Sarah Kaufman Analyzes the Magic Behind Jackson's Dancing

A glimpse into Michael Jackson's more than 40-year career, from the height of musical stardom to his bizarre personal life and sex scandal.
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson and the moonwalk will be forever linked, the man inseparable from his slipperiest and subtlest move. It's no wonder that surreal step became his signature. What more perfect expression could there be of this most elusive celebrity, of the mystery that has always surrounded him? In the thundering melee of a live concert, amid a singularly strange life, Jackson would underscore his cool remove with a shift into reverse, coasting backward across the stage, step by gliding step, as if on a cushion of air. With his dancing, Jackson left behind everything mundane, messy and predictable.

"I don't know who you could really put next to him," said ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov, reached yesterday in Madrid. "To imitate somebody like Michael Jackson is impossible. Why bother? You just relax and admire."

Jackson was a perfectionist, and could relate to other perfectionists. Baryshnikov got to know him through Elizabeth Taylor, who would "drag him to see me dance," Baryshnikov said, when he was at American Ballet Theatre and later when performing in the White Oak Dance Project, his modern-dance company. They would talk about ballet -- Jackson had a lot of questions, he recalled, "like a 12-year-old" -- and he would ask about working with choreographers. He told Baryshnikov that choreographers would suggest ideas to him, but that he created his own dances. What Baryshnikov remembers most about Jackson, he said, was "not even his turns or his grabbing his crotch. Just his simple, bouncy walk across the stage, that was what was most beautiful and arresting, swinging his hips, kicking his heel forward. That's to me what he is: that superior confidence in his body as a dancer. You wanted to say, 'Wow, this guy, what a cat; he can really move in his own way.' "

That walk was his own, but Jackson absorbed some of his other moves from his forebears. He didn't invent the moonwalk, for instance -- tap dancers stretching back at least to the 1940s thrilled audiences with what was called the backslide -- but he perfected it. He didn't invent that swift twist of a spin, or the art of punctuating a lyric or a backbeat with a punch of his pelvis. But as with every other element of his incomparable showmanship, he perfected those moves and made them his own. No pop star brought dance to the stage the way Jackson did. Not for him to draw aside and let backup dancers take the spotlight while he crooned. He was always the soloist, a Gene Kelly breaking out of a song to tell us a story with his steps.

What was that story?

If his life played out on an operatic scale, Jackson's art was at its essence exquisitely personal. As the Jackson 5's kid singer, he paid sweet tribute to James Brown, mimicking so many of his moves -- the tight, prancing, swiveling footwork and the spin that started with a craning neck and the sharp crank of the shoulders. Dancing came astonishingly easy to him, and that joy in moving, that honey-smooth musical response, was as much a part of his appeal as his girlish voice. But as his fame grew, the abandon you saw on "American Bandstand," on the early "ABC" and "I Want You Back" performances, dropped away. The dance style that Jackson honed into a corporeal autograph is one not of physical or emotional release -- it's not flashy or overblown. It's a statement of fierce, obsessive control, and in the way only the best of the best can do it, he made it look supremely easy.

Not that Jackson couldn't do flashy. In a typical number -- take "Billie Jean," for example -- he snaps and shudders with a force that could transfer up to the highest stadium rows. He also had a pantherlike grace, the square shoulders of an athlete carried serenely, with a walk like poured syrup. His understanding of costume glamour -- the jackets that nipped in at the waist, setting off those lean hips and legs -- and his embrace of the flamboyant marked him as one of the great showmen of the ages, but his moves set him apart on another level still.

He tapped into the zeitgeist with his songs, forging a reconciliation of everything -- race, sex and even age. (The boy who danced like a man became the man who somehow still lived like a boy.) But if his songs were pure pop, cemented to their disco-soul-ballad-shake-your-booty era, his dancing was timeless. You read his humanity in it. And his strength. We'll likely never know what motivated his weirder choices -- the surgeries, the home life, the child companions -- but nowhere did his inner life become more visible than in his dancing.

Did fame straitjacket him? Look at the video for "Dangerous," where he leads an army of look-alike Company Men, in their severe suits and narrow ties. He's a marvel of precision, joints popping and snapping like machinery. Somehow, it brings Irish step dancing to mind, the upper body rigidly repressed while the legs soar. Jackson added his own twist: those watch-my-crotch moves. The show nearly always centered on the crotch, even if he wasn't wearing a golden codpiece. Jackson has had an immeasurable influence on countless pop stars; among today's hitmakers, Ne-Yo and Usher come first to mind. But the essential difference is in the movement quality. Usher is more relaxed, with those rolling shoulders. He's comfortable in his own skin.

You couldn't say that about Michael Jackson. He looked easy in his youth, but later there was only a managed ease. Or maybe it's that with Jackson comfort came to mean focus, control, physical assurance. You saw it in the simplest moves, like that skimming walk. He could turn it on and turn it off, but he never let us in. Inscrutable, silent, he has always escaped us, as surely as the moonwalk pulled him away, head down, sliding backward into darkness.

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