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How Frankie Manning's incredible dancing skills made him famous twice, 50 years apart

Frankie Manning holding a microphone and laughing
Frankie Manning, at age 80, performs at the Smithsonian.
Frank Johnston/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

In 1935, a dancer named Frankie Manning won a dance competition with a daring feat: He flipped his partner over his back and onto her feet, the Lindy Hop "air step" that would make Manning, honored in today's Google Doodle, arguably the most famous swing dancer of all time.

Manning, who died in 2009, would be 102 today. Like a good performance, his career included both a first act and a later revival, bookending a 30-year job and a quiet life at the post office. He started dancing in his teens, and he was still dancing at his 85th birthday party, when he danced with 85 different partners.

But the fact that Manning's career needed a revival at all — a revival driven mostly by white swing dancers in the mid-1980s — also shows how white Americans embraced black dance steps without always uplifting the people who created them.

Manning, like swing dancing, got his start in Harlem

To understand just how good Manning was at swing dancing, all you have to do is watch him in the 1941 comedy Hellzapoppin'. It's incredible:

Manning was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and moved to New York in 1917 at age 3 with his mother, part of the vast wave of black Americans moving out of the South in hopes of better opportunities.

What they often found was discriminatory high rents. Rent was exorbitant for black New Yorkers in the 1920s: A study by the New York Urban League in 1927 found that rent for black New Yorkers had doubled since 1919 while increasing only 10 percent for white residents. Black residents had to pay far more than white residents for virtually identical apartments.

In order to make rent, Harlem residents would throw "rent parties" — opening their apartments for live music and dancing, with a cover charge. Manning would attend with his mother, and even as a kid he'd go home and practice in his room, trying to imitate the moves.

When he was 15, Manning started dancing at the Savoy, the only integrated ballroom in New York City. The Savoy was where the Lindy Hop began, a style of swing dance developed in the late 1920s by black performers; it was apparently named after Charles Lindbergh, who'd just completed his solo flight across the Atlantic, and honored him by featuring solo dancing.

Manning became famous for his enthralling, acrobatic work, particularly the aerial moves he incorporated. After he gained fame at the Savoy, he went on a world tour and was featured in Life magazine in 1941.

Life noted that the specific dance Manning was photographed performing, the Congeroo, could probably be "tamed down … for fairly polite society." White Americans liked dances and music created by black people much more than they liked black people themselves.

Dance scenes, such as the one above from Hellzapoppin', often had no relation to the plot, Lisa Wade, a professor of sociology at Occidental College wrote in 2009 for the Society Pages: "This was so that the movie studios could edit out the scene when the movie was going to be shown to those white audiences that were hostile to seeing any positive representation of black people at all."

And when white Americans started doing the Lindy Hop in the 1930s and '40s, renaming it the jitterbug, they erased the black performers who created it. A 1944 instructional movie on doing the jitterbug features a white couple and emphasizes that the dance borrows moves from ballet, waltzes, 18th-century ballroom dance, and "Javanese" dancing — but it doesn't mention the Savoy.

In the 1980s, Americans rediscovered swing dancing

After World War II, swing dancing fell out of favor — the dancers and musicians were drafted, the war led to a tax on entertainment in the US, and rock music was supplanting jazz. Manning gave up dancing and went to work at the post office. As Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, of Eat Pray Love) wrote in GQ in 1998:

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.

Then in 1984, a handful of dancers were trying to revive the swing dances of the 1930s. As Gilbert writes, they tracked Manning down, and from there, following his 70th birthday, he enjoyed a career revival.

Manning traveled the world teaching the Lindy Hop. He was interviewed in Ken Burns's documentary on jazz. And he did choreography for the Broadway show Black and Blue, winning a Tony for it in 1989.

Black dancers created the Lindy Hop, but white performers were the ones who drove the revival of swing in the '80s. Gilbert writes that Manning didn't like to engage with questions of race, saying that he'd met "good people and bad people of every color." But the racial contradictions of the jitterbug era could still reemerge, as Wade (herself a dancer) wrote:

These contemporary dancers look to old movie clips of famous black dancers as inspiration. … These movies portrayed black people in ways that white people were comfortable with: blacks were musical, entertaining, athletic (even animalistic), outrageous (even wild), not-so-smart, happy-go-lucky, etc.

So what we see in the old clips that contemporary lindy hoppers idolize is not a pure manifestation of lindy hop, but a manifestation of the dance infused by racism. While lindy hoppers today look at those old clips with nothing short of reverence, they are mostly naive to the fact that the dancing they are emulating was a product made to confirm white people’s beliefs about black people.

There's also the question of how Manning fell into obscurity in the first place, no matter how heartwarming the revival of his career was. White dancers of his era managed to stay active in the performing arts even after their dances went out of style. Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly went into television. But Manning worked at the post office. Gilbert wrote:

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."

Manning, though, relished his revival. On his 80th birthday, he danced with 80 different partners. Every year, he'd add one new partner for every year he'd lived. And although he couldn't leap during the Lindy Hop anymore, he was dancing in public and seemingly having the time of his life until just before his death.

If you want to know more about Manning, this 10-minute documentary from Swing Bud Films features him talking about his life in his own words, plus some amazing old footage:

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