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MJ’s slide into history | art and culture

Were he to land on the moon, Michael Jackson, who died in 2009, would certainly have been ready. The singer, dancer, songwriter and performer – let’s just shorten that to King of Pop – knew exactly how to create an out-of-this-world spectacle.

His signature slide-back dance move, which he christened the Moonwalk, was born in 1983, during a solo act he performed as part of the TV special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. Jackson, then 24, sang to Billie Jean, danced the moves we knew. And then, close to the end, he slid his feet back in an uninterrupted flow for two timeless seconds.

The crowd gasped and then cheered in delight. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing and neither did Jackson’s trusted stage and dance crew. He looked like he was skating on ice, and it looked like the move has been created on the spot.

In reality, the Moonwalk was neither new nor extempore. It has been around, in different avatars, since at least the 1950s, among tap dancers, break dancers, mimes and street performers. Even David Bowie did it.

Two dancers, Casper Candidate and Cooley Jackson, take credit for teaching it to Jackson, along with other moves. But no one knew that Jackson was going to do it that night. He had rehearsed in secret, tuning up a move that was popularly called the back slide or back float and adding a break-dance quality to it.

Performer, dancer and reality dance show judge Javed Jaffrey says he saw the moonwalk at least a year before Jackson took it to the stage. “I was in New York City in 1982 and 12-year-old kids were doing it along with body-popping moves on the street,” he recalls. Then he saw it on TV in the video for A Night to Remember by Jeffrey Daniels’s soul-funk group Shalamar. “MJ, however, took it to the next level; no contest there.”

The day after the show aired, Jackson received a call from Fred Astaire. “You’re a hell of a mover. Man, you really put them on their asses last night,” the veteran dancer, then 84, is said to have told Michael Jackson. And how did the king of pop respond? The biography MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson by Steve Knopper says that after he ended the call, Jackson went to the bathroom and threw up.

Jaffrey recalls the Moonwalk being performed since 1983 at college events, dance shows, on the street, in the studios — and that, indisputably, came from Jackson. The step he introduced to the world would, for decades, be the hallmark of a dancer’s skill – there’s no room for error when all you’re going is sliding back. You need muscle control to make it all look effortless.

Neil Armstrong, incidentally, wouldn’t have been able to pull it off, at least not on the moon. His Apollo 11 spacesuit weighed about 80 kg on Earth and about 13.6 kg on the Moon. Suits have become lighter since, but astronauts mostly hop; between the low gravity and the weight of their gear, gliding is out of the question.

Jaffrey, now 56, reckons he can still do the Moonwalk “forwards and backwards as well, in a reverse move”. And several from the entertainment world have paid homage. Shah Rukh Khan moonwalked in a song for the 2001 film One 2 Ka Four. Tiger Shroff showed off his version (longer, more angular) at a promo event in 2017. And last December, when Deepika Padukone’s Instagram account hit 30 million followers, she posted a celebratory video of her attempting the iconic move.

First Published:
Jul 13, 2019 10:52 IST

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