Next to last stop on my Frankie Manning 95th Birthday Festival Retrospective. I actually wrote this note first before the others and went back and forth between re-posting it or not, and whether it should go at the beginning or the end. A few weeks ago I thought it was appropriate to end, but reading it now makes me think it should have gone first. Oh well. This note was originally posted on May 31, 2009.
I have a hard time explaining why I left last weekend with such strong feelings of despair, anger and betrayal. I spent my train ride home formulating a plan to go after a person even if it meant burning down the entire Lindy Hop community around me. To be clear, I got set off over a misunderstanding which has been since cleared up. Still, as much as I thought I wasn’t invested in the event, I was ready to start a war.
Why should I care? For months, I’ve been saying that it wasn’t my event. After every meeting, one of the organizers would inevitably ask me “What do you think?” which was code for “Are you freaking out yet?” To which I usually responded that it didn’t matter to me. After all, if this event went into the toilet, then it ain’t my money and it ain’t my rep.
When I initially offered to help out Frankie95, I told Tena Morales that I would do whatever she needed, even just guarding the back door for the whole weekend. When she got back to me a few weeks later, she had something else in mind.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what I did for Frankie95. It didn’t really fit neatly into under any category or job title. I was originally asked to be the “logistics coordinator.” At the time I thought I’d just be linking everything that was already in place. However, after the first meeting, it became plain to me that I would be doing a lot more than that. Much of it would fall under the banner of event planning and coordination. Later I would be introduced at meetings as the “operations manager.” For much of the time I essentially acted as middle management linking the ever growing vision of the main organizers with the reality of our staff and resources.
That’s not necessarily a role that I’m unfamiliar with. I basically did the same kind of work for Tena, Nina, and Sylvia for the International Lindy Hop Championships. Before that, I helped organize the first two DC Lindy Exchanges, and then functioned as event coordinator for the Jam Cellar’s Big Big Event. Outside of Lindy events, I have over 10 years of experience in event and meeting planning plus managing an event facility. I’ve also taken courses in intercultural communication, conflict resolution and project management. I don’t list these things to brag, but to give you some perspective when I say that all that experience only barely prepared me for Frankie95.
I stood on stage in the Hammerstein Ballroom on the Wednesday night before the event started, and even then, everything seemed way too big. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being alone in that space when it’s completely empty and you’re just looking up . . . and up, wondering if you must be in some sort of pocket dimension because there’s no way a space that size should fit in the building you see from out front. The only thing I could think at that point was “We’re really going to do this thing, aren’t we?”
By the time we got to grand finale with everyone doing the Shim Sham to all three big bands playing to “Stompin at The Savoy” I was exhausted. I was coming to the end of a stretch where I had about an hour and a half of sleep in 48 hours. I sat on the third floor balcony watching around 1800 people join in a dance choreographed by the man who brought us all there. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel detached by what was going on below me. We pretty much killed ourselves to get to this moment, and all I could do is watch.
I never met Frankie Manning. Been in the same room with him at a few events, but never introduced myself. I never wanted to bother him. I don’t regret that actually. He was always inundated by well wishers, so I doubt that I would have made a lasting impression on him.
His affect on my life is not lost on me though. I was with my friends at a birthday party the weekend before he passed away. They’re from Arizona, California, New York, Pittsburgh, Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado, and Florida. Even from other countries like Canada, Nigeria, Sweden and exotic Baltimore. We met through dancing, and that was the only way we could have met.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the loss of the American dream, but I would think that anyone’s dream be to live in peace, influencing an incredible number of people all around the world just by being yourself.
It’s that generous and inviting personality that drew almost 2000 people to New York City last weekend. It’s amazing to me that he just didn’t inspire people to dance but to also get them do so much to make this event possible. Most of us working the event didn’t know each other, heck hadn’t even met each other until that weekend, but we worked with an instant cohesiveness that would be the envy of some combat units.
I was never really intimidated by the size of the event, but I felt a great responsibility to these people who were essentially writing us a blank check in terms of their time and effort for the weekend. I never wanted them to feel like they were wasting their times especially when they were missing out on so much of the event to make it happen. I take a violation of that trust very seriously.
That’s why I was so infuriated when I felt that someone was essentially taking a sh!t on all of our efforts with their selfishness. A few days later, as Tena talked me back from the brink of war, she was able to explain why I took this very personally. She talked about how some of us are called to do certain things in life.
I’m not a very religious person, but this idea appeals to my spiritual curiosity and makes sense in this case. I’m not going to make the Hellzapoppin’ finals, and no one is going to pay to see me to perform any time soon. I lost my enthusiasm for event planning as a career some time ago, but I’ve always relished the challenge of putting a Lindy event together. Not just for the sake of doing it, but also to give people an opportunity to share a bit of themselves through this dance.
I remember Karen Turman agonizing over changing her travel plans in order to be in the Hellzapoppin contest. I heard the fire in her voice when she told me that she really had no choice because she had to be a part of this thing somehow. It’s one of the reasons why she’s one of my favorite people in this scene. I’m very glad she and Andrew were able to perform for us on Monday.
My heart broke when I heard that Carla had hurt herself, and couldn’t be in that contest or would be able to perform with her team the next night.
I wanted to hug Nina into oblivion when she showed up to perform after everything that had happened with her earlier in the week.
I got chills when I saw the Shim Sham being done on the Great Wall of China in the wonderful compilation video that Akemi put together.
I wept a like a child when I saw Tim and Malou’s short documentary piece about teaching lindy hop to children living in abject poverty in India. I had actually seen it already, but coming at the end of a long weekend, it just got to me; to see the reach of a humble dancer from Jacksonville, Florida.
That is what I feel is Frankie’s greatest gift. To be the cornerstone of a community where people can explore and discover things about themselves that they would not be able to otherwise. To call people regardless of race, creed, nationality, or gender to create something greater than anything that they could achieve alone. And he did that by just being friendly, warm, and generous with his time.
Those are traits that were shared by everyone who worked behind the scenes. I don’t want to get their names lost in my ramblings, so I’ll separate my individual thanks in a separate note. But Frankie95 is a testament to the total commitment of this staff and I am humbled by the faith that these people had in this event to put so much work into something that had never been done before.
Leading up to the event, my friends kept asking me how I would feel when it was all over, but I never looked forward to the end. It was always about the process of getting there for me. That journey was made more memorable, not to mention easier, working with a very special group of people not to mention the support of my friends. Wexie told me at one point that I should get more sleep, but why would I miss a minute of this magnificent whirlwind of commitment, creativity, and joy.
Despite the misunderstanding I mentioned at the start of this note, it was probably better for me to leave the event the way I did. After going through everything that weekend, it would have been hard to saying goodbye to such a dedicated group of people and to such an intense experience.
Thanks everyone for being there and being yourselves, and thank you Frankie for bringing us together.