If you make a point of checking regularly for Google’s “Doodles”—those fun little animations that sometimes replace the Google logo to commemorate holidays or other important events—like I do, you’ll have seen that today’s Doodle was of a little cartoon Frankie Manning doing the Lindy Hop with a lady friend, which could be his wife Gloria Holloway or one of his dance partners like Frieda Washington or Willa Mae Ricker or Norma Miller.
Who is Frankie Manning?
Born on May 26, 1914, Frankie Manning would become one of the most well-known American dancers of his era. He would go on to be a popular choreographer, but his most well-known contribution to American culture was as one of the founding fathers of Lindy Hop.
But we’re not quite there yet.
At three years old, Frankie moved with his mother from Jacksonville, Florida, where he was born, to the neighborhood of Harlem in northern New York City. His mother was a skilled dancer, so it’s little surprise that Frankie would show interest in dancing from a young age although he was quite shy about dancing around other people. After a few summers at the family farm in South Carolina, where his grandmother would encourage him to dance with the others at the weekly social gatherings they would host, Frankie got more comfortable and confident and started attending the dances held in the Renaissance Ballroom in 1927 when he was 13 years old.
Having only seen his mother dancing the way everyone else danced at neighborhood parties in Harlem, Frankie was surprised when he saw her teaching more formal types of dance like the waltz and foxtrot. He decided he wanted to learn to dance like that to please his mother who, in turn, told him that he was “too stiff” for those types of dance.
As he got older, Frankie started to frequent the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, which was well-known for being where the best dancers went and also for being the only integrated ballroom in all of New York City at the time. He got better and better, eventually joining a group of elite dancers that would put on impromptu exhibitions and competitions in “Kat’s Corner”, the special section of the Savoy floor that nobody else could use.
During a swing competition in 1935, Frankie invented the “Lindy aerial”, standing back-to-back and locking arms with parter Frieda Washington, and then bending over and flipping her off his back. It was the first time the move had ever been seen, and it quickly caught on around Harlem.
By that point, Frankie Manning was becoming well-known throughout Harlem and even New York City. Although he didn’t coin the term “Lindy Hop”—that honor goes to George “Shorty” Snowden, one of the competing dancers that bore witness to Frankie’s inaugural Lindy aerial during the 1935 competition—he was increasingly associated with the style of dance, which was becoming a staple in the Harlem neighborhood. When the Savoy Ballroom organized its first official group of Lindy Hop dancers called Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers (named after Herbert Whitey who was tasked with assembling the group), Frankie was the de facto choreographer and created the group’s first ensemble Lindy Hop routines. The group toured extensively around the U.S. and even made a few films that showcased their dancing. In many of these films, Frankie danced with Norma Miller (both featured in the video below) who would come to be known as the Queen of Swing.
Unfortunately, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers disbanded when many of its members joined the armed forces at the start of World War II. Frankie, himself, served in the U.S. Army. After the war, Frankie organized a small troupe called the Congaroos, but the group disbanded in 1955, at which time Frankie settled into a career with the U.S. Postal Service. It wasn’t until 1986 that Frankie would get back into dancing.
In the early 1980s, former Lindy Hoppers had started to teach the dance at the Sandra Cameron Dance Center. Before he died in 1985, Al Minns—the primary instructor—told the dance students about Frankie Manning, who was still living in New York City at the time. The students tracked Frankie down the following year and asked him to be their instructor. At first he declined, reluctant to believe that this younger generation would be interested or could appreciate the dance. However, several of the students returned home to the West Coast and began sharing the Lindy Hop with their friends. It didn’t take very long for a full-scale swing revival to hit the U.S., so Frankie agreed, also accepting the offer to teach an annual dance workshop in Sweden, which he continued to do until his death in 2009.
By the late 1980s, swing and the Lindy Hop had become extremely popular once again. Frankie was a highly-sought instructor and would occasionally appear with Norma Miller. In 1989 at the age of 75, Frankie co-choreographed the Broadway musical Black and Blue, which earned him a Tony Award. Aside from teaching, he’s well-known for the elaborate birthday parties held in his honor each year. At each year’s party, Frankie would dance with one woman for each year of his life. He died less than a month from his 95th birthday on April 27, 2009, so he would have danced with 94 women at his last birthday party.
What is the Lindy Hop?
The Lindy Hop is a style of jazz dance and a member of the swing dance family that evolved in Harlem. It’s sometimes known as the “Jitterbug”, the latter of which was the “white name” of the dance since it was created and made popular by black dancers. Likewise, it was widely known as the “jive” in the UK and the “Boogie Woogie” elsewhere in Europe.
There are a number of styles that clearly influenced the creation of Lindy Pop, which is something of a combination of jazz and tap, the Charleston, and the breakaway style. (The video below will show you some of the main Lindy Hop influences as well as other dances of the swing period.)
Like breakaway, the Lindy Hope begins in a closed position with both dancers facing one another. The foot movements are a standard eight-count that’s similar to European partner dances, but with intermittent “swingouts”, which refers to when one dancer swings outward so that the couple is now standing side by side while still connected by a hand. The Lindy Hop alternates between these “open” and “closed” positions while incorporating a number of Harlem improvisational and freestyle-like moves that were popular among black danders of the era.
Today, just about anyone who’s familiar with the Lindy Hop associates and largely attributes the renowned dance to Frankie Manning. When you consider today being Frankie’s 102nd birthday, it’s little surprise that today’s Doodle would feature Frankie performing the dance that he made famous.
Watch this brief Frankie Manning tribute, courtesy of The New York times: