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16th May 2018

35 years ago Michael Jackson’s moonwalk changed everything and I still can’t do it

Will Lavin

Who am I kidding? I can’t moonwalk

For years I thought I could though, but it turns out I was just sluggishly sliding my feet in a backwards motion like a snail with its shell on the wrong way.

But I tell you this: it didn’t stop me trying.

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the day Michael Jackson debuted the moonwalk to the world. Okay, so technically he debuted it on March 25th 1983 when the Jackson 5 reunited for Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever at California’s Pasadena Civic Auditorium, but it wasn’t until weeks later on May 16th that it was aired.

I was only one month and 18 days old when it happened so to say I saw it live, or even remember seeing it live, would be a big fat lie. But what I will say is that it feels like I saw it live. I feel like I was there when the world collectively looked on in awe and said out loud, “What the hell was that?”

Prior to becoming a journalist I had aspirations to be a professional dancer. No, I’m not joking, this isn’t some made up statement designed to be a precursor to a cleverly written joke, I really did study to be a dancer and it was all because of Mike.

So I’ve probably watched the moonwalk video a thousand times and each time I see it, without fail, I look on with wonderment. I feel like someone who has had the air snatched out of their lungs because there’s just no way it’s real, there’s no way I’m in a conscious state watching this man walk like that on this rock we call planet earth.

There are certain world-changing events that stick with us forever. For example, I remember where I was the day 2Pac died, I remember where I was the day Princess Diana died, and I remember where I was the day of the 911 attacks. Speaking to people from the generation before mine they all say the same thing:

“I remember the day Michael Jackson first performed the moonwalk.”

While it barely lasted a few seconds it went on to live in pop culture forever.

It is said that MJ had not practised the dance move in rehearsals for the show. It was a surprise to everyone, including the 35 million people watching live at home. He was a star, so when he took to the stage on his own to perform his Billboard number one hit “Billie Jean” the crowd were already excited, but once he moonwalked his fame jumped to light speed like the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars.

He owned the moment and he owned the dance move that went on to be his trademark, even if it wasn’t entirely his own.

Michael Jackson was always quick to acknowledge his influences, two of which are famed French mime Marcel Marceau and of course James Brown. Both of these gents incorporated what went on to be known as the moonwalk into their performances way before MJ did.

Others to use it included tap dancer Bill Bailey (see above), Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson, and even David Bowie, who performed a less flashier version of it during his Aladdin Sane album tour in 1973.

The actual moment when Mike first learned the moonwalk came after seeing breakdancers Geron “Caszper” Canidate and Cooley Jaxson appear on a 1979 episode of Soul Train. During the show the guys performed a routine to Jackson’s own “Workin’ Day and Night”.

Mike then asked to meet Candidate and Jaxson prior to preparing for the Motown special in early 1983. It was then that he asked them to teach him the back slide dance, which he continually practiced until he got it right.

And while MJ, as mentioned above, always prided himself as being someone who gave praise where praise was due, for some reason he never credited Candidate and Jaxson with teaching him the moonwalk, instead he said in his autobiography, Moonwalker, that the move was a breakdance step created on the street corners.

While I’m certain we were always going to get the moonwalk, and it was going to be Michael Jackson that gave it to us, we almost never got it on the night of Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever because of the show’s producer and Motown owner Berry Gordy.

Released in November of 1982, Michael Jackson’s Thriller was out and was rapidly on its way to becoming the most successful album of all-time. The story goes that Mike didn’t feel like he needed to appear alongside his brothers on the show and that he was initially reluctant to do so because he feared he might be overexposing himself.

Telling Berry Gordy, who for years has been known as a very proud man, that he would only appear with the Jackson 5 if he was allowed a solo performance, it was Gordy’s producer, Suzanne de Passe, that convinced him the show wouldn’t be the same without the Jackson 5.

So, thank you Suzanne de Passe, without you we might never have witnessed one of the most iconic live performances of all-time.

You know what happened next.

Singing for nearly three and a half minutes before debuting the moonwalk, it lasted just a few seconds but went on to live forever.

Ending his performance to an eruption of applause that was heard all around the world, Mike came, saw and conquered, so much so that Fred Astaire even called to congratulate him, a gesture that the King of Pop – a huge fan of the legendary entertainer – could never quite believe, just like I can’t quite believe that I’m 35-years-old and still trying to do the moonwalk knowing damn well that I can’t.