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Why Michael Jackson danced like no one else

June 26, 2009 | 10:56 am
The way people move is as unique as their DNA -- indeed, it is their DNA in action, living proof of their singularity. But most dancers have to give it up to become professionals, to lose themselves in the style of a school, a choreographer, a company, an image of unanimity.

Not Michael Jackson. It was his supreme achievement as a dancer to remain indomitably himself and, in the process of entertaining us, to offer a vision of expanded human potential. What's more, long before excesses and obsessions claimed him, he helped turn MTV into DTV, making television the place where dance films set to new music inspired a generation with their creative power and originality.

Best seen in his music videos (where his vocals are pre-recorded so he doesn't have to wear a mike), the components of his personal style are easier to list than duplicate. Start with isolation: Each move alone as if in a close-up, sudden and incredibly sharp. Weightlessness: The sense of freedom from gravity and a body with no mass or muscles, just pure torque. Transformation of the mundane: shadow-boxing and other familiar moves drawn from athletics and pop dance renewed and heightened through a spectacular sense of flow and delirious speed.

Like the brilliantly calibrated gliding steps that formed his signature moonwalk, Jackson's nervy, high-velocity turns seemed to operate in zero gravity, and his finest dance performances gave the illusion of being a momentary impulse, almost accidental in their perfect balances and other evidence of faultless technical control. If his high-pitched vocal sound simulated perpetual adolescence, the way he moved kept him super-stylized and ageless -- a lover, a monster, a streetwise idealist at home in many cultures and a smooth criminal too.

The finest music-video choreographers who worked with him took what was supremely his and taught it to his backup dancers, expanding the scope of Jackson's style and grounding it in a muscularity and masculinity that kept it from looking over-finicky or effete. A skinny kid in a red-satin baseball jacket might not have one chance in hell of stopping a gang war, but the late Michael Peters made us believe in “Beat It” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uqxo1SKB0z8) the galvanic group surges that Jackson generated.

His film performances eventually grew compromised by a reliance on special effects and directors with no talent for shooting dance -- among them Francis Ford Coppola, who managed to undermine Jackson, Gregory Hines and Fred Astaire in various projects, making him Hollywood's champion dance-killer. But Jackson's energy and commitment always remained exciting, even when his directors and an edge of narcissism tainted the result. 

Obviously, it is difficult to separate Michael the dancer from the increasingly grotesque celebrity and pedophile suspect that he became, a disfigured creature desperate for attention and profoundly alienating even in the brief, bizarre news clips that defined him in recent years. There is plenty of evidence that he was a seriously disturbed and lonely man, forever remaking not merely his public image but his physical being. We know that he tried to change his nose and then his whole face, maybe even his race -- and that, like many of us, he reportedly stayed in deep denial about aging.

But if he didn't want to look like himself, he always danced liked no one else. That was his triumph. And that's why we should remember how he worked his lithe, articulate, hair-trigger body more than all the operations, marriages, court cases and financial meltdowns that marked his career.

Most of us never saw him in live performance but think we knew him. Not from the piping, childlike vocals, however catchy, but from the moves -- the unforgettable soul-deep individuality of his dancing. And that's a legacy worth celebrating.  

-- Lewis Segal
            
Formerly The Times' staff dance critic, Segal is a freelance arts writer based in Hollywood and Barcelona.

Related: Michael Jackson's 'Motown 25' performance -- in person

Michael Jackson's dance-centric legacy in today's pop music

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