Frankie Manning was the kind of man that you’re lucky to meet once in a lifetime. Many articles and interviews cover his legacy of contributions to dance, his incredible impact on a world-wide swing dancing community – a community for which he’s been a focal point both when the dance first emerged in the 1930s-1940s and in its resurgence 50 years later. A search on Google or YouTube will yield page after page of pieces about him and dedicated to him. He impacted dancers, musicians, and choreographers, helping communities form everywhere he went. He was himself a performer, choreographer, teacher, inspiration. No, using the past tense in that last sentence is inaccurate – Frankie will always be an inspiration.
True, Frankie Manning was not the only dancer from that time who continued to swing into the new millennium. But Frankie brought something special to the dance floor and the stage and it’s that “something” that I’ve been trying to put my finger on all week as I’ve been describing him to people in the wake of his passing. It’s a something that we just don’t see all that often these days. I would guess it’s something that’s been uncommon throughout all those 94 years.
For me, the real legacy that Frankie left for the community was the grace and the joy with which he handled the dance, his partners, and the fame which bookended his life.
I loved to watch him dance. His face would just glow with happiness. He loved the partnership of the dance, the lead and follow of two independent people who become completely connected for those few minutes of playfulness and romance.
I loved to watch him watching other people dance. His eyes lit up and that ever-present grin would grow even wider as he surveyed a dance floor filled with couples irresistably moved by the music.
I loved to watch him watching the musicians. His foot and hand would tap along, and he’d be laughing, swinging his head, his entire body buzzing with the kinetic energy he drew from their sound. And, again, there would be that grin.
His grace was perhaps a little less easy to pinpoint. I thought of it as partly due to the legacy of the 1940s which he carried into our times, and mostly due to the respect and love that he had for people. He would describe the world of the Savoy Ballroom and would mime holding out his hand with a smile to ask a woman to dance, then casually mention walking her back to her seat when the dance was done. While he was dancing, he was focused on that moment, whatever was happening inside their little lindy circle was the universe.
Even though he was such a celebrity in our world, he treated his partners as, well, partners, appreciating them and the dance they shared. He would then extend that attention to the entire community, taking on his mantle as a teacher and icon in the same way he led the dance.
I was at a talk of his once when someone asked what they did when the dance floor at the Savoy was too crowded, asking how he could have done his long extended moves in such a tight space. He looked at the questioner with a slightly puzzled face and answered, “If the floor was full, you just didn’t dance. We would all take turns.”
That, to me, is Frankie. He was the point around which we all gathered. He is the reason over a thousand dancers will be in NY this May. He will continue to be an inspiration and we will look to his legacy for years to come.
Frankie, meanwhile, has stepped to the side to watch because now it’s our turn to dance.