Michael Jackson in motion.
If you watch a video of the Jackson 5 performing “I Want You Back,” on the Ed Sullivan show, in 1969, you will see that the group’s lead vocalist—Michael, the youngest of the five brothers—was already an A-list dancer at the age of eleven. Here is this fat-cheeked boy, in a pink Super Fly hat that he is obviously proud of, doing tilts and dips and fanny rocks and finger snaps, and tucking in little extras—half steps, quarter steps—between them. Most amazing is his musicality, his ability to respond to the score faithfully and yet creatively, playing with the music, moving in before and after the beat. Musicality always comes off as spontaneity, and he was loved, early on, for that quality.
Now turn to “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” (1979). Ten years have passed. He has started recording his own songs. He does fancier steps. But at twenty-one, as at eleven, he is galvanizing above all because of his naturalness. He hops with joy; he wags his head; his shirt comes untucked.
Then come the landmark videos of the early nineteen-eighties: “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller,” all of them for songs that appeared on the collection “Thriller” (1982), which is the best-selling album of all time. At this point, Jackson has just about everything you would want in a dancer. He is very fast, and, now that the adult musculature has come in, his whole body is “worked.” (This means that every muscle is stretched, and operating in the service of the dance. Nothing is blurred.) As a result, he has a sharp attack, and wonderful clarity. Watch him—as you can, for example, in “The Way You Make Me Feel” (1987)—dancing, silhouetted, alongside other men doing the same steps. You can’t see the faces, but you know which one he is. He dives into a step more intently, and shows it to us more precisely, than anyone else. Around this time, the videos are featuring some new moves—for example, multiple spins (which seem, at times, to have received technical assistance). And he’s now doing the famous moonwalk, which he picked up from break dancing. He has also started doing some rather dirty moves, notably the crotch-grab, which will endure, with striking embellishments, throughout his career.
The “Thriller”-period videos were instrumental in converting MTV from a backwater to a sensation. Jackson consciously aimed at doing that. “I wanted to be a pioneer in this relatively new medium,” he said in his 1988 memoir, “Moon Walk” (a book, incidentally, edited by Jacqueline Onassis). He spent a fortune on these projects. The 1995 “Scream” video cost seven million dollars—a record at that time. He didn’t like to call these works videos. They were “short films,” he claimed—and rightly, for he had them shot not on videotape but on 35-mm. film. “We were serious,” he said.
Jackson took his choreography from a number of sources: hip-hop, sock hop, “Soul Train,” disco, and jazz dance, plus a little tap and Charleston. By his account, he constructed some of the movement himself. “Billie Jean,” he says in “Moon Walk,” still had no dance component the night before he was scheduled to perform it in honor of Motown’s twenty-fifth anniversary. He went down to the kitchen, turned on the music full blast, and, in his words, “let the dance create itself” on his body. His moonwalk had its début in that number.
But on most of his dances he did not work alone. Michael Peters, Vincent Paterson, and Jeffrey Daniel, all of them experienced stage and TV choreographers, collaborated with Jackson. On the PBS special “Everybody Dance Now” (1991), in answer to a question from the dance historian Sally Sommer, Peters said that Jackson’s method was to put together some steps and ideas and bring them to a choreographer, who would then organize them into a coherent dance.
But, whether he went it alone or got help, the result was much the same. He didn’t have a lot of moves. You can almost count them on your fingers: the gyrating hips, the bending knees (reversing from inward to outward), the pivoting feet (ditto), the one raised knee, the spins, and, above all, the rotated or raised heel, which is what he gets around on. These steps are generally done staccato. He finishes the phrase and freezes, then finishes the next phrase and freezes. He also has some moves so natural that one hesitates to call them steps: lovely, light-footed walks, struts, jumps, and runs. He made at least one important innovation in music-video choreography—the use of large ensembles dancing behind the soloist—but beyond that he created very little dancing that was different from his own prior numbers, or anyone else’s. Yet many people were happy to see him, again and again, do the thing he did. Long after the critics soured on his music and his videos, they still liked his dancing.
Sometimes they had to take the dancing on faith. Jackson, who had a thorough knowledge of the movie musical, revered Fred Astaire. He records in his memoir how thrilled he was when Astaire praised him. The old master even invited him over to his house, where Jackson taught the moonwalk to him and his choreographer Hermes Pan. (Astaire told Jackson that both of them, he and Jackson, danced out of anger—an interesting remark, at least about Astaire.) But despite Jackson’s awe of his predecessor, he never learned the two rules that Astaire, as soon as he gained power over the filming, insisted on: (1) don’t interrupt the dance with reaction shots or any other extraneous shots, and (2) favor a full-body shot over a closeup. To Astaire, the dance was primary—his main story—and he had it filmed accordingly. In Jackson’s videos, the dance is tertiary, even quaternary (after the song and the story and the filming). The camera repeatedly cuts away, and, when it comes back, it often limits itself to the upper body. Jackson didn’t value his dancing enough.