An archaeologist of black dance

Germaine Greer’s piece on Michael Jackson, some of which is excerpted here, contains the following possibly hyperbolic observation:

Nowhere will his contribution be more obvious and his influence more strongly felt than in the world of dance. No choreographer of the last 30 years has been unaware of Jackson’s achievement. He rewrote the vocabulary of dance for everyone, from kids competing in talent shows to the royal ballets of Europe.

Creativity is surely seldom ex nihilo; rather, it consists at least in part in borrowing and reworking previous elements.  It is stunning, then, to see some of the precedents of Michael Jackson’s dance.  Here’s a sample:

Note the toe dancing in  Billie Jean  here (2:24) and its precusors in the 1932:

On looking at this it’s hard not to think in terms of the losses to US culture racism caused.  Still, it is exciting, I think, to think of Michael Jackson as an archaeologist of black dance.

Many thanks to Dee Es, whose comment led to sites interested in this sort of excavation.

6 thoughts on “An archaeologist of black dance

  1. Hi JJ,
    Wow, thanks for these – fantastic dancing!
    This really interesting post – with more amazing dancing – from the Racialicious blog might be of interest. It’s about the history of the lindy hop and how racist norms infused the dances (e.g. the black dancers’ moves were strongly stereotyped, and parts were limited to incidental service roles, so these parts could be cut when showing the films to white audiences averse to any even slightly positive representation of black people).

  2. The Nicholas Brothers, featured in the second video, in fact worked with Michael Jackson – here’s them dancing together:

    there’s a lot of amazing Nicholas Brothers clips on youtube. This is one of my favourites –

  3. Actually, Fred Astaire was a huge influence on MJ as well. Take, for example, the similarities btw. Astaire’s performance in _The Band Wagon_:

    with MJ’s “Smooth Criminal”:

    Now, it’s pretty clear that the Astaire clip is choreographed to look ‘black’, bit it’s interesting how these stereotypes get taken up and reworked by black artists…

  4. Thanks so much for bringing these amazing videos to this post, rmj and Gabriel. It’s wonderful to see the link with Astaire, who was himself very aware of black dance.

    Stoat, that’s such an interesting site. The article you like to has this illuminating remark:

    Professional black musicians, choreographers, and dancers had to make the same concessions that other black entertainers at the time made. That is, they were required to capitulate to white producers and directors who presented black people to white audiences. These movies portrayed black people in ways that white people were comfortable with: blacks were musical, entertaining, athletic (even animalistic), outrageous (even wild), not-so-smart, happy-go-lucky, etc.

    So many of our records of black performance have racism as a component, but of course there’s a corresponding sexism that permeates so many older movies.

  5. The dance step that MJ popularized as the “moonwalk” was taught to him by street dancers from the Bay area in California. There’s some discussion of those origins and (sadly rather monotonously inflected) video commentary here:

    I heard a talk by Poppin’ Pete himself in December 2008. You can imagine, and understand, why a performer like MJ wouldn’t want to reveal or give credit to someone else for a move that made him so popular.

  6. Anonymous,

    That’s a great link. The first video is stunning. (People who don’t go to the site should know there’s a second video that looks into earlier version and in fact it’s the first one in this post.)

    I’m interested in your remark that MJ wouldn’t want to acknowledge Poppin’ Pete. It’s one of the sad facts about a lot of creative people that they don’t want to acknowledge their sources, maybe especially if they feel superior in some way.

    As Tom Lehrer noted of academia:

    Let no one else’s work evade your eyes
    Remember why the good Lord made your eyes
    So don’t shade your eyes
    But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize
    Only be sure always to call it please “research”

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