Prance Charming

Octogenarian dancer still on his toes

He toured in Europe and Australia in the late '30s, and shared bills with Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. His busy career was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army in 1943 -- the Roxy Theatre tried to get him a stay of duty because he was choreographing one of the shows there, "but they weren't having that." He served in New Guinea and the Philippines, and later in Japan during the occupation.

Even in the service, he didn't give up entertaining. "We were actually on our way to Japan for the invasion when Truman dropped the bomb," he recalls. "We were sitting in the ocean when Japan surrendered. The orders of each and every one of the soldiers and sailors had to be altered because of that. We were sitting out on the water for, like, two months. We used to put on shows on the boat for the other soldiers."

After Manning left the Army in '47, he returned to dancing in a group of his own, the Harlem Congeroo Dancers. He appeared on bills with the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine, Martin and Lewis, Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis Jr., and he was on Ed Sullivan's and Milton Berle's TV shows. But by 1955, with the onset of rock 'n' roll, times got lean for swing dancers, and Manning, who by this time was married and had children, decided to, as the saying goes, hang up his dancing shoes. He got a job as a postal clerk in New York City, and stayed with it for 30 years. He retired with a civil service pension in 1986.

Frankie Manning
Frankie Manning

It was about that time that interest in swing dancing was starting to come back, and Manning found himself with a lucrative retirement career. He was one of four choreographers who shared a 1989 Tony Award for their work on the Broadway musical Black and Blue. He was interviewed in the recent Ken Burns documentary Jazz. He's taught countless workshops all over the country and in Norway, Sweden, Spain, France, Singapore and Australia. He's often accompanied on these trips by one of his sons, Chazz Young, a professional dancer who has appeared in such films as The Cotton Club and Malcolm X, on which Manning also worked. (Manning's other son works in computers; his daughter is a flight attendant. He has seven grandchildren.)

We've finished our lunches, and it's almost time to get Manning back to Centennial Hall, where he has an afternoon and evening of classes still ahead of him. I ask him if he still enjoys his work, and he says he loves it. "To me, it's inspiring. People say to me, 'Frankie, you inspired me, you changed my life.' It's wonderful for me to hear that. It inspires me to keep on trying to do it."

Either Manning is one of the more modest people I've ever met, or he feigns it remarkably. Still, he doesn't pretend that everyone can do what he does, or even come close. "I used to tell this story," he says, laughing. "My father used to tell me he had two left feet, and I'd say, 'Oh, Dad,' y'know, that's an old saying. But one day I looked in his closet at all his shoes, and they were all left-footed." He's kidding, of course, but the point is there all the same: Some people just can't dance. "They try their best, but it's just something they don't have."

But Frankie Manning has it to spare. If ever anybody had two right feet, it's him.

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