Prance Charming

Octogenarian dancer still on his toes

To watch Frankie Manning at work is to learn humility anew. I'm leaning against the doors at one of the big rooms at Mesa Centennial Hall, waiting for Manning to finish one of the morning classes he's teaching at a weekendlong workshop presented by the Arizona Lindy Hop Society. There he is, in the middle of the room -- a short, bald black man in loose-fitting clothes and a cap, smiling, gliding effortlessly among ungainly looking white thirtysomethings. They stare at him intently, hoping he'll impart to them some faint wisp of his magic. He's trying, but it's hopeless. Still, most of his pupils are doing better than I, who have all the grace of a wildebeest full of Seagram's, would do under the same circumstances.

Manning, who's in his mid-80s -- his grandparents may well have been slaves -- still pulls down a paycheck dancing. I'm in my late 30s, and I make mine going to lunch with guys like Manning.

He finishes the class, allows some of his adoring fans to snap photos of him, and then, showing no discernible fatigue, cheerfully climbs into the cab of my truck. I've been told that seafood is Manning's favorite, so we head to the Seafood Market, on Southern Avenue just west of Alma School Road in Mesa.

Frankie Manning
Frankie Manning

When we get there, Manning asks if he can get a catfish sandwich. Happily, the server says yes, but I can't help but think I probably could have found him a better place to have catfish somewhere in the Valley -- possibly Stacy's Catfish, across the street from the New Times building. I order the shark. While we wait, I ask Manning for his earliest memory of dancing.

"I remember going out with my mother to parties, and watching them dance," he says. "They used to call them 'house rent' parties. . . . Back in those days, you know, Depression times, people weren't making all that much money, so what they would do, they'd compensate by having a party, and charging people to come to that party. I would go to them with my mother, and I used to see her and her friends dancing. And eventually, one of her friends asked me to dance." He was about 10 or 11 at the time.

This was in Harlem, where Manning had moved with his family from Jacksonville, Florida, at the age of 3. His mother, he says, belonged to a "social dance club" which would sometimes put on exhibitions, though it was usually of ballroom dances like foxtrots and tangos.

"Very rarely would they do the same dances in the ballroom that they would do at the parties, you know," he says. The memory makes him smile. "At the parties, it was lowdown, man, cryin' and carrying on and stuff like that. They don't do that when they go to the ballroom. . . . In the '20s, Charleston was very prominent. They'd play that type of music, and you'd see the sisters getting out there, pullin' up their skirts, and everybody around them just clapping. They would do things like the cakewalk and stuff like that. I'd see them doing that stuff, and I'd try to do it, too."

It was from his mother that he inherited his light-footedness, he says. "My father was like you, he had two left feet" -- I've confessed to Manning that I'm choreographically challenged -- "but my mother was a very good dancer."

Our lunches are set before us. If the catfish is substandard, Manning is too nice to say so, and he eventually finishes every bite. My shark, at any rate, is very good, clean and fresh, with steamed vegetables and pasta salad on the side.

Out of high school, Manning worked for a time as a furrier. "I thought that's what I was going to be," he says, "making beautiful furs for beautiful women." Much as he loved to dance for fun, at places like the Savoy Ballroom, he hadn't considered it as a career.

His first paying job as a dancer was a prize -- a one-week engagement he landed for winning a Lindy Hop contest. But he really traces the beginning of his professional career to a few years later, in 1927, when he was hired to perform at the Cotton Club. "They hired the best of the entertainment world," he says. "So if you got a contract to go into the Cotton Club, you'd say, 'Oh, I have arrived!'"

The show-biz bio that Manning recounts between bites of catfish sandwich is so extensive it resists summary. As part of the ensembles organized by Herbert "Whitey" White (so known because of the white streak in his hair) with names like Whitey's Lindy Hoppers and Whitey's Hoppin' Maniacs, he danced in the Apollo Theatre, the Roxy Theatre, and in floor shows at the Waldorf Astoria. By the later '30s, he was dancing in movies. His scenes were cut from the Judy Garland musical Everybody Sing, but he can be seen in Radio City Revels with Ann Miller and Jack Oakie; in Manhattan Merry-Go-Round with Cab Calloway; and in the pricelessly strange Olsen and Johnson musical Hellzapoppin' at Universal.

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