Talking about Frankie Manning and the Black Roots of Lindy Hop

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At the World Lindy Hop Day celebration in Singapore on May 26, my wonderful friend Sing Lim and I were asked to give a short presentation about Frankie Manning, as people who knew and studied under Frankie. Instead of just doing a fond remembrance of the man, we decided to expand our talk to dive deeper into the Black roots of lindy hop. For those of you wondering how to talk about the Black roots of lindy hop to your students, event participants and general public, I hope our experience is helpful.

It was a very challenging talk to give. The weight of trying to speak to the Black experience in lindy hop, the huge amount of history to try and encapsulate, and the short amount of time we had been given (about 20 minutes) were front of mind for us. But we also did not want to miss this opportunity to try and raise these important concerns of representation and historic accuracy for the participants at the event.

Our goal was to open people's minds to the incredible legacy of dance and music that African-Americans have left for us, and to inspire the audience to do their own explorations to deepen their appreciation of this awesome artform. We wanted to leave them with specific resources they could use to dive deeper into African-American vernacular dances.

We decided to open with a short clip of Frankie Manning and Ann Johnson dancing in "Hellzapoppin," which we knew would be recognizable to almost everyone there. This was a strong entry point for going deeper into what led of up to that iconic dance scene, including the implicit racism surrounding it.

Then we backtracked to the 1920s to talk about the birth of lindy hop and its many forefathers and foremothers -- the Black Bottom, the Charleston, the Texas Tommy, Tap, etc. We briefly described what the Black experience was like back then -- the pervading systems of racism and oppression, the grinding poverty of the Great Depression. Dance and music in this light was more than light entertainment, it was a form of escape, a precious place to experience joy and pride. 

We showed a clip of Shorty George and Mattie Purnell dancing in 1929 called "After Seben." It not only shows the beginnings of what we understand as lindy hop, it opens with a gross caricature of Black people with white actor James Barton in blackface. In light of current discussions about blackface in our community, we thought this was important to show and to talk about.

We moved on to Frankie and his contemporaries as the "second wave" of lindy hoppers to come after Shorty George and that generation. Sing and I shared what made Frankie special to us, both as a dancer and a human being. 

We used "The Spirit Moves" as our focus, since it shows many other Black vernacular dances and dancers. Watching Al Minns, Pepsi Bethel, Leon James, and Esther Washington do their own unique stylings and artistry was a good reminder of how diverse lindy hop was back in the day.

Our plan was to close by returning to the full dance sequence from "Hellzapoppin," re-examining what is shown, and not shown, in that scene. We wanted to focus on the depiction of these world-class dancers as domestics and laborers, when in most other clips they wear smart suits and dresses. And we wanted our audience to know that this scene was purposely filmed to have no relation to the rest of the film or its main characters, so it could be cut in parts of the American South where it would be considered too "controversial." 

Finally, we listed a few resources to get people doing their own explorations and research into the Black roots of this dance we love so well. Sing shared her personal library of books and printed materials for people to check out afterwards.

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I honestly don't know what impact it had on the 100 people or so in the audience. Our talk came toward the end of a busy night of dance performances, social dancing, and competitions. So people were probably a bit distracted and wondering why they were being talked to at this hour. But I'm so glad that we did it -- despite all of our mistakes, awkwardness and technical malfunctions.

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I encourage you in your respective scenes, dances and communities to not be afraid to talk about these issues and to share the full history of lindy hop. In my opinion, that's more important than doing a "shim sham" and eating sweet potato pie on Frankie's birthday.

For those of you interested in knowing more, or preparing your own presentations for others, you can see my notes from our talk here. My thanks to Sing Lim for being an awesome partner in putting together this presentation. And to the WLHD Singapore organizers Desmond Khon, Jingyi Heng, Taufan Rusli, and Pamela Tham for inviting us to speak.