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Jul 02, 2009

How the King of Pop changed the course of American dance by transforming its past.

By Megan Pugh

The most remarkable fact of Michael Jackson’s wake was all the dancing.

In New Orleans, they danced to brass band renditions of Jackson’s songs in a huge second-line, the jazz funeral rite that accompanies the dead to the grave with rejoicing. Fans crowded outside the UCLA hospital pitching their brittle arms first to one side, then to the other, like the zombies in the “Thriller” video. Parisians held a memorial moonwalk in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Fans in San Francisco crouched opposite each other downtown to reenact the fight from the video for “Beat It.” Fourteen-hundred prison inmates in the Philippines performed a massive, synchronized dance tribute in bright orange jumpsuits.

When Elvis and John Lennon and Princess Diana died, people mourned loudly and in public, but who would have thought to dance? For the King of Pop, it was the perfect memorial.

Jackson’s movement vocabulary was fairly limited—the moonwalk, the fancy footwork, the spin, the kick, the pelvic thrust—but he made all those steps his own. Everything he did, he did so well that Fred Astaire called him “a hell of a mover.” Punctuating Bob Fosse-style jazz with jerky shoulders and defiantly grabbing his crotch, Jackson was also, Astaire told him, “an angry dancer.” To watch his solo music videos is to see him draw on centuries of American dance tradition, then explode it.

Take the way he lifts himself onto the tips of his toes and bends his knees in a kind of balletic break from his frenzied steps. Early 20th-century black tap greats Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers did the same thing. And while Jackson doesn’t tap, he pounds the floor with such rhythmic intensity and pivots with such speed that he’s clearly embodying a tap lineage.

When he bends his knees while his toes alternately touch and splay out, he’s referencing the 1920s dance craze, the Charleston. His moonwalk probably stems from a 19th-century step called the Virginia Essence, created by Billy Kersands. One of Kersands’s audience members said that “by manipulating his toes and heels rapidly” he appeared not “to move his feet at all.”

Twentieth-century tappers would do something similar, but Jackson tightened up their renditions. He kept his legs close together as he pulled one foot back, then the other, so that his body seemed entirely liberated from friction.

Kersands, who was also famous for stuffing a saucer and several billiard balls into this mouth while he danced—a move recreated in the collage on the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street—was a black man who performed in blackface. For all that is shameful about minstrelsy (the American cultural form of pretending to be black), we have to admit that both black and white performers have watched each other for centuries. It would be naive to think that Jackson is exempt from that legacy (with the difference, of course, that he had his skin lightened).

Take Elvis, the white singer who grew famous for singing like a black man. Jackson was a direct inheritor of young Elvis’s famous thrusting pelvis. He even recreated one of the King’s most famous poses: hips askance, one leg slightly turned in, one ear drooping toward his shoulder.

In Jackson’s best videos, he tries to escape the thorniness of the real world by looking to the glory days of American movie musicals. “Billie Jean” combines noir detective films with the “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” sequence from An American In Paris, where every stair Georges Guétary ascends lights up, like magic. “Smooth Criminal” takes you back to Scarface, but it’s filtered through Fred Astaire’s gangster dance in The Band Wagon. Jackson’s first dance step in the scene, when he turns to the side and kicks one leg in front of him, is another Charleston move. He pulls his shoulders up, tensely, and cocks his hat—pure Astaire.

Astaire haunts Jackson’s live performances of “Dangerous,” too: the chorus of men in suits, one of whom dies before Jackson even begins to sing, references the opening of “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” the number in which Astaire uses his cane as a machine gun and shoots his own chorus.

When Jackson was in Hollywood, he’d often eat dinner with Astaire, and with Gene Kelly, whose white socks and dark loafers were the inspiration for Jackson’s uniform.

“Beat It” and “Bad” are citations of West Side Story, and that catchy finger-snapping comes straight from Jerome Robbins. The pioneering choreographer merged American vernacular dance with classical ballet; Jackson brought some of ballet’s grace into the streets.

When other performers reference this past, they tend to seem overly highbrow or nostalgic. Leanne Rimes’s “Nothing Better to Do,” a video tribute to “Jailhouse Rock,” is a knowing citation. Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” is an ironic, slightly condescending wink. Jackson, on the other hand, was sincerely in search of a place where he could heal people with song and dance. This, after all, is the essence of “Beat It.”

But Jackson was also up to something more—his vision of America zooms between the rosy dreams of Hollywood musicals and the vicious recognition that such dreams may not be attainable. At the end of “Black or White,” where faces have morphed into other faces of other ethnicities and genders, Jackson takes the form of—get ready for some symbolism—a black panther. Think we’ve found a way to transcend race? Think again, Jackson seems to say. He turns back into a human—a human who simultaneously growls and screams—and faces a wind that bombards him with trash. His dancing in this afterward is furious and quick.

In what the film critic Carol Clover has called an angry re-imagining of Singing in the Rain, he pounds the cement with his feet, smashes windows in a furious rush to rid the world of hate, and grabs his crotch so frequently that the movement begins to seem asexual. It’s like flicking his middle finger.

Suddenly, the whitewashed world of movie musicals—the Neverland Jackson has longed to create—gives way to a harsher reality.

Hollywood musicals tend to tie up in a happy ending. Boy gets girl, everyone sings and dances, and all is right with the world. But Jackson almost always ends up alone. We rarely see him dancing with others—that’s why, when he and Diana Ross grab each other’s arms in The Wiz, it’s almost shocking. Jackson’s partners in “Smooth Criminal” come and go too quickly to seem like real people. Jackson is like those cats that keep showing up in his videos: a smooth, sleek, protean loner.

But he wasn’t always alone. In the 1980s, Jackson pioneered the group dancing in which a chorus follows a lead. It’s a format music videos still use.

Over these last few days, in streets all over the world, it seems like we’ve become his back-up dancers: celebrating him, imitating him and falling short, delighted by his efforts and our own. Who else has inspired so many of us to such heights of controlled abandon?

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Sorry, folks, but Michael was nothing but a jerky arm-dancer, and comparing him to an elderly Fred Astaire who in the ’50s was 20 years past his prime is sacreligious. The Step Brothers could dance Michael Jackson off the stage.

Louie Geiser
Jul 21, 2009

thanks for this terrific piece. just what i was looking for prior to today’s events at the staples center!

Jeb Trowbridge
Jul 7, 2009

Megan Pugh is an amazing writer. Obviously very knowledgeable about dance, but also very graceful with the English language. Nice work.

Jul 3, 2009