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Hopping 'Grandfather'

Although swing dancing has gained popularity in recent years, due in part to Gap ads that feature khaki-sporting dancers and the rise of youth swing dance clubs, no one is more familiar with the roots of this genre of dance than the Grandfather of swing himself - Frankie Manning.

Manning, a small but spry 85-year-old man wearing soft black dancing shoes, made a guest appearance in the Newcomb Hall Ballroom Wednesday in front of several hundred students and area fans. The event, hosted by the University Swing Club, allowed Manning's fans a chance to see the veteran dancer, as well as to dance with him.

Manning's "visit is really a great way to bring the dance community together," University Swing Club President Su Das said.

Das said Manning's visit was an amazing opportunity for students.

"We're all out here [swing dancing], but I mean, Frankie Manning - he was the only person to actually have lived in" the swing era, she said.

During the evening, Manning didn't break any hearts, dancing with as many of the women present as he could.

Manning said he wanted to "break his record of dancing with 80 different women" during the length of a compact disc - a record he had set on his 80th birthday. He also danced with several gentlemen in the audience.

Manning first began swing dancing while he was a teenager growing up in Harlem. He danced at the Savoy Ballroom, where he later helped develop the Lindy Hop style of swing dancing.

"Lindy Hop is the most basic of the dances," Manning said.

While at the Savoy, he joined fellow dancer Herbert "Whitey" White in creating "Whitey's Lindy Hoppers," a dance troupe that would become the premier group of dancers in the 1930s Swing Era. Frankie eventually became the chief choreographer of the Lindy Hoppers, a position that allowed him to develop several new swing steps and styles.

Manning said his life in the 1930s and '40s completely revolved around dancing.

"We'd get up in the morning to go dancing, come back and take a shower, then go out again in the evening," he said.

He added that dancing was "natural" for him. His partner at the time, Freda Washington, lived in the apartment building next to his.

"I'd call over 'Freda!' through the window every day and she'd climb over the rooftop and we'd go dancing then," Manning said.

Manning said because he could neither play an instrument nor sing, dancing seemed like the best way to get connected with the new swing music that was emerging in the '30s.

"I loved the music - the rhythm of that music just wanted to make me do something," he said. "We'd just get out there with anybody to dance. You'd just grab a girl and start dancing and go on all night."

His love of swing is what drives Manning to continue teaching dance, even at the age of 85.

"Dancing is such a happy thing," he said.

He said this happiness is what he wants to convey to students at his workshops, and that his goal is to inspire other people to dance with the same passion he feels.

"I just want to give another person a feeling of the music and the dance," he added.

Manning now delivers workshops all around the world in places such as Singapore, Japan, Alaska and Hawaii.

Manning visited the University on his way to the Virginia State Open Swing Dance Championships in McLean, Va. Cricket Jaber, a guest instructor for the University Swing Club, invited Manning to make his University appearance.

"I've been trying to get him down [to Charlottesville] for years," said Jaber, who is the only swing instructor in Charlottesville who teaches Lindy Hop.

Jaber first saw Manning on a National Geographic television special six years ago and later vowed to meet him. Jaber got her wish five years ago when she saw Manning perform with Norma Miller, the only other surviving Lindy Hopper, at Manning's 80th birthday celebration.

"I met him that weekend and we have just stayed in touch ever since," Jaber said.

She said Manning is an inspiration and had once told her, "You have a mission here - to teach dancing."

Jaber said she has been teaching swing ever since with Manning's words in mind.

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