Written by Ben Popper. Originally published June 2009 on Obit-Mag.com.
As a kid who grew up dancing, Michael Jackson loomed larger than life. At school, every talent show was capped by the best Jackson impersonator and every playground dance battle ended with someone busting out a full MJ routine. Even a mimic, wearing a white kitchen glove, could throw the packed school auditorium into palpitations with the right display of Jackson’s trademark moves, especially the moonwalk, which Jackson first debuted on March, 25, 1983, one day after I was born.
Michael Jackson didn’t invent the moonwalk, but he did make it his own, performing it with such technical mastery, and to such a wide audience, that the move and the man became inseparable. The legendary first performance occurred during a live television special, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, which drew a one-night audience of 47 million people. The move comes late in the performance of his hit single “Billy Jean” and is, in essence, a simple back slide. The same move had been demonstrated by countless performers, from Cab Calloway to Fred Astaire, and was a standard among tap dancers for decades. Yet something about the way Jackson performed it that night made it stand out for the ages.
The Moonwalk – From Astaire to Calloway
Legend has it that Jackson had learned the move from Jeffrey Daniel, a Los Angeles-born member of the British pop group Shalamar and a renowned West Coast street dancer. In fact, Daniel had performed an identical move on TV one year earlier, during an episode of Top of the Pops, and the members of Shalamar assert that much of what is today thought of as Jackson’s signature style was stolen from Daniel.
Does this matter? Not really. Musicians and dancers borrow from each other the time, and what made Jackson’s back slide different was partly virtuosity. While other dancers used the move as a gimmick, or an exit, Jackson presented it to the audience as the impossible, accomplished with otherworldly ease. Plus, he gave it a name, which modernized, and instantly canonized, what is in truth, a simple sleight of foot.
A great look at how MJ copped Jeffrey Daniel's style – (at 1:58)
What really separated Jackson’s moonwalk from that of others like Daniel, was that it fit into a wider universe of moves he made his own. Jackson danced his entire life, entering talent shows by age five and performing with his brothers along the Indiana chitlin’ circuit – the African-American performance route that saw the Jackson 5 opening for everyone from musicians to comedians to strippers – at the tender age of eight years old.
Jackson idolized James Brown and was a student of the television program Soul Train, where he saw L.A. performers like Jeffrey Daniel for the first time. His early dancing, captured during televised performances of the Jackson 5, draws largely on this combination: the smooth choreography of the Motown line, the furious spins and glides of James Brown and the cutting edge robotics of West Coast street dance.
Jackson 5 performing "Dancing Machine" on Merv Griffin in 1974
This amalgam matured into Jackson’s signature style with the addition of one final element: sex. The slinky leg kicks, the pelvic thrusts and the earth shattering crotch grab were the coup de grace on a choreographic oeuvre that Jackson had been developing for years, working like punctuation to shape what had long been an improvisational style. There is a great irony to the sexuality of the “Billy Jean” performance, a song about being unjustly accused of fathering a child, in that Jackson claimed at the time to be a virgin. But for Jackson the movement was less explicitly about sex, than about defiance: a hard, confrontational edge to his dancing that formed the bedrock of the many seminal music videos and performances to come. Ultimately these moves would spiral into the violence of videos like “Black and White” and play a foil to the disturbing sexuality that haunted his late career. Yet no amount of scandal could tarnish the kinetic appeal of his dancing, which has brought joy to people the world over, and will be imitated long after he is gone.
Jackson’s Legendary Performance at Motown 25, the birth of his moonwalk