I’ve written in other essays about growing up in Detroit. And, of course, as a resident of Detroit, I was familiar with Michael Jackson—he was one of Motown’s children.
I’ve written that back in the ‘80s, when I was a teenager, Detroit was a mess, and that we had music as solace. Some of us also had dancing.
I was a serious dance student, studying ballet, modern, and jazz. When I say serious, I mean I practiced every day, using the edge of my dresser as a barre. Poverty made my formal training scattershot, my exposure to performance limited. I was starved for dance.
What was accessible—and free—was street culture. There dance flourished—in my high school halls, in the day camp where I worked three summers, in the Bonaventure roller rink, where I went not only to skate, but to dance. The rink featured special dance nights—skates off, sock-footed on the slippery floor, we threw down, the slang term for that gorgeous liquid movement Jackson was master of. Along with the Time (“Ain’t nothing like a fresh pair of baggies…now I know that’s right!”), the Gap Band, and Prince, we danced to Michael Jackson. Then people started talking about this thing called Music Television.
It’s nearly impossible today to explain what the advent of cable meant to people. Until MTV, we saw musicians either in concert (rarely, tickets being too expensive), in magazines, or occasionally, on regular television. When MTV burst into our living room on Wednesday, December 15th, 1982, my family’s world—and worldview—widened considerably. Conveniently, Thriller had been released a month earlier, and the videos were in heavy rotation.
My God, could that man dance. Michael Jackson moved like the love child of Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. Try to imagine the shock of seeing “Billie Jean”, for the first time, Jackson’s precise Fred Astaire steppin’ in those immaculate spats, the floor lighting up in sympathy. Those impossible spins: he put his right foot behind his left heel and just spun, the envy of any ballet student struggling with a single pirouette. And “Beat It”—remember Jackson sliding through that cafe? The knife fight? The guy in glasses and cap, doing robotics? I watched the video and bought the record and imitated Jackson’s moves until I could do them myself, an overweight Jewish kid leaving moonwalking tracks in her bedroom carpet.
Then came the video for Thriller. Again, in our skittering, twittering age, how I can convey the shockwave it caused? MTV would post announcements about when the video, a stunning 13 minutes long, would air. My best friend and I parked ourselves in front of the television and waited. She also studied dance, but never mastered moonwalking.
And then… pretty Ola Ray (whatever happened to her?) skipping along. Michael wearing that awful jacket, happy and still resembling himself, his hair Jheri-curled. We sat through ditzy Ola and waited for the graveyard scene. STOMP-CLAP! STOMP-CLAP! Turn in second position, clump-clump-clump-CLUMP! Four steps right, arms up, hands clawed. Repeat to the left. We danced around the family room on the horrible orange carpet until we had the entire routine down.
And then everything blew up—Jackson’s life spiraled out of control, my best friend and I fought (among other things, she was jealous of my better dancing), my family moved to Los Angeles. I began attending college, where I enrolled in my first real modern dance class. My teacher was a serious woman who had studied with Bella Lewitzky. She liked to give small choreographic assignments, brief movement phrases we performed before our classmates.
I don’t recall the assignment or the music I used—I’m certain it was sufficiently highbrow. I do recall standing in my black leotards and burning feet, awaiting my teacher’s critique. She frowned. “You look like… Michael Jackson. That’s how you were dancing. Like Michael Jackson.”
It was not a compliment. There in that serious class with all those serious girls, I tried to hide my elation.
I stood up just now, 41, with a bad hip and worse knee, thin now from chronic illness, and tried moonwalking across the living room floor. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to, but found the rhythm easily, feet-hips-abs, slide-back, slide-back, slide-back. My arms remembered themselves and rose unbidden, performing their parts. My husband stared, amazed. “I didn’t know you could moonwalk! You’re really good!”
Perhaps, but ridiculous in middle age, even a bit pathetic. It’s all over now, anyway: the master moonwalker, that brilliant freak of nature, will never again slide backward across a stage or burst into one of those improbable, breathtaking spins. He leaves a mournful, conflicted legacy. But by God, could that man dance.