Written and copyright by Harri Heinila
The late Frankie Manning is likely the most known Lindy Hopper in the world at this moment. You can find interviews, articles, comments and videos about him almost everywhere. There are people who literally worship him to the extent where all kind of criticism is squashed immediately if someone dares to challenge the statements he made during his lifetime. This article discusses especially his first air step claim and tries to start a critical discussion where his statements are compared to the other evidence, and thus connected to the bigger picture of the events. Manning was mythicized and made as some kind of a “godlike being” who could not be criticized, at the latest, from the end of the 1980s when he started to win fame among the newcomers in the Lindy Hop who began to worship him without any kind of proper criticism.
This all was connected to his come back to the Lindy Hop where various people took honors in bringing him back. Indeed, there are videos, for example, on YouTube where you can see Frankie Manning dancing already in 1983, years before his “official” come back in 1985-1986. He had retired from the professional Lindy Hop dancing in the middle of the 1950s when there was not anymore the Lindy Hop dancing as another popular myth goes. These popular myths are simply wrong. Manning did not disappear after his retirement in the 1950s. He still danced through the decades like so many other Savoy Lindy Hoppers did as well. Manning might not have performed until the 1980s since his retirement, but other Savoy Lindy Hoppers and their descendents performed and kept the Lindy Hop alive through the decades like Manning did too, although he obviously only social danced during these decades. Also the Lindy Hop did not disappear during the 1950s: The Savoy Ballroom was still going on strong until 1958, and Savoy Lindy Hoppers taught new enthusiasts during the following decades. There was no kind of gap in the continuation of the Lindy Hop when the new, mostly white enthusiasts began to raise interest in the Lindy Hop starting from the beginning of the 1980s. These 1980s enthusiasts’ actions are still errorneously called the revival of the Lindy Hop. Actually, it was the revival of the interest in the Lindy Hop because the Lindy Hop never disappeared.
It also should be remembered that many of Savoy Lindy Hoppers like Norma Miller, Al Minns, and Louise ‘Mama Lou’ Parks Duncanson brought out Manning’s importance in the Lindy Hop when the new enthusiasts began to be interested in Manning’s stories and dancing in the 1980s. It did not just happen like snapping fingers. It took persuation to get Manning interested in teaching newcomers. The reasons for that are not clear. There likely existed decades old grievances between the Savoy Lindy Hoppers, and Manning possibly did not feel comfortable to start any kind of conversation concerning his Lindy Hop career. One of the newcomers told me that he was astonished when Manning began to speak about his experiences in the Lindy Hop. It obviously really took persuasion to get him talking about the experiences. After he started to talk, he really talked, and he obviously became the most interviewed Lindy Hopper from the Savoy Ballroom. Although he stressed that he did not want to be egoistic, he usually brought out his achievements in the Lindy Hop. One of those achievements was the first air step which he claimed to have been responsible for.
Manning’s claim on the first air step in the Lindy Hop has usually been accepted without any criticism. It seems that only the late Terry Monaghan criticized the claim. He stated that Manning’s air step invention was possibly true in the localized context as Manning claimed to have invented it in the Savoy contest against George ‘Shorty’ Snowden. Air steps, however, were used in the Lindy Hop before Manning’s air step invention which happened, according to Norma Miller, during spring 1936. Indeed, Miller was not in the U.S. at the time because she was performing with the Harvest Moon Ball 1935 winners in Europe. Concerning the early air steps in the Lindy Hop, there exist both written and visual sources where these “air steps” are described. The Chicago Defender article in March 1931, described the Lindy Hop as follows, “A couple will swing off into space and hop up and down. Another couple will break into the exaggerated steps of, the stage adagio team. He will lift her from the floor and swing her about just as high into the air and as long as he can maintain his breath…” In fact, The Afro-American published the description with slightly different words already in February 1930. It becomes clear from the articles that they really were executing early “air steps”. Another proof for the early “air steps” is the short movie called ‘Rufus Jones for the President’ in 1933 where a couple performed a similar kind of a lift which was described in the articles. Frankie Manning obviously was not frequenting the Savoy at that time, so he was not aware of these early “air steps”. In addition, also Norma Miller has told, how she was dancing with “Twist Mouth” George Ganaway at the Savoy in 1932, and her legs did not touch the dance floor. Isn’t that a “air step”?
Frankie Manning explained how he executed the first air step in the Lindy Hop in the Savoy contest against George Snowden and his dancers. According to Manning, Snowden wanted to show to the younger generation that he still was the number one Lindy Hopper. When considering the fact that Snowden had lost at least one competition before the claimed 1936 contest, the claim is suspicious. Even Snowden admitted to Marshall Stearns later in 1959 that he (Snowden) was already known at the Savoy, and they wanted “a new talent” to be a winner, when Snowden claimed that he lost the Opportunity Contest at the Savoy to a New Jersey couple obviously at the beginning of the 1930s. So, why would he have challenged the younger Lindy Hoppers somewhere in 1936 if he had lost already before? He knew that he can lose. Secondly, The New York Amsterdam News stated in September 1936 that Snowden was “the king of them all” when the paper described three Savoy couples in one of its pictures. Indeed, Frankie Manning was not in the picture. If Manning won Snowden in the claimed contest in spring 1936, and Manning became the star dancer at the Savoy, why he was not mentioned in newspapers for his success in creating the groundbreaking first air step?
It is possible that Manning really did the air step in the contest against Snowden, but it seems that the results of the win did not transmit to the newspapers or to other sources at the time. Thus, his possible invention should be seen in its localized, Savoy Ballroom context. Maybe, it created some kind of a stir at the very beginning, but there is no proof for long-lasting results. Air steps were executed already at the time when Manning claimed to have made his invention. Maybe, Manning was responsible for that Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers turned these air steps into spectacular air step routines as Terry Monaghan has suggested. Anyway, Manning was not the originator of the first air step.
When it comes to other inventions in the Lindy Hop, which Manning claimed to have been responsible for, more research is needed to ascertain the facts behind these inventions. Manning’s stories should be connected to the bigger picture of the Lindy Hop. Now, the research has stuck on Manning’s statements without proper grounding on other sources. There still is a lot to research at least as far as the Lindy Hop history from its beginning to nowadays is concerned. This does not take away Manning’s significance in the Lindy Hop, it rather helps us to understand his real role in the big picture of the history of the Lindy Hop.