Of all the ways that Michael Jackson will be remembered, pop music genius is deservedly at the top of the list.
But for anyone with even the slightest appreciation for dance, his hip pops rank right up there with his hooks.
It’s a move he pulls out in the video for “Billie Jean” – he springs up onto his toes, knees bent, leaning back and pelvis thrust forward so that his body forms an angle, one line from head to thigh before breaking at the knees.
It’s simple, and it only lasts an instant.
The angularity and Jackson’s feet – in a position known to dancers as forced arch – could be from an early work by modern dance pioneer Martha Graham, but Jackson imbues the move with a smooth sensuality that owes more to Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse.
But references to dance history don’t do it justice. Anyone who’s seen the video would instantly associate it with Jackson. A mark of a great dancer, he made any movement he did look completely his own.
“Even if it wasn’t a movement that he created, even if he wasn’t doing for the first time, he made it look brand new,” says Ronni Favors, the rehearsal director at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since 1997.
At first there might seen to be little connection between a modern dance company – even a wildly popular one like Alvin Ailey – and Jackson. But he has a strong link to this company in particular.
Michael Peters, a Tony-winning choreographer for “Dreamgirls” in 1981 and an Ailey dancer in the 1960s and 70s, contributed choreography for “Beat It,” in which he danced the role of the villain in the white jacket alongside other dancers culled from Ailey’s ranks. Peters also danced in “Thriller.”
Jackson transcended boundaries between street dancing – where he picked up the moonwalk – and dancing as a high-culture art form in a way no one had before.
According to Jackson lore, Astaire himself called him up to tell him just what a sensational dancer he was.
While radio stations are playing marathons of Jackson’s greatest hits, he’s also being memorialized in steps; the moves from “Beat It” at the BET Awards, the “Thriller” dance performed by prisoners in Manila, the Philippines, and a group moonwalk at the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Favors still remembers seeing Jackson moonwalk for the first time, and the collective excitement at the small dance company she was working with in New York at the time.
“I remember, we came into rehearsal the next day and all said, ‘Did you see him?’ ”
She added, “You can’t talk about Michael Jackson without talking about the moonwalk.
“Movement like that – kids were doing it on the street. But he took it to a whole other level. I’ve heard how assiduously he practiced. There is that dedication that goes beyond and turns it into art.”
Nyongo agrees that the grace and ease of his movement belies just how hard he worked at it.
“The very effortlessness of his most famous moves disguised the extraordinary skill and effort needed to perform them.”
Nigel Lythgoe, executive producer and judge on “So You Think You Can Dance,” gave Jackson a lot of credit for the show’s very existence on the night of the pop star’s death, saying that countless hopefuls who audition for the reality show tell him they began dancing because of Jackson.
Jason Glover, one of 20 finalists to make it to the main part of this season’s competition, is a case in point.
On the episode where the contestants are introduced to the audience, Glover, age 4, was shown in an old family video doing the moonwalk in his living room and posing beside an image of Jackson on TV, dressed up to look like a miniature version of the star.
Lythgoe called Jackson’s 1991 video, “Black and White,” which features dances from around the world in addition to Jackson’s signature moves, part of the inspiration for the show.
“We will not see his like again,” Lythgoe said on the air the night the news broke. “He changed the face of music and dance in the world – not just in this country.”
With the help of music video, Jackson also brought dance to a whole new audience, popularizing the art form in a way that hadn’t been done since Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly were the dance heroes of the big screen.
“It’s gone in waves,” said Favors. “He was a trailblazer for his generation. He broke ground in opening up live performance on a large scale to the point where now, performers like Britney and Beyonce almost have to have that as part of their act.”
Nyongo points out a key way in which Jackson was head and shoulders above those who followed, literally, in his footsteps.
“Britney Spears and Madonna, for instance, are not so much associated with novel dance moves or virtuosity as they are with spectacle,” Nyongo said, adding, “Other pop stars have learned to surround themselves with great dancers, but Michael Jackson held the stage to himself.”
The very existence of “So You Think You Can Dance” may owe a lot to Jackson’s legacy, but it also illustrates what Jackson had that most dancers – no matter how physically gifted – often lack.
“It’s not just doing the steps and doing them very well,” says Favors. “It’s a visceral feeling that you get. That’s how you know you’re in the presence of an artist. He just totally inhabited his performances.”
And in doing so, Jackson did what any great artist does.
Janet Wong, associate artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, said she feels Jackson’s work is fundamentally similar with that of the company’s.
“As a contemporary dance company, we’re always being influenced by popular culture, but also by our own autobiographies. Race is read into it, gender, politics. Intentionally or unintentionally, Michael Jackson did the same thing in his work.
“He is quite naked – like we all are sometimes on stage.”
Unlike singing, in which there is often some character or point of view, Jackson – who became more and more enigmatic and hidden as he aged – may revealed his humanity in the purest, most unfiltered way when he danced.
“There is that willingness to share yourself,” Favors says. “There was something that was revealed. We can’t put a label to it, but it came across through his movement.”
It’s ironic that quite possibly, wanting to move with the power when he was young may have played a role in Jackson’s death. The day before he died, he had been rehearsing for his comeback tour in London this summer, and he was reportedly pushing himself as hard as he famously did as a young man to achieve perfection.
Hours before he died, he received a shot of the powerful painkiller Demerol in part to ease the pain of injuries he’d sustained while rehearsing, according to his physician.
Now fans of his dancing and his music will never know what he had in store.
“With someone as innovative as Michael, there was always some new trick up his sleeve,” Favors said.
Wong compared his death with another great cultural loss.
But in the same breath, Wong points out that Jackson’s not gone forever at all. We still have the zombie dance in “Thriller” and whether we want it or not, the crotch-grabbing in “Bad,” another move instantly associated with Jackson.
“I’m happy that people hung on to his art and not the troubles that he had,” says Wong.
“The art transcends all of that.”