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NYFS Newsletter 1998-vol19-no1-2-1
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Winter/Spring 1999 Newsletter

Lindy Hopping at the Savoy: The Man Who Invented the Aerial

In 1927, two really important things happened—Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, and a man named Shorty Snowdon invented a dance called the Lindy Hop. The dance had legs. Folks still do the Lindy, even today. But nobody—nobody—did it and does it like Frankie Manning. Manning invented one of the Lindy Hop’s signature moves. It happened in 1935, at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Manning grabbed his partner, flipped her over his back, and in the process created a step called the Aerial. Here’s how Frankie Manning recalls the moment.

I used to go to the Savoy, and one of my idols was Shorty Snowdon. And we were like youngsters coming up. So naturally Shorty Snowdon and his group would say, "Aw, they’re not all that good. We are still the best," you know, "so let's have a contest." So he said, "Well," Shorty said, "Well, listen, we’re going to be out of town for two weeks. So two weeks from tonight, which is a Saturday night, two weeks from tonight we’ll have a contest right here in the Savoy Ballroom....
So I had told Frieda, who was my partner, I said, "Frieda, we’re going to dance against Shorty Snowdon, and I have an idea for a step, a new step that we can do." So she said, "Yeah, well, what is it?" I said, "Well, if I get you on my back, and I flip you over, and you land in front of me right with the music, we would have a new step." And she, being a brave girl, she said, "Oh, yeah!"

We just kept practicing that until we got it down pretty good, you know. And eventually we got it to a point where I would pick her up on my back, and she would roll over, and she would land in front of me. And then by the time Saturday came around, ah, it was a snap then. We knew how to do the step, you know.

Now, the word has been spread around. So Saturday night was packed, man, you know, and everybody was going, "There’s a contest, I want to see these guys dance. Boy, you're going to see some of the best dancing in New York City, you know." Man, I’m standing back there, sweat popping off my head, man, and, people—everybody is into this, you know. People was just enjoying it so much, and it was like festivities, you know.

So, when Shorty Snowdon finished dancing, man, it’s like, nobody can come after that, you know. And I haven’t danced yet, so I’m the last one to go out there. So, I just want to tell you—this is the actual truth—I did not want to go on that floor. And my parner Frieda say, "Oh yeah, come on Frankie, let’s go on out there to dance. There ain’t nothing to it." Oh yeah, O.K., that’s what she could say, you know.

So anyway, Chick Webb was playing. Chick Webb’s band was playing, you know. And this band looked like they was saying, "Well, Frankie is one of us, man. We are going to play for him." And these cats were swinging, Jim. I mean the band—looked like every guy in that band was just saying, "Go Jim, go man," and they were blowing, man. And the people, you know, they was rocking with the music even before I hit the floor. So, man, when I swung out there on the floor, I forget about it was a contest because that music was just playing so—I mean, they was swinging so much ’til I was just into the music, man. And everything that I do look like Chick Webb was in it with me, man. I’d do a turn, and Chick Webb would say, Prrrunk, you know, one of those things like that. And Thad Jones, who was a trumpet player then, he’d played behind me so many times, boy. If I’d stick my leg out, he’d hit a note, Beep, you know. I said, "Wow, man, this band is playing behind me, Jim, you know."

And we were dancing, and then I say, "Hey Frieda. You ready for this step?" So she say, "Yeah, let’s go for it," you know. So I swung Frieda out, man, and I jump over her head, you know. When I jumped over her head, Chick Webb say, Boom. And then when I turn, and she hit my back, and I flipped her over, and she hit the floor right on the music, and as she hit the floor, Chick Webb say, "Damn!" and I say "Yeah, man, we got them now."

And I just started backing off, and when we did this step it seemed like for one second that the people’s mouth was open. They said, like, "What did he do?" you know. And then all of a sudden the Savoy Ballroom just erupted—applause and stomping of the feet and hollering and carrying on. "Man," I say, "Oh wow, man, this is something else, man."

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“...And then when I turn, and she hit my back, and I flipped her over, and she hit the floor right on the music, and as she hit the floor, Chick Webb say, ‘Damn!’ and I say ‘Yeah, man, we got them now.’ ”
—Frankie Manning”

Photo of Frankie Manning
Frankie Manning leads the shim-sham at the New York Swing Dance Society. Photograph by Hazel Hankin.

“Lindy Hopping at the Savoy” is a transcript from the “American Talkers” series produced by Dave Isay and Steve Zeitlin for City Lore and currently broadcast on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition Sunday.” The introduction is by NPR’s Tom Gjelten.

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