How Michael Jackson Changed Dance History
The first time Michael Jackson performed the moonwalk was during a live performance of his hit song “Billie Jean”, following an NBC celebration of 25 years of Motown. The moonwalk had already been a popular move for West Coast street dancers though, who moved with mechanical precision in a style known as popping. Popping involved stop-and-start movements and pulsing actions.
One of the most popular and noteworthy dancer crew using this style were the Electric Boogaloos. They had a range of moves, including stylized walks such as the “Backslide” as it was known by then, according to Toni Basil. Basil was most-known for the song “Mickey” but was also known as a member of “The Lockers”, another dance crew. Basil says that the Moonwalk was already old news in the streets and that the Electric Boogaloos had been doing the move since the 70s, including an appearance on Soul Train.
In his memoirs, Michael Jackson said that he was taught the move by some friends, and he spent time in the studio developing it. Jackson was a meticulous dancer, able to bust out quick moves with extreme control, which allowed him to pull off the move with slick perfection.
When Jackson hit the Moonwalk on national television in 1983, he popularized the move in a way that dance crews like the Electric Boogaloos wouldn’t be able to do. The dance crews of the 70s and 80s were innovative and talented for sure, but they lacked Jackson’s mainstream appeal.
Jackson cut through all demographics and achieved crossover appeal and fame with the 1982 album Thriller, of which Billie Jean was a major hit single.
When Jackson first pulled off the move on stage, he incorporated into his regular choreography at just the right time as part of an overall sequence; he would do the moonwalk, then a spin, and then hit his trademark freeze-frame toe-stand to make the crowd go wild.
Jackson took the moonwalk and turned it into a national phenomenon. Kids around the world were imitating his dance moves, including the moonwalk. This stands out as an incredible moment in dance history because Michael Jackson was able to bridge the gap between West Coast street dancers and East Coast break dancers, who were part of the formation of hip-hop. The moonwalk was a perfect addition to the physically demanding break dancing style, known for fast footwork, floor spins, and named moves like The Worm.
Even before Jackson introduced the global stage to the moonwalk, he had already changed how Americans perceived dance. This change was facilitated by MTV, which launched way back in 1981.
When MTV came, it brought videos that gave performers another platform, a visual one at that, for representing themselves and their songs. It was rare for music videos to feature singers dancing before Michael Jackson released his video for “Thriller”.
It was one thing to dance as part of a live performance on stage, but videos such as “Beat It” and “Thriller” had high production values and were fully rehearsed and choreographed, making them nothing short of an artistic statement from Jackson to the world.
Michael Jackson proved himself to be a smooth singer-dancer with his video for “Billie Jean”, which saw him walk, spin, and pose across a desolate cityscape wearing a tuxedo.
“Thriller” and “Beat It” differed in that they showed Jackson at the forefront of a formation of backup dancers. Viewers see Jackson’s perfection for themselves, which is only improved by the dancers moving in unison behind him. Whether the backup dancers were zombies or gang members, they were just as important to the routine as Jackson himself, adding a layer of extra character and depth to a music video.
It’s said that Jackson insisted his videos were called “short films”, and the videos for “Thriller” and “Beat It” are definitely short films. With that said, Jackson’s ability to tell a story through his music videos and dance came to a head in “Smooth Criminal” in 1998. Jackson is the lone hero in a world of nefarious gangsters, gliding through the streets as if he was moving across a ballroom.
Smooth Criminal also saw the introduction of another iconic dance move of Michael Jackson; where he keeps his body in a straight line and leans forward 45 degrees. This impressive move was helped by patented shoes that had bolts on them to connect the heel to the floor.
Jackson’s dancing videos laid the foundation for singers with their own dancing abilities to do the same; setting an example that was followed for years to come. His style was a major influence on his sister, Janet Jackson, as well as other stars who relied on complex choreography and dance moves including Beyonce and Britney Spears. The impact that Michael Jackson made on dance history is just one more reason why he deserves to be called the King of Pop.