R/S: Herbert White is described as the originator of the Lindy Hop and the Suzi Q. In Life magazine, there’s photos of you and Ann doing the “Congeroo,” a cross between the Conga [a Latin American dance] and the Lindy Hop. Is the “Congeroo” a name that Life made up?
FRANKIE MANNING: Actually, I coined that phrase. At the time, the Latin dance, the Conga, was very popular, and the swing world used the term “swingeroo,” So we invented a dance that was a combination of “conga” and “swing.” I just put the two names together; instead of saying “congeroo-swingeroo” I just said “Congeroo.” So it’s a swing and conga.
Herbert White was like our teacher, our mother, our father, our brother, our benefactor and everything — he actually got the group together, picked out the dancers, helped the dancers to better themselves, and I was very close to him — I was like his right-hand man. I did most of the choreography for the dancers. He would do all the booking for us. It was his group; that’s why they called it “Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers.”
R/S: Is this a fair description: “From the Cuban Conga, the new Congeroo retains a good deal of Latin shoulder-shaking and heel-clacking. From the old-time Lindy Hop it retains the improvised solo cadenzas and general yanking around of one partner by another”?
FM: [Chuckles] Yes . . . The Savoy did open in 1926, but I didn’t start going to the Savoy Ballroom until the early ’30s.
R/S: Well, you were young—
FM: But also I was afraid. There was a bunch of us, and we felt we weren’t good enough to go to the Savoy, because the Savoy had a name for having the best dancers in the world there, and that was true. We were just youngsters and we didn’t think we were good enough to go up there. Finally we got up enough nerve.
R/S: In this photo, you’re wearing pants that go up very high, with suspenders—
FM: They were part of the pants. We started out wearing low-cut pants, and our shirts were coming out of our pants all the time. So we started to wear these high-belted pants with built-in suspenders, and that kept the shirts in. It was both an innovation and a costume.
R/S: What kind of shoes were you wearing? They almost look like tennis shoes—
FM: They were. We wore them because we would go to hotels and dance, and most of the hotel floors were very, very slippery. Before that, we just wore ordinary shoes — we didn’t know anything about dancing, you see, and we’d be slippin’ and slidin’ all over the place! For what we were doing, throwing a girl over our shoulders, if you can’t stand up on the floor, you can’t be doing those kind of steps. That’s when I decided to wear tennis shoes with rubber soles.
None of the girls wore big necklaces or that type of jewelry during a performance, because it would be dangerous. Your hand could accidentally catch, and that would be disastrous.
R/S: You’re wearing a shirt with larger collar points—
FM: Well, all you have to do is get a shirt made like that, that’s all! Then somebody else might see it and go, “Man, that’s cool!” and they go and get themselves one, and before you know it, they’re back!