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Learn the Shim Sham with Frankie Manning

Updated on December 9, 2012

Frankie Manning's Birthday

Every year, on 26th May, dedicated swing dancers all around the world will be dancing the Shim Sham shimmy in honour of the late Frankie Manning. But do you know how to do the Shim Sham? No? Well, it's easy as you'll see below. But first, here's a little bit of history.

Frankie Manning is a legendary swing dancer from the early era of swing dance, a professional group named Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. They danced up a storm at The Savoy in Harlem, New York in the late 20s, early 30s and went on to perform internationally.

Frankie himself has danced for King George VI in 1937 and the group appeared in movies and on Broadway several times. The group broke up after the men were enlisted during World War II. Frankie went on to form the Congaroos from 1947 to 1955.

Unfortunately, Frankie died a few days before his 95th birthday in 2009. He will always be remembered for his generosity in helping to keep the old dances alive -especially the Shim Sham. After being persuaded to teach some moves, Frankie helped to kick-start the global swing dance revival that has been going strong since the mid-1980s. Frankie himself taught us modern dancers how to do the Shim Sham and early swing-era dance routines right up until his death.

Frankie in a still from the film Hellzapoppin' in 1941 - added to Wikimedia with Frankie's consent.
Frankie in a still from the film Hellzapoppin' in 1941 - added to Wikimedia with Frankie's consent.

What is the Shim Sham?

If you’ve never tried the Shim Sham steps before, it is a classic tap routine that is danced as an informal mob dance (like line dancing) at swing dance social gatherings. In the USA, the Shim Sham music to dance to is Tuxedo Junction. In the UK it is danced to It Ain’t What You Do.

It’s great fun: there’s always a bit of freestyling going on midway through the song and at the end.

It's a great mini-workout, as is swing dancing in general.

Everyone looks good doing the Shim Sham shimmy

If you are big-boned with a big bahookie (who isn't?), shake that thing and you'll look great.

If you are skinnymalink with no meat on them bones, you'll look great like you're just throwing out some scarecrow-style moves.

If you are a man, you'll look so cool and laid back and if you are a lady in fine dresses, you can add some elegance to those shimmy moves.

If you are shy, don't worry no-one's watching - we're too busy having fun and if you are an exhibitionist, give it laldy and throw your best and craziest shapes.

I swear, it really is a dance for everyone, young and old. Hell, even babies can do this.

A word of warning: do this dance on a hard floor with smooth-soled shoes that have some slip to them (or sprinkle talcum powder on the floor). Or you can do it on your kitchen floor in your socks or at the park with naked feet. Just don't try this on a carpet: you will get intense carpet friction that will make your eyeballs frizzle and you'll light up like a Christmas tree with static.

Watch Frankie below. He'll show you in easy steps how it's done.

Remember to start on the 8 beat and the musicality of the dance will help you know if you're getting the steps right. The great thing about the Shim Sham is that it's ok to mess it up and just do it your way as long as you enter into the fun spirit of it.

After all that's what dancing is all about for us amateurs.

Frankie Manning does the Shim Sham

If not that, then this?

Here's another demo to help you learn the Shim Sham. You can see them improvising at the end of the dance with some smooth Charleston swing dance moves. You can view this video from the front and the back, whichever helps you learn best.


Lindy Hopping

Ok, now that you've learned the steps, get practicing.

If you like early swing tunes then practice will be a doddle not to mention a little workout for your body and mind. What are you waiting for?

Shim Sham, Lindy Hop and Charleston are all part of what is 'swing dancing'. You can learn all of these at swing dance classes and workshops. When you have mastered those basics you can move onto the more acrobatic aerials that Frankie Manning invented and choreographed all those decades ago.

Swing dance classes

If you want to find out about swing dance classes and events in your area check out these helpful websites (links below). You can find out if there is a class or club near you. Swing dancing is a global obsession so there are sure to be dance classes somewhere near you. They are often taught by excellent amateurs but you can find more structured classes at many dance schools (sometimes they're not as fun, but hey).

I can tell you that all ages take part in the swing dance scene. It's very popular with students. It's also popular with vintage lovers who want to experience the old-style dances. You can go all the way and dress vintage for social dances if you want - it's positively encouraged. It's also rising in popularity amongst burlesque fans. Would you believe it's becoming popular with hip hop dancers? - many swing moves have influenced today's hip hop dance styles, not to mention pop stars like Beyonce and Michael Jackson.

Global Shim Sham for Frankie Manning

Here’s what swing dancers and lindy hoppers around the world did for Frankie’s special 95th birthday party (which sadly turned into Frankie’s memorial event). You can see how everyone has their own style when doing the Shim Sham shimmy.

Hellzapoppin' (1941)

Here's Frankie and team in the Hollywood film Hellzapoppin' showing us how it's really done. It's my favourite swing dance clip. Your chin will drop with amazement at the acrobatics. That's Frankie in the dungarees.

You can read my birthday tribute to Frankie Manning over at V is for Vintage. Included is a documentary on the life of this swing dance legend.


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