tour was a rare afternoon of looking backward for Frankie Manning. He doesn’t usually do that. Not in a sad way, anyhow. It’s not his nature to dwell on unpleasantness. He would much prefer to remember the good stuff.
“Count Basie!” he shouted, for instance, when I asked him who had the best swing band of all time. He threw his head back and laughed, slamming his hand on the table with delight. “You don’t have to ask me twice! Count Basie! Count Basie! That cat could swing our pants off! Count Basie!”
On another occasion, I asked him where he would go if he were given one night to travel back in time.
“The Savoy!” he shouted, and he looked so happy picturing it. “I would go back to the Savoy for one of those nights when they had a battle of the bands, like when Chick Webb battled Benny Goodman. Man, we used to really swing then. And I’d bring back some of these young lindy hoppers from today, so they could really see how we danced. I’d love that. I’d love to hear all the old-time Savoy cats say, ‘You kids from the ’90s dance pretty good, but now stand back and watch us kids from the ‘30s go!’”
Frankie savored the fantasy for a moment, and then he let it go. No point in living in the past, after all. Nothing to be gained from that. “Got to keep looking ahead,” he said.
So he drives himself forward, always pushing on, always living like a man half his age. He accepts every opportunity he’s given to dance, teach or travel. And he books himself solid, months and years into the future. I picked up a flyer at one swing seminar, encouraging swingers to sign up for the Millennium Hop—the New Year’s Eve 2000 event with Frankie Manning, already scheduled at the glamorous Riviera Pacifico in Ensenada, Mexico. I love this. I love the casual assumption that Frankie Manning will not only still be with us at the end of the millennium but will be dancing up a storm somewhere in Mexico at midnight. But of course he’ll be there. Frankie Manning loves a good party. I was with him when he turned 84 this year, and it was a great day. The swing societies of different cities have taken to celebrating Frankie’s birthday each year. It’s a tradition. He’s been honored with blowout dances in New York, Washington and Munich, Germany, but this year Baltimore won. Swing Baltimore hosted a huge party for him in the ballroom of the Sheraton, with a full big band and hundreds of guests from around the world.
There is another tradition that has grown up around Frankie’s birthday. It started on his eightieth birthday, when he danced with eighty women in a row to celebrate the occasion. He enjoyed it so much, they arrange the same scenario for him every year now. They just keep adding women to the line, another woman for every year.
After the cake was cut, the band in Baltimore started to swing. Frankie, looking sharp as a cat in a black four-button suit and a bright red tie, stretched out his arms to welcome his first young lady. She was a cute brunette. He swung her out beautifully and dipped her. He twirled her away, and the next girl stepped up to dance, and then the next and the next and the next. A group of young men sitting on the floor counted off the women, keeping track for Frankie.
Thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three…
There was every kind of woman in that line. There were black ones and white ones and brown ones. There were lean ones and chubby ones. There were long, elegant ladies and also the kind that are short and easy to throw around. There was someone in that line to represent every kind of woman Frankie had ever danced with or loved. Which, for Frankie Manning, is the same thing.
Fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six…
The band played through song after song. Frankie danced with the married ladies and the wild ones and the girls who stumbled awkward and giggling into his arms. At one point, two sexy teenagers jumped out of the line together and Frankie danced with them both at the same time, without missing a beat.
Seventy-six, seventy-seven, seventy-eight…
When he got to eighty-four, there were still women left in the line, so he laughed and kept on dancing, right past his age. Frankie Manning ended up dancing with nearly a hundred women. He was tireless and suave. It was incredible to watch him move, and I’ll tell you the truth—I’ve never seen a sexier man. And here’s why: He managed to make each dance—each woman—distinct. In no more than a step or two, Frankie Manning sensed the individual style of his partner and he altered his dance slightly to make hers look more beautiful. In doing so, he seemed to be bowing to every woman he touched. As though he revered and adored every last one of them. As though every last one of them were a queen.