Swing, Swing, Swing

Emily Gordon 

The greatest Lindy Hopper who ever lived, Frankie "Musclehead" Manning, used to toss his partners high in the air and smile from ear to ear as they shot back down into his arms. The thousands of dancers—hailing from everywhere, from Munich to Saskatoon—who gathered May 21–25 to celebrate the life of the "ambassador of Lindy Hop," who died on April 27 at age 94, were content to do the tap-flavored routine called the Shim Sham. Just one of the festival's activities: world-record attempts in Central Park for feats such as the world's largest Shim Sham, the largest-ever swing dance and the largest partner dance in the world.

Much like the Lindy Hop, Manning's story has a fantastic twist: he was world-famous twice. He first made his mark performing and choreographing around the globe with Whitey's Lindy Hoppers (Herbert White's Savoy Ballroom stars) and in Hollywood movies like Hellzapoppin'. After World War II, he formed his own group, the Congaroos, then stepped away from professional dancing and into the post office, where he worked for 32 years.

In the late '80s, when the music and culture of swing hit hard once again, Manning came out of retirement. Suddenly, he was in constant demand at workshops and festivals around the world. He even won a Tony Award for his choreography in Broadway's Black and Blue and taught the Lindy Hop to Denzel Washington for the movie Malcolm X. Meanwhile, on the many nights he went out dancing, he led the crowd in the Shim Sham. "A-one, a-two, a-you know what to do!" was his rallying cry.

During the epic five days at the Manhattan Center, planned as a 95th birthday bash but carried on as a memorial—including dancing at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church and a New Orleans–style funeral parade—there were numerous Shim Shams. In Central Park, the hundreds of people dancing their hearts out to George Gee's Make-Believe Ballroom Orchestra weren't overly concerned with making it official. Onlookers cheered. Kids started trying out the steps. Manning, indisputably, would have smiled.