UMD student learns to be like (the other) Mike

By Abel Gustafson I am polishing my kitchen floor with my now-threadbare socks.  I have been doing this for the last six days.  I look like someone who has stepped on a piece of gum and is trying to scrape it off the bottom of his shoe.  In reality, I am simply trying to learn a new skill.

When the man who is best at it performs this skill, it looks like he is on a moving walkway that is carrying him backwards faster than he can walk forwards.  Or that he is walking on ice into a strong headwind that catches his body like a sail and blows him backwards.  Not subject to the laws of physics, the King of Pop looks like he is walking on the moon.  When he first performed this dance move in 1983, the 24-year-old Michael Jackson created the illusion of the absence of friction and gravity, launching the title of what is arguably now the most recognizable dance move in the world – the Moonwalk.

The thing about the moonwalk is that almost everyone knows what it is, many people say they “can kinda do it,” and almost nobody really can.  When you actually encounter someone who really does it, fervent jealousy ensues.  Admit it.  At some point in your life, you too have wished you could Moonwalk.

So how hard can it be to learn? “Jacko” is just walking backwards, is he not?  Does practice make perfect, or does it require a quantity of talent far beyond that of mortal men?  Is it necessary to wear a black fedora and one white, sequined glove, or is that just for show?  And most importantly, can I myself master the Moonwalk?

The only problem is that I am not a dancer, and outside of my desire to moonwalk, I have never aspired to be.  At 6 foot 5 inches, my “dancing” closely resembles the antics of those giant inflatable blue windsock men that careen haphazardly in the wind outside used car dealerships.  My goal is to develop my moonwalk to the point where, in the event I ever performed it in public, it would be recognizable enough to make someone say “Hey, he's doing the Moonwalk.”  I am giving myself one week, starting now.

Day 1: Research

Variations of the Moonwalk, also referred to as the “backslide,” have been seen in performances as early as 1932 by Cabell “Cab” Calloway, who simultaneously directed his popular African American band while simultaneously singing and dancing.  In the '50s, tap dancer Bill Bailey was recorded exiting the stage via “backslide.”  Although both of these performers use several of the mechanical elements of moonwalking technique, their backwards “step” is only a few inches, creating an illusion better described as “moon tip-toeing.”  American singer and dancer Jeffrey Daniel performed a version of the “backslide” on a BBC music show with his soul vocal group Shalamar in 1982. Michael Jackson subsequently hired him as a personal choreographer and dance coach.  Despite previous versions performed by other artists, it was Michael Jackson's giant moonwalking strides on the NBC television special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever in 1983 that propelled the Moonwalk forward (or, should we say, backward) into the spotlight of popular culture.

Jackson's already-successful career as a recording artist, dancer, and entertainer was skyrocketing in the early '80s.  Not long after leaving his fame and acclaim as the lead vocalist of his family gig, The Jackson 5, he released the 1982 solo album Thriller.  To date, it is the best-selling album of all time, with an estimated 110 million copies sold worldwide.   At one point, the album was selling at a rate of more than 1 million copies each week.

John Randall Taraborrelli, one of Jackson's biographers, explained that "At some point, Thriller stopped selling like a leisure item – like a magazine, a toy, tickets to a hit movie – and started selling like a household staple."

It was while riding the Thriller tidal wave that Jackson recorded the TV special, Motown 25. After joining his brothers for a reunion performance of Jackson 5 popular hits, Michael remained alone on stage.  The infectious bass line and driving beat of his latest number one hit, Billie Jean, suddenly engulfed the concert hall, propelling the crowd to their feet.

Having spent extensive time rehearsing the Jackson 5 performance, Michael had found himself choreographing his Billie Jean dance routine on the very night before this concert.  It was then, gliding across his kitchen floor, that he decided to incorporate the Moonwalk into the next day's performance.  During the guitar solo that followed the second chorus, he spun 90 degrees to his left and proceeded to Moonwalk backwards across the front of the stage, throwing the crowd into a frenzy and unveiling to an audience of over 50 million television viewers what would become the world's most recognizable dance move.  He used this same kitchen-crafted choreography in every live performance of Billie Jean since that day.

Day 3: My turn.

Attempting the Moonwalk in public is similar to growing a mustache and goatee – either do it well, or do not do it at all.  If there is any uncertainty as to which category your attempt will fall under, you can safely assume the latter.  With this in mind, I shut the curtains, locked the doors, and took my first moonwalking steps in the privacy of my own kitchen.  Practicing it on my respective kitchen floor is the only similarity that my initial “moonwalk” shared with Michael's.  To increase the resemblance, it simply takes practice, but progress can be made faster with attention to a couple of simple pieces of advice from the experts.

Anthony King is a world-class dance choreographer whose instructional videos on Michael Jackson dance have been recommended by the King of Pop himself.  He says that learning to Moonwalk is not all that difficult, if you just take it slow.

“It's a case of breaking it down so that you understand the mechanics first,” said King.  “So if you understand the mechanics of it, you can later on apply it.  Really it's a case of practice makes perfect.”

Ready? Here goes.  As with every other physical activity that you have been taught since first grade gym class, you need to start with your feet “shoulder-width apart.”

Step 1 -  Slide.

Now, keeping your right foot flat on the ground, point your left foot like you are standing on your tip-toes.  This brings your left heel off the ground and bends your left knee.  Now you are ready to Moonwalk.  Just slide your right foot (the flat one) backwards.

I don't know how well you are doing, but my first roadblock arose when my right foot would not move. I stared at it with foreign curiosity, doubtful as to whether this disobedient appendage did indeed belong to me.

This brings us to the two most important words of moonwalking – weight transfer.  When you are walking normally (forwards or backwards), your weight is resting on your flat foot and your pointed foot is up in the air.  When moowalking, it is just the opposite.  As you might guess, it is rather difficult to place your weight on a foot that is up in the air.  Therefore, the only way to beat the laws of physics is to cheat.

“The weight is going to be complete opposite of what you'd expect,” said Corey Vidal, author of a wildy popular Moonwalk instructional video.  “You need to mentally decide to put all of your weight on the foot that is pointed.  The reason is because it is the pointed foot that doesn't move, and it is the flat foot that slides backwards.”

The mechanics of walking forward in a normal fashion are such that your pointed foot moves to be in front of your flat foot.  The Moonwalk does the same, only your body ends up moving backwards.  It is the essentially the mechanics of walking forwards while actually moving backwards.  That is where the illusion lies when watching, and that is what is counter intuitive when doing it.

“What most people do is copy the impression that it gives, rather than studying how it's done,” said King.

When moonwalking, contrary to normal earth-walking, your pointed foot never leaves the ground.  What is more, you are putting all your weight on it.  You must briefly shift all your weight onto your tip-toe foot and stand like a flamingo while you slide your flat foot backwards, free of friction. Standing on one tip-toed foot requires a certain degree of physical fitness.  Michael doesn't quite have to be Jordan to be Jackson, but on the other hand, Moore would definitely be less.

In addition to weight transfer, the surface you are on greatly affects the ease of moonwalking.  The less friction is present, the less you have to transfer your weight.  Socks on a tile floor is great for moonwalking.  Baseball spikes on shag carpeting is not.  The ideal surface for doing the moonwalk would be – you guessed it – the moon.  Fancy that.

Step 2 -  Switch.

So let's assume you have successfully slid your right foot backwards.  It should be flat on the floor and several inches behind your left foot, which is still pointed.  Now switch.  Flatten your left foot, and bring your right foot up to a tip-toe, bending your right knee.  You must switch both feet simultaneously, and you must switch them fast.  If you now transfer your weight to your now-pointed right foot, you will be able to slide your now-flattened left foot backwards, all the way past your right foot, until it is several inches behind it.  Now switch again.  With your left foot pointed and your right foot flat, you are back where you started, having completed the Moonwalk.

Day 5 – Refining

I have spent the last two days trying to use these instructions to iron the wrinkles out of my Moonwalk.  But mostly I have just ended up using my feet to iron any possible wrinkles out of my kitchen floor.  As I peer at my feet inquisitively and try to shuffle backwards, I do not look like I am learning the Moonwalk.  I look more like a short-circuiting C3PO.  I have the essential mechanics down, but what I lack is fluidity.  This criminal is anything but smooth.  The experts suggest several tips to perfecting your Moonwalk.

“One foot is always up, the other foot is always down,” says Vidal.  Although the slide is done smoothly, “the switch needs to be less fluid and more of a 'snap.'  And it actually looks best if you are looking straight ahead.”

Vidal also says that one way to enhance the illusion is to incorporate your arms and your head.

“Let your arms swing naturally in a slight circular motion – a little bit like a train.  Michael Jackson is actually very rigid when he moonwalks, and he chugs his head out and in a little bit.”

Day 7 – Moonwalkin'

As I focus on making my strides of equal length and equal speed, I can feel a certain degree of flow coming into my moonwalk.  The more instantaneous the switch is, in contrast to the long smooth backwards slide, the greater the illusion of sliding seamlessly backwards.  My moonwalk might have just become recognizable.  It is still far from impressive, but that is why you and I are not Kings and Queens of Pop.

“You have to remember a few things,” says Vidal.  “Michael Jackson is one of the best entertainers and dancers of all time.  He has spent his career perfecting his Moonwalk.  The shoes he is wearing and the stage he is on are all optimized for dancing.  I do it on the concrete floor of my parent's basement.”

So, contrary to Anthony King's words of encouragement, practice may not quite make perfect.  But some highly trained professionals have come pretty darn close.  Close enough to make a living off of it.

Hailed as the world's premier Jackson impersonator, a British man named Navi hires himself out for concerts and special events around the globe.  He has performed his song and dance tribute concert in 55 countries and estimates doing 175 shows per year.  Navi has become fully immersed in the impersonation, even undergoing cosmetic surgery in order to enhance the similarity.  Just how close does he resemble his celebrity counterpart?  He has body-doubled as a decoy for Jackson when security precautions required it, and – get this – has performed at Jackson's 45th birthday party, to Jackson's enthusiastic applause.

As a personal friend of the late Jackson, Navi has been often featured in the news regarding the continuing legacy and influence of Jackson's work.

“He is as big as Coca-Cola, Nike, you name it – he is a brand,” said Navi. “As an impersonator of Michael Jackson, you are sometimes bigger than a different artist as themselves.  Being in Michael Jackson's shadow is bigger than being in some people's own light.”

You and I can also share a little of the King of Pop's spotlight by being one of the very few who can actually perform the quintessential Michael Jackson move – the moonwalk.  Shut your windows, locks your doors, grab a fresh pair of socks, crank up Billie Jean, and take your first sliding steps toward being one smooth criminal.

Watch Abel's step by step photoslide show and video.

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