MJ Studies XLIII

Abstract: In this month’s MJ Studies Today column, Kerry Hennigan looks at Michael Jackson’s legacy as a dancer capable of expressing emotions ranging from the angelic to the ghoulish in his choreography for the stage and in videos.  She also looks at some of the artists Jackson himself credited for inspiring him and what it is that makes him unique based on the observations of his dance collaborators. 

Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, and administrator of the widely-subscribed Facebook group, Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts.


Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today XLIII (14-07-2019).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 6, no. 1 (2019). http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-xliii/.

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Michael Jackson, “a slave to the rhythm” – his legacy as a dancer  By Kerry Hennigan

© Kerry Hennigan

When Michael Jackson hit the stage, he danced in ecstasy. And it’s obvious to the spectator. All the best dancers and musicians enter a peculiar state of mind when they create.” [1]

On 15 August 2010, Michael Jackson was posthumously inducted into the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame at a gala event in Saratoga Springs, New York.  The Hall of Fame entry notes that he “developed a specific, iconic dance artistry. While creating many Billboard Top 100 hits, he also created many popular dance moves…  Nearly all of Jackson’s music videos utilized and popularized contemporary jazz, pop and hip-hop dance, bringing new interest in dance directly to America’s homes.” [2]

As stated elegantly by Lubov Fadeeva whom I quote above, “Thousands of people have learned many of Michael’s distinctive moves and steps, but no one can perform them exactly the way he does. That’s why all attempts to imitate him (even by professional dancers) are doomed to failure: any Jackson impersonator is a surrogate in the eyes of ardent Jackson fans.” [3]

Jackson himself unselfishly acknowledged those who inspired him as a dancer – Hollywood song and dance men Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Sammy Davis Jr, for example.  In his 1988 biography “Moonwalk”, Michael explained “Ever since I was a very little boy, I’ve been able to watch somebody do a dance step and then immediately know how to do it.  Another person might have to be taken through the movement step by step and told to count… But if I see it, I can do it.”  [4]  Motown’s Suzanne de Passé is reputed to have taken special trouble to tone down some of Michael’s more obvious influences, including his James Brown dance steps. Of Brown Jackson said “I’d be in the wings when I was six or seven.  I’d sit there and watch him.  He’s the most electrifying.” [5]

Jackson was apparently born with the most essential gift for a successful dancer – rhythm.  His mother Katherine confirmed that there was something different about him.  “You know how babies move unco-ordinated? He never moved that way. He danced like he was an older person.”  [6]  Michael grew up with a family that pursued musical careers and was thrust into the spotlight at an impressionable age.  He went willingly, but the hours were long and the punishment for anything less than perfection in the eyes of his father was severe.  However, in his last decade Michael gratefully credited that early discipline and training for his success as an artist.

In performing to his songs, Jackson could personify whatever the music demanded, from the angelic (“Will You Be There”) to the ghoulish (“Thriller” and “Ghosts”).  He could rage at injustice, while reminding us of his ethnicity and sexuality (“Black or White’s” black panther routine being the penultimate expression of these). He could dance the young guy wanting to impress a pretty girl (“The Way You Make Me Feel”), pay homage to the classics like “Westside Story” (“Beat It” and “Bad”) and take us back to the 1930s with a night club gangster routine inspired by Fred Astaire’s “Girl Hunt” (from “The Band Wagon”) and Jackson’s love for classic Hollywood film noir.  From this came “Smooth Criminal” (with its seemingly gravity-defying lean) “Dangerous”, “Blood on the Dance Floor” and “You Rock My World”.

Throughout his career, Jackson teamed with dancers and choreographers and, through hours of practice and repetition, polished his skills to translate what was in his head into routines that could be performed night after night.  Dancer/choreographer Travis Payne spoke about what it was like to collaborate with Michael. “We were able to communicate in a way that I can’t with every artist that I work with.  It definitely made it more difficult for me, because he was very demanding.  He wasn’t going to just settle for steps.  Everything had a place, and everything had a meaning.” [7]

In 1997, the frenetic dance routine from “Ghosts” (to the tune of “2 Bad”) deservedly won the Bob Fosse Award for its choreography. Some fans (myself included) consider it Michael’s greatest on-screen ensemble dance performance.  Rehearsal footage appearing in dancer/choreographer LaVelle Smith Jr’s documentary “The Man Behind The Dance” shows just how “hands on” Jackson was in the development of the routine.  This highlights a very important point that should not be overlooked by critics – without Michael Jackson himself, the performance is just clever choreography – a body without its spiritual soul. [8]

Choreographer/director Kenny Ortega, who worked on Jackson’s Dangerous and HIStory tours and was working on This Is It at the time of Michael’s death, rates his late friend as the stand-out talent amongst the many stars he has worked with throughout his career.  “It depends on the genre of dance, and I’ve worked with some of the icons – Bette Midler, Cher, Gene [Kelly], although that wasn’t during Gene’s golden era as a dancer by then – but in terms of the most naturally talented live performer, it’s got to be Michael. He was one of a kind.” [9]

Dance as an artform and means of expression has been enriched by the genius of Michael Jackson.  In dance, just as in song, he created entertainment history which, like the classics he enjoyed watching in his youth, will continue to be enjoyed and appreciated – and copied – for decades to come.  Michael’s legacy as a dancer is inseparable from the rest of his talents and his generosity in giving to others.  Indeed, it is part and parcel of that generosity; part of the man’s humanitarian nature.  For, as Rumi reminds us, the dancer “gives away a kingdom in every moment.  He doesn’t ask for anything.  He simply bestows life.” [10]


[1]  Fadeeva, Lubov Michael Jackson the dancer of the dream. English translation by Julia Sirosh; editing by Vera Serova and Willa Stillwater accessed via https://www.truemichaeljackson.com/on-dance/michael-jackson-the-dancer-of-the-dream/

[2]  National Museum of Dance.  Hall of Fame inductee 2010. http://www.dancemuseum.org/about/hall-of-fame/#2010

[3]  Fadeeva, Lubov Michael Jackson the dancer of the dream

[4]  Jackson, Michael MoonwalkArrow paperback edition 2010 page 136

[5]  Brown, Geoff Michael Jackson Facts from the DancefloorUFO Music Ltd 1997 page 11 (note: this book is NOT focused on Michael Jackson’s dancing.  It is a short, pictorial bio published to capitalise on the HIStory tour, which, among his many errors, the author mistakenly calls “Burnin’ Up the Dance Floor”.)

[6]  Mirror.co.uk “Michael Jackson tribute: Michael Jackson even had rhythm as a baby, says his mum Katherine” (2009) https://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/michael-jackson-tribute-michael-jackson-403236

[7]  Rich, Kathy “Exclusive Interview: This Is It Choreographer Travis Payne” in CinemaBlend (2009) https://www.cinemablend.com/new/Exclusive-Interview-It-Choreographer-Travis-Payne-15437.html

[8]  Think Video “The Man Behind The Dance” LaVelle Smith Jr.  https://www.facebook.com/LaVelleSmithJr/videos/413666572694113/

[9]  The National: Arts & Culture “Kenny Ortega on working with Michael Jackson and choreographing Dirty Dancing” (2017)https://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/film/kenny-ortega-on-working-with-michael-jackson-and-choreographing-dirty-dancing-1.615961

[10]  Rumi as quoted by Jude Ling in “Call and Response” in Alchemy & Transformation. The Living Legacy of Michael Jacksoncompiled by Brenda Jenkyns (2019)  https://www.amazon.com/s?k=brenda+jenkyns&ref=nb_sb_noss


“the dancer as the dance” compiled by Kerry Hennigan.  Main photo by Dave Hogan, Getty Images.  No copyright infringement is intended in this not-for-profit, educational exercise.

Further reading:

Owens, Valmai “Interview with Sarah Hall Weaver: Assistant Director of the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame” on http://valmaiowens.blogspot.com/2011/09/interview-with-sarah-hall-weaver.html

Catton, Pia “How Michael Jackson changed dance history” on Biography https://www.biography.com/news/how-michael-jackson-changed-dance-history?