By Chris William:
If we can celebrate the anniversary of man’s first landing on the moon, why not also commemorate the first time Michael Jackson landed on his signature move, the moonwalk? It was 35 years ago, on May 16, 1983, that Jackson shimmied backward across the stage at the Motown 25 taping, a few scant seconds of showmanship that may have marked the critical turning point from his being a superstar to being the superstar of his era.
But if you believe that Jackson invented the moonwalk, you probably also believe that Diddy invented the remix.
Trying to determine the exact creator of the moonwalk dance is like trying to pin the invention of rock ’n’ roll on one artist. It is, as writer Shanna Freeman has said, “the product of more than 70 years of dance evolution.”
Cab Calloway liked to say that he’d been doing pretty much the same moves since the 1930s. The earliest footage that portrays someone doing something nearly identical to Jackson’s fancy footwork in 1983 belongs to dancer Bill Bailey.
But if you want to know where Jackson got it, the historical guesswork can come to an end and the answer can be summed up in one word:
No, it wasn’t Jody Watley who was taking that early ’80s soul trio’s trips to the moon. It was the group’s designated dancer, Jeffrey Daniel — a former Solid Gold hoofer who was renowned in the R&B/dance community — who attracted attention with what was then referred to as “the backslide” before he taught it to Michael.
And apparently Jackson held the move in the back pocket of his skinny pants for months or years before he decided the Motown special was the place to bust it out.
Naturally, there are some variations that go into the myth-making around what happened at that March 25, 1983 taping. “Everything that you saw him do, he made it up on the spot,” Jermaine Jackson has said, a contention that gives Michael far more credit for spontaneous genius than he gave himself.
LaToya’s version gives credit where credit is due: “The moonwalk was a dance that the kids were doing on the streets,” she’s said, “and Michael came along later. And he had a guy by the name of Jeffrey Daniel to teach him to do the moonwalk… and when he did it, everybody saw it and just thought this was the most wonderful thing they had ever seen, not really knowing it was a dance that was already out there.”
Michael was a little stingy with the credit in his autobiography, although he was quite open about the fact that his key move at the fateful taping for Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever (which aired two months later) was not his own innovation.
“I had been practicing the Moonwalk for some time,” he wrote in his 1988 memoir, which tellingly was titled Moonwalker, “and it dawned on me in our kitchen [on the night before the taping] that I would finally do the Moonwalk in public on Motown 25. Now the Moonwalk was already out on the street by this time, but I enhanced it a little when I did it. It was born as a breakdance step, a ‘popping’ type of thing that black kids had created dancing on the street corners in the ghetto… So I said, ‘This is my chance to do it,’ and I did it. These three kids taught it to me. They gave me the basics–and I had been doing it a lot in private. I had practiced it together with certain other steps. All I was really sure of was that on the bridge to ‘Billie Jean’ I was going to walk backward and forward at the same time, like walking on the moon.”
The “three kids” to whom Jackson alluded were apparently Daniel and his compatriots, Geron “Casper” Candidate and Derek “Cooly” Jackson. Daniel was a seasoned professional who was actually three years older than Jackson, who was then 24, so you can judge for yourself whether Jackson crediting “kids” was a term of endearment or a deflection meant to bolster his sense of street cred.
Jackson had been a fan of Daniel’s. “He used to watch me dance on Soul Train,” Daniel recalled in a TV interview. “I had no idea back then when I was watching the Jackson Five that they were watching me.” In 1980, “Shalamar were doing a run at Disneyland and people were making a fuss about my dancing, so Michael brought little Janet,” Daniel recalled in a TV interview. Backstage, they met for the first time, and that began a friendship that led to not only the moonwalk lessons but co-choreography credit for Daniel on the “Bad” and “Smooth Criminal” music videos.