Sharp, snappy, slick … Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk
Does any dance move have more global recognition than the moonwalk? If you’ve seen it or tried it, then it’s probably thanks to Michael Jackson. He wasn’t the first to master the step: tap-dancer Bill Bailey performed it (“the backslide”) in the 1950s, West Coast bodypopping crew the Electric Boogaloos had their own version in the late 1970s, and Jackson himself was taught by Jeffrey Daniel, the smooth mover from 80s pop outfit Shalamar. But it was Jackson who made the moonwalk his own, sharpening it up with a snappier heel and a slicker glide. In this and many other ways, he changed the face of dance.
Fast and loose … moonwalking again in Billie Jean
Watch any footage from his early days with the Jackson 5 and you can see that from a young age he danced as easily as he sang. He could catch a step, spin it around and slot it into a beat just as naturally as if it was a musical riff. The dancing wasn’t just an accompaniment to words and music, it was also a key part of the whole performance. As compelling as he was in the group, it was the solo albums Off the Wall and Thriller that especially defined Jackson as a dancer. Take his performance of Billie Jean from the Motown Records broadcast in 1983. Whippet-thin and mixing the fast with the loose, Jackson cut an unforgettable figure. Joints alternately jagged and juicy, he’d flick and retract his limbs like switchblades, or snap out of a tornado spin into a perfectly poised toe-stand. And then he wheeled out the moonwalk. Audiences did a collective double take and surrendered; Jackson ruled.
Groundbreaking … Thriller
Jackson’s dancing also changed the format of the music video – its style, its story, its production values and its audience. For swagger and attitude, the gang scene in Beat It simply beat its counterpart in West Side Story, from which it drew inspiration. And then, of course, there was Thriller. It wasn’t just the horror-film plot and effects – the grizzly zombies busting out of graves were literally groundbreaking – that made this the best-selling music video ever, it was the dancing: taut, perfectly rhythmic and cool. With Bad, he introduced his infamous crotch-grab and in Smooth Criminal he executed the gravity-defying lean. The moves became iconic.
Gravity-defying … Smooth Criminal
Jackson’s influence spreads far and wide. From filmi dance in Bollywood to the sharply choreographed boy bands of the 90s, the patterns of his smooth formation drills have become a part of modern pop culture. Without Jackson, a whole generation of people might not have been involved in dance today: Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta, British-Bangladeshi whiz-kid choreographer Akram Khan and, er, me.