As California braces for a Michael Jackson funeral concert that they are saying will cost the indebted City of Los Angeles over $2 million dollars, I find myself in an equally ambivalent position. Here I am, who thought I wasn’t a fan, writing my third Michael Jackson post in a week. First I reclaimed him for Generation Jones, then I came to terms with the surprising fact that he did have some relevance to my life. Now I find myself irked, to put it mildly, at the gushing tributes and news reports. Okay, I’ll suspend talk of his possible inappropriate behavior with minors, even though I think he did it. What’s getting me furious are the fawning news reports that talk about how “Michael Jackson showed us dance moves that had never been seen before and will never be seen again…”
In the words of Steve Martin, EXCUUUUUUUUUUSE ME! This is why I got out of the news racket so many years ago. Things like research, history and striving for context were going out the window and I wanted no part of it. I’m not saying Michael Jackson wasn’t an immensely talented dancer, but he’s just the latest evolution in a long line of illustrious Black dancers.
The Moonwalk? Done and captured on film back in 1955. But the dancer here, Bill Bailey, and others were doing this step, which they called The Backslide, long before:
Some of those other moves? Take a gander at Earl “Snakehips” Tucker:
But the real artists to be dissed by this assertion that Michael Jackson as a dancer, sprung fully formed out of nowhere, are the fabulous Nicholas Brothers. Now these guys really did things no one had ever seen before or since (although they were building on the work of the greats before them.) And these two, especially brother Fayard, were responsible for teaching generations of younger dancers their moves. Dancers like Debbie Allen. Oh yeah, and Michael Jackson who was specifically sent to Fayard when he was young to polish up his dancing.
Here’s the famous dance routine none other than Fred Astaire said was the single greatest bit of dancing ever captured on film. (Here in Story Weather, the brothers appear with Cab Calloway, no mean hoofer himself. Watch the whole sequence. The bit on the stairs at the end must be seen to be believed.)
Jeez, no special effects, no smoke machines and those guys aren’t even breathing hard!
I remember watching an interview with Debbie Allen where she tells about asking Fayard to show her how those stair moves were done. He executed something pretty similar. He was in his 60s. She says she just couldn’t imagine how she could get her twenty-something body to do the same thing.
So why does every newscaster seem to think that Michael Jackson invented the whole art form of dancing on his very own? I bet even Michael, who judging by the throne he was supposed to have in his bedroom had a pretty high opinion of himself, would admit he was dancing on ground paved by others.
Okay, most of these great dancers were active during intense Segregation when they were confined to the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit. But enough later dancers have referenced them that anyone with a passing interest in the American dance form should have bumped into them. Certainly someone doing a news report on Michael’s dance moves should take the five or ten minutes of Googling needed to find out who his teachers and references were. Ever heard of a video called That’s Black Entertainment? Get it. You’ll be amazed at what talent Segregation robbed White America of seeing. (And you’ll see the Black comics Jerry Lewis stole his whole act from!)
That said, let me leave you with more smooth moves from classic hoofers, some of whom are even White:
NOTE: The title of my post is taken from Marlon Riggs’ wonderful documentary on Black identity called Black is…Black Ain’t. I wish Michael Jackson had seen it.
Mine is not the first post to point out the debt Michael owed to talented dancers before him. Here’s just one.