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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.
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-Roundwith Cab Calloway; and in the pricelessly strange Olsen and Johnson musical Hellzapoppin' at Universal.
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.
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.