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Frankie "Musclehead" Manning Dies

Adam Bernstein

As I noted yesterday in a brief blog item, Lindy Hop dance pioneer Frankie "Musclehead" Manning died. The full story is here. But there's only so much one can say about him with words. It's far better to experience him onscreen. Here he is, in overalls, from the exciting jitterbug sequence from the 1941 Hollywood film, "Hellzapoppin' ":

I found out about Manning's death with the help of Chris Bamberger, a local authority on dance and in particular the work of Fred Astaire. She's the wife of local radio treasure Rob Bamberger, whose WAMU-FM program "Hot Jazz Saturday Night" provides a compelling balance of great music and insightful commentary.

Manning owed his 1980s career resurgence to a "swing reawakening," as I like to call it. There's been lots written about why such a revival occured. Personally, I think it's just damn good music.

But according to a profile of Manning in the magazine GQ, a revival of swing music began in the 1980s as a revolt among California punk music fans who felt their discordant, anti-establishment music style had been embraced by too many in the mainstream and thus diluted of its power. To counterattack, the punk rockers incorporated elements of 1940s clothing style, GQ reported: Women traded in their shaved heads for Betty Grable hairdos and men donned gabardine suits. Madison Avenue picked up on the uptick in swing popularity, notably in advertisements for Gap clothes, and swing bands were again cool.

The New York Times obit of Manning included his observation that the Lindy Hop's appeal was that it resembled "a series of three-minute romances." I felt this line would have worked better if, for example, Manning was talking tango. The Lindy Hop, which is about as limb-snappingly fast as a dance gets, seems hardly like a romance. More like a...um...well, this is a family blog.

By Adam Bernstein |  April 28, 2009; 12:36 PM ET  | Category:  Adam Bernstein , Dancing , Movies
Previous: Lindy Hop Pioneer Dies | Next: Barbara Ringer's Untold Story

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I am a lindy hopper who was lucky enough to know Frankie Manning since 1989. I'm not sure who GQ talked to b/c neither I nor any of the other lindy dancers I know ever were part of the punk scene. And that includes many of us who were dancing swing for 10+ years before the Gap commercial or the neo-swing movement.

I would say that Mr. Bernstein makes a mistake of confusing "passion" with "romance". I also dance tango and can say that from my perspective, tango is passionate, but not necessarily romantic. To dance with Frankie Manning was romantic -- Together, the 2 of you would have an incredible (non-verbal) conversation where you knew he was both actively listening, as well as talking. Give & take. Call & response. Together, you built a relationship that changed/deepened/grew everytime you danced together. For those 3 minutes, you were the most important person in his world & you knew it intellectually & felt it deep inside. What could be more romantic than that?

Posted by: lindy47 | April 28, 2009 10:26 PM

As another lifelong lindy hopper/jitterbug dancer and teacher, I agree with Lindy47's comments. The swing dancing Frankie did in the films is the performance version of the dance - no one in their right mind would do this on the social dance floor. Swing dancing in its many varieties can be many things - even romantic. In our dance classes over the years, we've counted over 140 couples engaged. My wife and I were the first couple. As for the swing resurgence of the 1990's, I don't think that GQ can be credited with much critical insight or analysis of this social phenomenon. What is important is that without Frankie's original contributions to the dance or his continued enthusiasm until his death, swing dancing would not have the huge worldwide following it presently enjoys.

Posted by: danceman | April 29, 2009 2:43 AM

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