Remember when MTV and the world cared so much about music videos that they would have World Premieres — those pre-scheduled and mega-hyped events when friends would gather to see their favorite song on TV for the very first time? Well, Michael Jackson wasn't just the King of Pop, he was also the King of MTV and the greatest video star of all time. It wasn't because of his amazing special effects and wardrobe choices; he was king because of his insanely innovative dance numbers. Jackson has influenced a generation of performers, including Justin Timberlake, Usher, and Britney Spears, who'd probably just be standing behind a mic belting out a tune were it not for the Gloved One.
Director Martin Scorsese once explained the magic of seeing Jackson perform his moves on the set of the video for "Bad." "I was in awe of his absolute mastery of movement on the one hand, and of the music on the other," Scorsese said. "Every step he took was absolutely precise and fluid at the same time. It was like watching quicksilver in motion."
As we observe the second anniversary of Michael Jackson's death, we bring you his signature moves, starting with his early days with the Jackson 5 to the moment he unleashed the Moonwalk and beyond.
Motown artists had been standing in line, doing synchronized dance moves for a while before the Jackson 5 came along, but no one did it with more flair, and never has a simple step-ball-change looked so cool. But the biggest contribution the J5 made to choreography came from none other than Michael himself when he started doing the Robot while singing 1973's "Dancing Machine" on "Soul Train." The technique, made popular by Jackson, spawned a whole new era of dance, eventually leading to hip-hop, popping, locking, and countless sub genres.
It's not often a person can pinpoint the exact moment he became a superstar, but for Michael Jackson it was his performance on "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever." He performed "Billie Jean" and was propelled from being just another great singer to becoming one of the best entertainers of all time with one innovative new dance step: the Moonwalk. It was the first time he ever performed the move (inspired by great French mime Marcel Marceau's "Walking Against the Wind" skit). Michael was no longer human — he was legend.
The Toe Stand
Typically the Toe Stand comes right on the heels of the Moonwalk. It goes like this: moonwalk, moonwalk, moonwalk, pivot, pivot, pivot, dime-stop, hop on your tiptoes, and hold for five seconds. Simple! Anyone can do it, really! Oh... and it looks better if you're wearing cropped pants and sparkly socks.
The Tough Guy With Flair
Let's face it, the "Beat It" and "Bad" videos are pretty similar. A bunch of really, really graceful guys, acting tough and trying to take the whole "West Side Story" gang vibe into the modern age. But you know, it works. And they're both showcases for Jackson's signature moves. That's right, lift your knee and twist it to the side, Michael. While you're at it, thrust your pelvis a bit, shimmy to the right and strike a pose (and Madonna thinks she knows how to Vogue —huh). Do those little bits we like to call "The Condor," "Deal the Cards," and the "Baby Steps Bob." True, the Gloved One might not have been the toughest street thug, but he was fast, scrappy, and had flair. And really, wouldn't the world be a better place if we could just set aside our petty differences and dance?
The Synchronized Group Dance
No doubt about it, the "Thriller" dance is Michael's biggest and most enduring legacy. MJ wasn't the first to do a synchronized group number, but he made it a whole new art form. Many of us who grew up in the '80s know every step to the line dance. It's been referenced in movies like "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and TV show's like "The Simpsons." People even regularly vie to break the Guinness World Record for most dancers doing the steps at the same time. The record stands at 242 people (set by students at the College of William and Mary on April 19, 2009).
The Crotch Grab
Although not necessarily G-rated choreography, Michael's signature crotch-grab, the '80s version of Elvis' thrusting pelvis, was the shock heard 'round the world when it first appeared in his Martin Scorsese-directed video for "Bad." As the move was often accompanied by an "Ow!" or a "Shamon!," we're wondering if that's the only way he could hit those high-pitched squeals.
The Anti-Gravity Lean
The "Smooth Criminal" video, originally part of Jackson's film "Moonwalker," gives us a more sophisticated, Gene Kelly-esque Michael. And while we once again see the requisite leg lift and Moonwalk, Michael made our jaws drop again with a new move. Not to burst any bubbles, but Michael's famous anti-gravity lean was done with the aid of special effects and wires in the video, but when he decided to take the trick on the road, big harness rigs just weren't going to cut it. So Michael and his team created a (now patented) trick in which pegs would rise up from the stage, click into the heels of the dancers' specially designed shoes, and support them as they leaned forward a gravity-defying distance. Still, Michael did show off another move that was done without smoke and mirrors: the circle slide, a Moonwalk-style movement, with him pivoting and sliding supernaturally in a box shape. Totally smooth.
The International Influences
The fact that Michael Jackson's moves were clearly influenced by every culture comes vividly to life in his "Black or White" video. As MJ globe-trots from scene to scene, he dances with the locals, including a tribe of African hunters, brass finger-tipped Fawn Leb-type Thai women, a Native American ceremonial circle (complete with gun-toting cowboys), a mid-traffic dancing Indian girl, and a Russian Cossack kick line. But it was his violent, window-smashing explosion at the end of the video that sparked controversy. In the final four minutes of the piece, Michael transforms from a black panther and proceeds to dance down a street, jumping on a car, smashing its windows. Jackson attributed the attitude to his channeling of the wild cat inside of him, but he apologized nonetheless, re-editing the video and digitally adding racial epithets to motivate his choreographed siege.
The Egyptian Flare
The nine-minute, star-studded (Eddie Murphy, Magic Johnson, and Iman) time-travel extravaganza "Remember the Time" was set in ancient Egypt and took the Bangles fluffy "Walk Like an Egyptian" move to new heights. Jackson incorporated his signature shoulder pops and spins with angular Egyptian hand and arm moves to amazing effect.