Monday, April 27, 2009

Frankie Manning, Inventor of Lindy Hop, Teacher of Cool

Frankie Manning, one of the originators of the dance known as Lindy Hop, or Jitterbug, or swing, or whatever you like to call it, died this morning, two months shy of his 95th birthday. And while one can't feel too sad at a good life that lasted a very long time, it is hard to imagine a world without Frankie Manning.

When Frankie taught Lindy Hop, he would pair everyone up and then tell the guys to look at the girls.

"Fellas," he would say genially, "do you see that lady before you? That lady is a princess. And what do you do when you see a princess? You bow."

This wasn't a lesson in manners, this was a lesson in leading the swingout. Frankie would take a step back as he bent at the waist, his right arm sweeping back, and look very much as though he were bowing as his partner stepped forward.

That was what was so cool about taking classes from Frankie. He didn't just teach the mechanics of dance, he taught the attitude. Frankie was all about attitude. Watch the video below. That's Frankie dancing with Dawn Hampton, another swing legend. Nothing they're doing is particularly difficult from a technical standpoint, but it takes decades to learn to be that cool. You can see they have the music deep in their bones.

Frankie was the only teacher I've ever had who really focused on attitude. One of my favorite Frankie moves begins with a traveling tuck turn, in which you lead the girl to turn while moving foward in a straight line, and all you have to do is stay even with her as she moves. There's really nothing to that, but when Frankie moved alongside the girl, he did it with this elfen charm, this light, twinkling step (Frankie always twinkled, when he spoke, when he danced, and of course when he smiled) to what was essentially just a 2 second stroll. And he emphasized that this was part of the step, that you needed to create that feeling; you couldn't just walk along as though it didn't mean anything.

I think about the way Frankie moved when I lead that step, but I don't have it yet. Hopefully I will by the time I turn 94. I wish I could take another lesson from him, and just see again exactly how he does it, but now, alas, I am on my own.

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