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Frankie Manning, Tony-Winning Dance Legend and Lindy Hop Pioneer, Dies at 94

Frankie Manning takes the floor with Debbie Williams at the Smithsonian.
Frankie Manning takes the floor with Debbie Williams at the Smithsonian. (1995 Photo By Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Frankie "Musclehead" Manning, 94, a Harlem dancer and Tony Award-winning choreographer widely celebrated as one of the pioneers of the Lindy Hop, a breathlessly acrobatic swing dance style of the 1930s and 1940s, died April 27 at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital of complications from pneumonia.

The effortlessly nimble Mr. Manning was a star attraction of Harlem's Savoy Ballroom as a young man and brought to swing dance a flair for the theatrical that helped catapult the Lindy Hop from ballrooms to stage and screen, said Cynthia Millman, who co-wrote Mr. Manning's self-titled 2007 memoir.

His nickname developed from the chants of dancers, "Go, Musclehead, go!" watching Mr. Manning's strong and closely cropped head glisten with sweat as he kicked and spun himself and his partners into human propellers.

Appropriately enough, the dance reportedly owed its name to transatlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh, when one Savoy dancer told an inquiring reporter, "We flyin' like Lindy!"

Mr. Manning's chief innovation was popularizing the thrilling "air step" move, in which a female partner is tossed in the air and lands in time with the music. After introducing this choreographic accent, sometimes called an aerial, he and fellow Lindy hoppers developed dozens of others in which partners fling each other on pathways around, over and through various parts of the body.

Mr. Manning and several notable big bands helped make the Savoy an epicenter of swing. It was an elegant, racially integrated dance hall boasting a marble stairway, crystal chandeliers and two large stages where the big bands of Count Basie, Chick Webb and Cab Calloway could duel rhythmically.

Some of the Savoy's finest dancers, including Mr. Manning, were recruited to join Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, a dance performance team that appeared in Hollywood movies such as "Hellzapoppin' " (1941). Dressed in overalls in the film, he gives a rousing demonstration of his talent, flipping his partner and being flipped himself -- with a dash of humor as his partner boots him in the rear.

As part of the Lindy Hoppers team, he was the opening act for singers such as Billie Holiday and performed before the king of England in 1937.

When he returned from Army service during World War II, he started his own troupe, but the music scene had changed radically. First came the rise of bebop jazz, which was largely undanceable, and then the advent of rock-and-roll.

With a family to support, Mr. Manning spent 30 years as a postal clerk until a popular swing reawakening in the 1980s.

At the time, Mr. Manning, then living in Queens, was approached by a pair of young swing enthusiasts who found his name in the phone book. He agreed to teach them a few steps, and that led to a career resurgence that made him a headliner at Lindy Hop workshops around the world.

In 1989, he teamed with dance legends Fayard Nicholas, Charles "Cholly" Atkins and Henry LeTang to choreograph the musical revue "Black and Blue," which ran two years on Broadway. All the choreographers shared the Tony that year. Mr. Manning went on to compose dance steps for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, among other dance companies. He also taught the Lindy Hop to actor Denzel Washington for the Spike Lee film "Malcolm X."

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