When the world saw Michael Jackson do the moonwalk for the first time, it was in a live solo performance of “Billie Jean,” following NBC’s celebration of 25 years of Motown. The move, though, was already popular among West Coast street dancers who were using a precise, mechanized style of movement called popping. The style included sequences of pulsing or stop-and-start movements.
One of the most widely known dance troupes using the style were the Electric Booglaoos and among their moves were stylized, almost cartoonish walks, including what was called at the time the “backslide,” according to performer Toni Basil, who is widely known for the song “Mickey” but was also part of a dance troupe The Lockers.
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“In the street, it was old news. The Electric Booglaoos were doing it on Soul Train in the 1970s,” said Basil.
Jackson said in his memoir that he learned the move from some friends, and he worked on it in the studio. Because Jackson was such a meticulous dancer — with a capacity for extreme control but also quickness — he gave the moonwalk a slick perfection.
By doing the walk on the national television stage in 1983, Jackson was able to popularize the move in a way that groups like The Electric Booglaoos could not. As inventive and talented as dance groups at the time were, they lacked Jackson’s crossover appeal to a mainstream audience.
Jackson’s fame cut across all demographics with the 1982 album Thriller, and “Billie Jean” was one of the top hits from it.
In his first outing with the move, he adapted the moonwalk into his choreography at carefully selected moments within a sequence of moves: There’s the moonwalk, followed by a spin and then his trademark toe-stand with its freeze-frame pose that makes the crowd go wild.
“Michael Jackson was really good at doing the robot style and isolations. So he incorporated that into the moonwalk,” said Jared Grimes, an entertainer and Broadway dancer.
Jackson made the move a national phenomenon – kids everywhere were imitating him. But the moment is a particular part of dance history because Jackson bridged the gap between West Coast street dance and the East Coast break dancers, who were part of the early days of hip-hop. The moonwalk fit perfectly into the physically demanding, almost gymnastic genre known for floor spins, fast footwork and named steps like the worm.
Even before the moonwalk, though, Jackson had changed the way that Americans interacted with dance. And the change came with the help of MTV, which launched in 1981.
With MTV came videos that gave performers a second, visual platform with which to represent their songs and themselves. Prior to Jackson’s “Thriller,” videos in which singers danced were rare.
Dancing onstage within live performance was one thing, but a video with the high production values of “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” or “Thriller” were well-rehearsed, highly choreographed artistic statements.
With the video for “Billie Jean,” Jackson established himself as a dancer-singer with his smooth, graceful walks, spins and poses as he moves through a desolate cityscape in a tuxedo.
“Beat It” and “Thriller,” though, feature him at the front of a triangular formation of backup dancers. The viewer sees Jackson’s perfection first, but it is buttressed by the eye-pleasing site of unison behind him. Whether they are gang members or zombies, the dancers behind him are just as important as Jackson, adding character and depth to the video.
Jackson is said to have insisted that his videos were called short films, and both “Beat It” and “Thriller” are absolutely that. But by the time the song “Smooth Criminal” came along in 1988, Jackson’s ability to tell a story in dance hit a high mark. Gangsters roam a nefarious underworld, and Jackson is the hero-kingpin whom the camera follows as smoothly as if he were Fred Astaire gliding through a ballroom.
The video also introduced a dance trick in which Jackson keeps his body straight but leans forward at about 45 degrees. The move was aided by patented shoes with bolts that lodged the heel into the floor.
In his dance videos, Jackson set the foundations for singers with strong dance abilities to follow for years. His style deeply influenced his sister Janet Jackson, as well as much later stars who relied on dance, from Britney Spears to Beyonce. His impact on dance history is just another reason why Jackson so richly deserves the title the King of Pop.