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Frankie and his Partners
by Anthony Wheaton
by Anthony Wheaton
With a career spanning such a long time, it is no surprise that Frankie Manning worked with a number of regular dance partners. When the Lindy Hop first came of age in the 30’s, the raw Frankie had a dazzling dynamo of a performer in Ms Freda Washington. Living next door to each other, Frankie and Freda grew up dancing together.
“Freda and I we were very close. She was one of my first partners and she lived right next door to me. We would go to the dance together and come home together and she would go upstairs in her house and I would go upstairs in my house.”
Freda is of course famous for being half of the partnership (with Frankie) to perform the first air-step and as a member of the incredible Whiteys Lindy Hoppers. After the end of Lindy Hop’s golden era, Freda moved on to other parts of her life and little information of her whereabouts appears to be available.
Willa Mae Ricker
During the time of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, Frankie also regularly partnered Willa Mae Ricker, who was well known for her amazing physical strength and passion to dance.
“She was one of the greats of Lindy Hop… she was the soul and heart of the dance.”
Frankie Manning & Willa-Mae Ricker: Just after the Congaroos ended.Although Willa Mae and her husband, Lindy Hopper Billy Ricker, were high school sweethearts and enjoyed a long and healthy marriage, they rarely danced together professionally. Willa Mae partnered Frankie, Leon James, Al Minns, Russell Williams and others, winning the first Harvest Moon Ball with Leon James in 1935.
During World War II, when so many of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were serving in the armed forces, Willa Mae managed the Harlem Congeroos, considered Whitey’s greatest group. When Frankie returned from the Pacific in 1947, he took over the management and Willa Mae continued as a dancer in the group, known simply as the Congaroo Dancers. Willa Mae’s passion and determination amazed all when she overcame an emergency hysterectomy to re-join the show in a remarkably short time.
After the break-up of the Congaroos in the late fifties, Willa Mae enjoyed a career as a model. With keen sense of style and business savvy, she was able to make a successful second career in fashion.
Willa Mae died of cancer in the sixties, having never lost her love for Billy, the will to dance nor the sweet disposition that made her the most beloved of the Lindy Hoppers.
Frankie Manning & Ann JohnsonAnn Johnson was Frankie’s partner in Whitey’s Lindy hoppers between 1940-1942. Frankie says:
“She was like a cat. No matter what way I threw her, she would land on her feet…She was also a wonderful human being.”
Hellzapoppin’, Hot Chocolate and Killer Diller, but she is perhaps most famous for appearing in photos twice with Frankie in Life Magazine. One featured her anonymously in the amazing “Over the Head” shot of 1940 and the second in a 1941 photo, mid-air during an aerial sequence.
Ann also partnered Frankie in the Harlem Congaroos from 1947-52, before the break-up of the group and the decline in popularity of the Lindy Hop.
When you spend a great deal of time with someone, it’s fairly regular that one of two events happens; you get extremely sick of the sight of them or perhaps a fledgling romance develops. Frankie was no different… in the romance stakes that is. Frankie partnered Lucille Middleton at the Cotton Club and in movies such as Radio City Rebels, Manhattan and Mary Go Round, but also became romantically involved with her in the late 1930’s.
“Back in the day it didn’t seem that my girl was jealous of me dancing with somebody else. Today, it seems a girl only wants her man dancing with her and no one else. I only had one young lady who was my girlfriend and my partner. Her name was Lucille Middleton. She and I did about three movies, but we danced in the Cotton Club shows, went to Europe and went to Australia together. But it wasn’t dangerous (laughs). We enjoyed each other’s company.”
Finally but importantly, Norma Miller takes a role in this elite company. While not recognized as one of Frankie’s main dance partners, Norma has never stopped dancing socially with Frankie. Professional gigs together have included the feature film, Malcolm X and in the TV film Stomping at the Savoy, which she choreographed, with Frankie as her assistant. Norma says of Frankie:
“He’s the best teacher in the world, I wish I had his patience; he could guide any person through a dance step. Frankie and I have always enjoyed dancing but never rehearse; we never know what the other is going to do. I just abandon myself when I dance with Frankie. Whatever he wants to do is all right with me.”
Norma was first discovered as a gifted young dancer when she was just 14 years old. Too young to enter the Savoy Ballroom, she would dance outside on the pavement where the music could still be heard. Herbert “Whitey” White is credited with bringing Norma to fame, inviting her to join Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, after watching her defeat his dancers in a savoy contest.
Frankie Manning & Norma MillerFrom the start, she was a very creative dancer with her own, often comic, style and possessed an outstanding sense of rhythm. A vivacious and outspoken person, she was and still is always the life of every party. As a comedienne, Norma worked in Las Vegas with for over 10 years, including appearances in the TV show, Sanford and Son where she is remembered as the airline stewardess who offered “Coffee, tea or ME?” In the seventies she formed another Lindy Hop and jazz performance group, the Savoy Swingers. In addition to many standard entertainment venues, this group did a series of performances in the New York City public school system, introducing African-American dance history to the new generation.
Today, Norma continues to work as a comedienne and choreographer in Las Vegas, as well as publishing her autobiography Swingin’ at the Savoy in 1996.