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.
I enjoy your site and feel the same way about all the Michael Jackson hype. And wow, Snake Hips could have taught young Elvis the Pelvis a thing or two.
– being a big ‘black music’ aficcionado, as the English used to bizarrely call it, I’m quite an anorak on all this stuff. Apart from the Rod Temperton/Quincy Jones/Brothers Johnson nexus (plus other great studio players) that brought us Off The Wall, there are all sorts of contributors to the Michael Jackson image. Kind of like Madonna inc, except Michael had a lot more talent around song writing a dance IMO.
It was primarily Jeffrey Daniels of Shalomar who coached MJ on the backslide, misnamed the moonwalk by the usual idiots in the media.
Here’s Daniels locking and popping on UK TOTP in 82
Daniels was taught by the Electric Boogaloo’s Sam in LA
Here they are talking about it and MJ
No question in my mind MJ was the complete showbiz package though, bowdlerized for the mass market. There’s a big chunk of James Brown’s genius moves in there also…
For pure locking and popping I’d go with Mr Wiggles, most amazing backslide Mr Animation
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6jYj4qQP9M (near the end of clip)
Thanks Ollie Anorak (that’s a parka to Americans and it denotes a nerd to the British)
I was going to mention Jeffery Daniel, but I was trying to go as far back as I could in history. Which was pretty much only as far as YouTube goes with its videos.
I’m sure if we could talk to a 200 year old New Orleanian, they’d be saying the Moonwalk or Backslide was a staple of dance back in the day.
Thank you for taking this opportunity to actually teach us a little something – and entertain us as well. Take note, every news outlet in America…
Not the main point of your post, but I, too, quit a job I loved and was pretty good at when the whole system around it started to crumble – or at least to go in a direction I didn’t think was the right way to go.
Interesting clips. I was thinking Bill Bailey’s was a little too “hoppy” but then I did see him break into a moonwalkesque move! And the Nicholas Bros and all those splits – yikes!!
Can’t believe this whole affair will cost the city $2 Million. I thought California was pretty much bankrupt. I could think of some better uses for that cash…
LA is desperately trying to get the Jacksons and the promoters to pay for the security, street closures, porta-potties and all the other things that they think will cost the City $2 million. After all, they are the ones profiting from it all.
Wow, didn’t know he was taught by one of the Nicholas Brothers. Very cool and makes sense. My Dad said that the “moonwalk” goes back to vaudeville and he remembers it as a kid in the UK.
Now, that’s some dancing, those videos were great! I loved Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Gregory Hines. These men were all perfectionist, true dancers that worked endlessly and making their dance look easy and smooth, that is what a great dancer does, they make it look effortless.
Anyways, I feel for you guys in California, really , out in the Mid-West all I have to do is change the channel or put in a DVR and it all goes away But you guys can’t escape it and for it to hit your ‘pocket’ well is just wrong!
Amazing – I’m glad we can trace back some (many, most) of MJ’s moves to roots and not Paula Abdul. He hasn’t been relevant to me since about 1983. Elvis revisited, though the way he said “hooo” and “djah” were gold and now gone.
Paris Jackson summed it all up for me and blew apart all the pedophile shock jocks out there.
Absolutely wonderful clips!! I love to watch classic dancing. Those artists had such grace and style. I noticed there wasn’t a bit of crotch-grabbing in any of the segments. I would have enjoyed watching these even out of the MJ context. Thanks for another well-written and insightful piece.
Hey, thanks for the blog post. I have to agree with you about how many other dancers were never given as much recognition as they were given Michael. Yeah I agree it was a different era but I’m surprised how slow some news reporters are. In forgetting other talented entertainers (like the Nicholas Brothers and Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker and Bill Bailey), they’re actually doing a disservice to Jackson’s legacy as a dancer so you get kudos from me. 🙂
People forget history. I think when Michael Jackson first started doing the moonwalk he credited the old entertainers. He was a fan of old movies and that’s something some people choose to forget.
Humans have a tendency to go overboard eulogizing people. I know I have people in my family who’ve talked very badly about some people when they were alive but suddenly upon the person’s death, they only recall the good and would argue with you if you mention anything negative.
Great blog post.
Marcel Marceau used to do this as part of his mime routine.
Jackson did add something, though, the so-called antigravity lean in at least one of his videos. The other dancers couldn’t do that because Michael designed a special pair of shoes and held the patent.
Thanks Syd for the info.
One of my favorite bloggers, Nordette at Who’s Shoes Are These Anyway? pointed out about the patent on the shoes. (Find her in my blogroll.)