Sunday, 7 June 2009

Tribute to Lindy Hop legend Frankie Manning

Frankie was a legend among Swing dancers. I first heard about him in Seattle in 1997 where a bunch of students at the University of Washington introduced me to Swing and Lindy Hop.

For those of you not up to scratch on the dance floor, Lindy Hop is an African American dance that evolved in New York during the late 1920s, 30s and 40s. It's a sort of fusion of jazz, tap and the Charleston - and is danced with a partner.

Frankie Manning started dancing back in 1927 and had a huge influence on Lindy Hop. I distinctly remember watching excerpts from the Hollywood musical “Hellzapoppin’"(1941), thinking: WOW, this is mad...

Frankie was nicknamed “Musclehead” for his powerful and quick acrobatic style, hurling his swing partners through the air.

I was hooked, Swing and Lindy Hop quickly became a passion and when I lived in New York 1998-2000 I danced as often as I could to live bands playing at Swing 46, the Cotton Club, Irving Plazza, the Supper Club, Windows of the World on top of the World Trade Center and during summer weekends in Central Park... I loved this dance which is all about big band and swing music, improvisation and of course the style of the 30s and 40s. Plus it's a dance which bridges generations and it's great to see people of all ages dancing together.

“A-one, a-two, you know what to do...”

Long before meeting Frankie, I'd heard many people referring to him as the Nelson Mandela of Lindy Hop. He's traveled the world even til very recently in his early 90s teaching Swing. Every year he would spend several weeks at the Herräng Dance Camp in Sweden dancing and teaching this dance he loved so much.

Today, I just read an article of the New York Times and sadly learned that Frankie died a little over a month ago in New York at the age of 94.

A great man, whom I had the chance to meet and interview at the Herräng Dance Camp two years ago.

Here's the Lonely Planet Travelcast I've produced. It's a small tribute to a great Swing legend and his legacy.

Every summer, thousands of dancers from over 40 different countries converge on a small Swedish village for round-the-clock swing dancing. The Herräng Dance Camp started in 1982 and has become the largest of its kind.

The village shop is stocked up with mineral water, peanut butter and bananas, ready for the influx of hungry visitors. In the local school, bunk beds have been put up in the classrooms to serve as accommodation for tired dancers. The sports ground has become a campsite and four marquees have been set up, ready for dance classes.

The Herräng Dance Camp is about to get into swing.

The village of Herräng has just 600 inhabitants and lies some 100 kilometers north of Stockholm. 25 years ago, its isolated position attracted a group of Swedish swing dancers, who invited an American instructor from New York to teach them some new moves.

Since then, the event has grown into the leading and most comprehensive dance camp in the world focusing on the African-American swing dance tradition.

The living icon of Lindy Hop

The Herräng Dance Camp wouldn't be complete without instructor Frankie Manning. The 93-year-old is a legend at the camp and an inspiration for his many fans.

Manning teaches Lindy Hop, an African-American dance that evolved in New York in the late 1920s, 30s and 40s. It is a fusion of jazz, tap and the Charleston. Danced with a partner, the original Lindy Hop was a parody of stiff white couples at society tea dances.

However, by the 1950s, the Lindy Hop was superseded by the jitterbug and rock 'n' roll. It has seen a revival in the last couple of decades, though, partly thanks to the Swedish dance camp.

Lennart Westerlund is one of the camp's founders and still in charge today -- even if he no longer has much time for dancing. He says Manning's presence is very important for the entire camp.

"He is like an unbeatable ambassador for the dance," Westerlund says. "He's a living icon because he has done so much for the dance and inspired so many people."

"I just love dancing."

Of course, the Lindy Hop scene would exist without Manning, Westerlund says.

"But I don't think it would have the size, enthusiasm and energy that it has," he says.

Manning is the last link to a time, which all the dancers at Herräng view with hazy-eyed awe. In the 1930s and 40s, he appeared with Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald: names, which conjure up an image of a lost era.

Manning himself does not have a secret formula for the reason he is still dancing at his age.

"I just love dancing and I love watching people dance," Manning says.

It was a film choreographed by Manning, which inspired Westerlund to found the Herräng Dance Camp back in 1982. The two-minute film "Hellzapoppin" from the year 1941 showed eight African-Americans dancing in pairs in a wild frenzy of moves.

A truly international camp

Today, the love of dance attracts people to Sweden from around the world. Many come from the United States and Europe, but in the last couple of years, there have also been dancers at Herräng from as far afield as China, South Korea and Brazil.

Russia has the second highest number of participants at the camp after Sweden. Even though the dancers might not speak the same language, they can all communicate through their passion for swing.

And you have to be passionate about dancing to take part in the camp, which has a hectic schedule. Dance classes start every day at 10 in the morning. Each class lasts for an hour and twenty minutes.

After supper in the evening, there is a meeting, where the community comes together to hear about the day. Then they watch film clips from jazz history, to get everyone in the mood for the dance parties -- which often go on till 6 the next morning. After that, the dancers grab a few hours of sleep before slipping on their swing shoes for class the next morning.

As Faye, a dancer from Malaysia says: "You don't come to Herräng to sleep; you come to Herräng to dance."

The camp brings unavoidable noise, parking problems and traffic jams to the village. But the locals put up with the downsides in the knowledge that the money it generates is a lifeline for the former mining area. The rest of the year is so quiet that the local shop would not survive without the annual summer dance camp.

According to Herräng local Birgitta, the dancers are welcome.

"They like to learn and they like to practice, so they are tired," she says. "So they eat, sleep and dance, so no problem!"


Isabelle 7 August 2009 at 23:08  

Barbara, je viens d'ecouter ton travelcast. C'est super ce que tu as fait! Le deces de Frankie Manning a beaucoup emu la communaute des lindy-hoppers a New York,les festivites pour son 95e anniversaire etaient sur le point de commencer. Herrang l'an prochain ca sera probablement sans nous. Nous nous marions au printemps en France puis nous partons au Vietnam en lune de miel. Je ne pense pas que nous pourrons faire un detour par la Suede. Je compte sur toi pour aller danser la prochaine fois que tu passes a New York. Bisous. Isabelle.

Anonymous 4 January 2010 at 01:08  

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Anonymous 24 February 2011 at 12:16  

thanks for this tips

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