As a dance writer, I sometimes get asked how I became interested in dance. Usually I say it was Ballet Rambert, the first dance performance I ever saw, aged 19. But that’s not quite true, and it’s time to give credit where it’s due. It was in the same year – 25 years ago this month, in fact – but the turning point was actually the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Pre-Thriller, I’d never even thought about dance. Back in my monocultural home counties school, boys sported customised Adidas bags proclaiming allegiance to Blue Öyster Cult, Led Zeppelin, or Pink Floyd – none of whom exactly put a twitch in your step. Then at university, I saw a video of Billie Jean. The bassline was like a rumble in the gut, the rhythm like skipped heartbeats. And there was Michael Jackson moseying along a windblown street, each footfall lighting the pavement slab beneath it, as if his aura had its own fluorescent dancefloor. His limbs flicked and retracted, his body froze shapes out of liquid spins, he cut the fast with the loose. I was as electrified as one of those paving stones – somewhere inside me, a light switched on. I wanted to be starting something …
Beat It began to turn the tables. I exulted in the knowledge that Eddie Van Halen had contributed the guitar solo, and imagined a headline – “Heavy Metal Guru Serves King of Pop!” – flashing over the skinny guy in a red PVC jacket who rules the roost just by snapping his fingers and zigzagging his body. Beat that, Adidas bag boys.
And then came Thriller which, with its zombie dancers busting out of graves, was quite literally groundbreaking. I was transfixed by the unforgettable vision of Jackson leading a squadron of the living dead in the sharpest manoeuvres in history. They swizzle around the rhythm and then snap right back into it, notching the pulse as sharply as finger clicks. No mere mortal could resist. My inner dancer came out like – well, actually, like a zombie busting out of its grave. My body was moving, it was alive. Sorry, could we rerun that? This time, imagine the portentous tones of a Vincent Price voiceover: It was moving! It was alive! ALIVE!
And that’s how I got started in dance. Without Thriller I wouldn’t have gone to see Ballet Rambert, wouldn’t have started watching dance, wouldn’t have started writing about it. Of course Thriller didn’t actually determine the path, lighting up the paving stones to show me the way. But it did help me find my feet.
So Thriller changed me – but Thriller also changed the world. It’s the biggest selling album and music video of all time, and nothing else has gone global in the same way. Its influence on dance is still with us. You can see it in popular styles, in weddings, parties and even prisons. And the Indian Thriller that’s currently riding high on YouTube is simply the most visible sign of the fact that it affected the entire dance style of Bollywood cinema.
But while musicians often acknowledge its importance, I rarely hear it namechecked in the dance profession. Carlos Acosta cites Thriller as an inspiration, as do British Bangladeshi contemporary dance wunderkind Akram Khan and upbeat Brazilian choreographer Deborah Colker. There must be many others – performers, choreographers, teachers, directors, even critics – whose first glowing, groundbreaking, grave-busting steps into their dance career were thanks to Thriller.
Will it continue to inspire future generations in dance? You can now get Thriller dance lessons online. I’m not sure how sitting at a computer is going to help you find your feet – except that if it’s Thriller you’re watching, even if you don’t move a hair I can guarantee that your insides will be doing a crazy zombie dance.