Michael Jackson and “Choreographic Versioning”

Lisha: This week, Willa and I are delighted to be joined by dance scholar Elizabeth June Bergman. For the past five years Elizabeth’s fascination with Michael Jackson has produced a small body of research in MJ Dance Studies. She is currently furthering her work on Jackson as a doctoral student in the Dance Studies program at Temple University. Elizabeth also holds an MFA in dance performance from the University of Iowa (2009). She has taught a range of dance and somatic forms including yoga, ballet, modern, and improvisation as well as dance history and theory courses.

Last fall, I caught up with Elizabeth at the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association conference, where she gave a fascinating presentation titled “Allusions, Citations, and Cultural Literacy: Michael Jackson’s Choreographic Versioning.” We had such a wonderful conversation about MJ and “choreographic versioning” that I can’t wait to talk about it more with her today! Welcome, Elizabeth.

Willa:  Yes, thanks so much for joining us, Elizabeth. I’m very excited to hear about your work.

Elizabeth:  Thank you so much for having me. I am a longtime follower of Dancing with the Elephant and am so honored to join the conversation. I’ve been presenting short papers on Michael Jackson’s dance work at academic conferences since 2012 and am now relishing the mentorship and organizational structure that a doctoral program contributes to my expanding project on Jackson as a dancer and dancemaker.

Lisha:  That’s so wonderful to hear. I had a look at your impressive list of academic research on Michael Jackson and I have to say, I think you are doing really important work. Of all the pressing research that needs to be done on Michael Jackson, this is probably at the top of list, in my opinion.

Willa:  I agree. There’s a growing body of research on Michael Jackson’s music, short films, and even his persona, but it seems like the scholarship on his dance is lagging behind. So the kind of analysis you’re doing, Elizabeth, is really important, I think.

Lisha:  So to get started, would you like to explain a little bit about what you mean by the term “choreographic versioning”?

Elizabeth: Yes, “choreographic versioning” is the term I’ve recently been using to frame Jackson’s citations and homages to entertainers and artists such as James Brown, Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, etc. I was prompted to write about this last spring after reading some user comments on this YouTube “mash up” video of Bob Fosse performing as The Snake in 1974’s The Little Prince set to MJ’s Billie Jean:

Lisha: That is such an exquisite performance! I’ve read many times that Michael Jackson was quite the fan of this film. While I definitely see some very Jacksonesque movement there, I don’t know exactly how to put my finger on it.

Willa:  I agree. There are some poses that seem like exact “quotations,” like this one 2:54 minutes in:

Fosse 254

We’ve all seen Michael Jackson strike a similar pose in “Billie Jean.” Here’s a video that places some of those iconic poses side by side:

There’s also his costume. Fosse’s black hat (though it’s a bowler, not a fedora) and his white spats covered in glittery rhinestones against the black pants and shoes – that all seems very similar to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” wardrobe.

But more than the specific poses or the costume, there’s something about the way Bob Fosse moves, and the way he inhabits his body – the way he fully extends his arms, for example, or bends his knees, or shuffles his feet. There’s even a bit of a moonwalk beginning at 4:20 in the video you shared, Elizabeth. But I don’t know how to really explain the resemblance.

Elizabeth: Willa, your observations are incredibly perceptive! It is tricky to articulate exactly which of Fosse’s specific qualities and movements influenced Jackson since Jackson’s style was so hybridized, but I see an elegant angularity, instances of outstretched arms and rhythmic isolated accentuations of neck, shoulders, head, and pelvis, the series of backwards shuffling steps you mentioned, certain akimbo poses, and of course the jauntily tipped hat and glove-covered jazz hands in Fosse’s Snake choreography as being part of what Jackson might have intentionally borrowed.

Willa: The “jazz hands”! Yes, I know exactly what you mean.

Elizabeth: Of course, Fosse was also inspired by Astaire, so some of those attributes I just mentioned could easily reflect back to Astaire and his influences. The video made its point however: Jackson was clearly influenced by Fosse’s style and movement vocabulary. This was not news: Jackson was vocal about his interest in Fosse’s work. Here’s a screen grab I found on the internet from the Bad 25 documentary (at about 1:23:43) of a note penned by Jackson:

MJ handwritten note to study the greats

Willa: Wow, that’s wonderful! I don’t remember seeing that note before, but it shows that Michael Jackson was very conscientious about “study[ing] the greats” and choosing specific traditions and choreography to create certain moods or feelings. For example, he said in this 1999 MTV interview that he thought the zombie dance in Thriller should start with “a jazzy step” to create the right mood. And the note you shared, Elizabeth, shows he knew exactly where to look for inspiration for the Smooth Criminal choreography.

I’ve often read that he was a “natural” or “intuitive” dancer, which is true to some extent, I think – even Michael Jackson himself suggested that dancing required something innate, something you’re born with. But it overlooks the fact that he was also a scholar of dance and very deliberately drew inspiration from some of the best: James Brown, Fred Astaire, Jackie Wilson, Bob Fosse, even Marcel Marceau.

Elizabeth: Jackson was incredibly gifted as a mover and musician, especially in terms of rhythmic acuity. But as you point out, he was an astute student! Coming from a dance background myself, I find the term “natural” with regards to dance somewhat problematic, especially when considering the historical baggage thrust upon black dancers in the United States. Any kind of dancing is learned, whether in a social or familial setting or via a student-teacher or mentoring relationship.

I think my hesitance about framing Jackson’s dancing this way stems from my understanding of how saying something is “natural” potentially denies the labor and intelligence required for learning and mastering. It’s true Jackson didn’t grow up attending what is typically viewed as “formal” dance classes and that he did talk about dancing as requiring something innate, but my point in troubling these terms is meant to highlight his incredible acts of labor and the keen intelligence that he brought into learning dance techniques – either by mimicking the moves of James Brown he saw on TV as a child or the time he spent in the studio with, say, Bruno “Pop n Taco” Falcon or any of the other dancer/choreographers he worked with over the years.

But I digress! We were talking about Jackson’s “choreographic versioning,” which I’ll explain in more detail in a moment. It was not just the YouTube video of Jackson/Fosse that started my thinking on this, but it was the title of another YouTube video featuring the same The Little Prince footage, “Michael Jackson’s Famed Style and Moves are Fosse Knock-offs,” that got under my skin.

Lisha: I have to say, that title bothers me as well.

Elizabeth: Right?! The YouTube user who posted and titled the video doesn’t necessarily have a nuanced understanding of the history of racial politics in American entertainment and popular culture. I understand Bob Fosse to be part of the tradition of American popular and theatrical dance of borrowing, riffing on, and appropriating movements from vernacular dances as well as other theatrical artists. In his performance and choreographic career, Fosse riffed on his predecessors in popular entertainment as well as borrowed from social dances of various eras.

Lisha: That’s so true. You know Willa and I were talking about this in a post not too long ago about Fred Astaire and Michael Jackson  Because artists are constantly interacting with each other’s work, at some point in time you have to wonder, who is appropriating who?

Elizabeth: Exactly. I really appreciated the way you and Willa tackled the troubling history of racial stereotypes in the Hollywood musical in that blog and Astaire’s participation in what is viewed now as extremely offensive. Cultural borrowing is not one directional, but who gets credit and who gains capital is often unfortunately based on racial politics.

Willa: That’s a really important point, Elizabeth. Joe Vogel wrote about this phenomenon in terms of music in an article in The Atlantic a couple years ago:

The cultural gatekeepers not only failed to initially recognize the legitimacy of these new musical styles and forms, they also tended to overlook or reduce the achievements of the African-American men and women who pioneered them. The King of Jazz, for white critics, wasn’t Louis Armstrong, it was Paul Whiteman; the King of Swing wasn’t Duke Ellington, it was Benny Goodman; the King of Rock wasn’t Chuck Berry or Little Richard, it was Elvis Presley.

Elizabeth: Great reference, Willa. I respect Joe Vogel’s work on Jackson so much and what he says about American music definitely applies to American social and popular dance, although the “original authors” of these dances were typically communities and not specific individuals: the Charleston, the Lindy Hop, the Twist, hip hop, etc are all examples of social dance forms that have been capitalized upon by white artists. This issue has been the subject of various scholarly studies on popular dance in America – in fact, I’ve just finished reading a recently published book by dance scholar Anthea Kraut that deals explicitly with issues of ownership in dance. The chapter “‘Stealing Steps’ and Signature Moves” from Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance looks at methods of “borrowing,” formal innovation, and giving credit in jazz tap and other dance forms that coalesced in black communities.

Willa: Oh, that’s interesting. So it’s borrowing from a community of dancers, not one identifiable person who could be cited and maybe compensated?

Elizabeth: Absolutely – and doesn’t that make it trickier! The famous husband and wife dance duo Irene and Vernon Castle are a prime example of how cultural appropriation occurs from collectively authored “folk” sources: they took ragtime and other social dances that arose from black communities, altered them to appeal to a white audience, and made a whole performing and teaching career out of it. (Coincidentally, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers played them in the 1939 movie The Story of Irene and Vernon Castle.) I’ve been influenced by Brenda Dixon-Gottschild’s work on what she calls the “invisibilization” of Africanist aesthetics and contributions in American performance, which refers to uncredited influences, both communal and individual.

For these reasons, it’s important to remember that racial dynamics play a huge role in who gets credit and who gets famous. Fosse’s style is recognizable and distinctive and I’m not denying his immense talent as a choreographer and his contributions to jazz and American musical theater, nor accusing him of cultural appropriation. He gave credit where credit was due: Fosse’s first performing duo was called “The Riff Brothers” in homage to the incredibly talented African American jazz tap team The Nicholas Brothers. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the Dancing with the Elephant readers have seen Fayard and Harold Nicholas perform alongside the Jackson siblings on The Jackson’s Variety Show:

But generally Fosse and Astaire are the better known household names, in part due to their privileged status as white artists. Therefore, the title of the YouTube video that accused Jackson of “ripping off” Fosse brought up a lot of questions for me about aesthetic and cultural values, about the history of racism and cultural appropriation in American entertainment in general.

Lisha: It is really troubling when we can observe how consistently this seems to cut across racial lines. It’s just not a two-way street when it comes to acknowledging the hugely influential, pioneering African American artists. We’ve heard so much about Michael Jackson borrowing from Fred Astaire, but little to nothing on how indebted Fred Astaire is to black dancers before him.

Elizabeth: Totally. Given this history, I feel it’s important to ground Jackson’s dance work in black diasporic aesthetic and semantic theories.

Lisha: I agree.

Willa: So do I, and I think that’s something Michael Jackson himself tried to do. When acknowledging his mentors, he almost always mentioned both black and white figures from the past, and implied there was a long history of borrowing between them. It’s interesting in this context that one of Fred Astaire’s mentors was a black dancer, John W. Sublett, who went by the stage name John W. Bubbles. I’ve heard it suggested that Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee, Bubbles, was named in honor of Sublett, who had such a large (though rarely acknowledged) influence on Fred Astaire.

Elizabeth: I’ve been doing some reading on Astaire and was just wondering that myself earlier this week!

Lisha: Wow, I didn’t know that! What an interesting thought.

Willa:  It’s an intriguing possibility, isn’t it? And it’s hard to believe it was just coincidence, given Michael Jackson’s knowledge of dance, and Fred Astaire in particular.

So here’s a wonderful video that includes side-by-side comparisons of Michael Jackson with many different mentors in dance, including John W. Sublett, Bill Bailey, Eleanor Powell, and especially James Brown and Fred Astaire:

Lisha: That’s a fabulous comparison, Willa. I especially love the shadow dancing segment. It’s amazing to see those clips side-by-side.

Willa: It really is.

Lisha: Elizabeth, when we talked earlier, you mentioned that you were originally using the term “choreographic curation” to describe Michael Jackson’s encyclopedic knowledge of dance, instead of the concept of “versioning.” What is the basic difference and where does the term “versioning” come from?

Elizabeth: Prompted by a preliminary discussion of this project with dance scholar Sherril Dodds, I moved away from “curation” which connotes museums and Europeanist “high art” and took a deeper look at how various forms of African American cultural expression have been theorized. Many writers note the historical reflexivity, citational riffing, and intertextual nature of black creative practices and have conceived of these practices by various terms, but I borrowed the specific term “versioning” from dance scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz, who defines versioning as “the generational reworking of aesthetic ideals” or “a way to tell an old tale new.”

Willa: That sounds like a great way to think about the “borrowing” that happens among dancers.

Elizabeth: Absolutely! “Versioning” struck me as a useful term for what Jackson does with quotations of specific artists and his incorporation of various social or vernacular dance styles. DeFrantz himself borrows this term from cultural theorist Dick Hebdige’s 1987 work on Caribbean music, Cut ’n’ Mix. Hebdige claims that the basis of all Afro-American and Caribbean music has this principle of borrowing at its core, and he directly addresses the Eurocentric critical tendency to denigrate the practices of repetition and revision found in these forms.

Of course, many American genres that emerged from the nexus of black and white cultural forms – dance in musical theater being my case in point – feature riffing, pastiche, or versioning as part of their traditions. It’s my intention that the term “choreographic versioning” contextualizes Jackson’s homages and quotations as being part of a black diasporic tradition of expression and exposes the cultural biases that inform accusations of plagiarism or unoriginality expressed towards Jackson’s use of other artists’ work. My short response to the poster of the YouTube video that bothered me is that “ripping off” is not the same as “riffing on.”

Willa:  That’s a great way of expressing that, Elizabeth!

Lisha: It is! Can I steal that line from you?

Elizabeth: Ha! Of course!

Willa: And it reminds me of the controversy that erupted after Steve Knopper’s biography came out about Michael Jackson “stealing” the moonwalk and not giving proper credit to those who’d gone before him. D.B. Anderson discusses this in her review of Knopper’s book. This controversy seems to miss the point of how artistic traditions work, and how artists of all kinds – painters, sculptors, playwrights, poets, musicians, and dancers – have always built on the work that has gone before them. And this doesn’t happen just within the African-American community, but throughout art history. Shakespeare wouldn’t be Shakespeare if he hadn’t borrowed so heavily from his predecessors.

Elizabeth: I agree, the idea of the artist as some sort of wholly innovative original genius is a total myth. No one creates in a vacuum; any art is a dialogue of ideas and variations on existing forms. Jackson was a master at this. I do have to say, however, that I just submitted a conference presentation proposal that, if accepted, will force me to work through the complexities of Jackson giving so much public credit to Astaire, Brown, etc, and the relative anonymity of the dancers and choreographers he worked with (outside of the music video and commercial dance industry especially.) This could, in part, be explained by industry practices – choreographers have not been historically high on the list of acknowledgements. You only need to look at IMDB for choreography credits to realize this.

Regarding the Knopper controversy, if the intention behind calling attention to the somewhat haphazard and vague credit that Jackson did give the actual dancers who taught him the moonwalk is meant to discredit Jackson as “original,” I’d say that it was a poor strategy given our discussion about the nature of borrowing in American social and popular dance and the fact that Jackson always gave credit to another source (however vague) for the move itself.

Willa: Yes he did, though he was “vague,” as you say, and Megan Pugh offers an interesting interpretation of why in her new book, American Dancing from the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk. Pugh notes that Michael Jackson was given lessons in how to do the “backslide” by Soul Train dancers Casper Candidate, Jeffrey Daniel, and Damita Jo Freeman (who was such an impressive dancer that Pugh speculates she may have been the inspiration for “Dancing Machine”) but he didn’t reveal that to the press:

[W]hen interviewers asked Michael Jackson about how he learned to moonwalk, he gave them a different origin story. He said he picked it up from “these black children in the ghettos,” who “have the most phenomenal rhythm of anybody on the Earth. … Just riding through Harlem in the late 70s and early 80s, … I would see these kids doing these, uh sliding backwards kinda like an illusion dancing.” He took “a mental movie of it,” went home, and started practicing.

Jackson was not simply hiding his sources. He was emphasizing that he didn’t need teaching: he could pick anything up on his own. He was also presenting himself as a conduit of black culture, New York’s in particular. It was a bid for authenticity, an attempt to tap into the street culture of America’s most famous black neighborhood.

So while he acknowledged that he didn’t invent the moonwalk, as you pointed out, Elizabeth, he didn’t cite his specific teachers, and Pugh seems to think it was to give himself some street cred “at a time when hip hop, which did come out of New York streets, was threatening to outshine his own work.”

Elizabeth: I don’t completely discount Megan Pugh’s read on this because I think the commercial context Jackson operated within has to be considered as an influence on his work. I argued in an unpublished conference paper that Bad capitalized on the “edgy” associations of street culture of the late 80s, but in the same paper I recognized that Jackson and his creative team’s intentions were to call attention to the larger social problems that provoke inner city crime and gang violence, much akin to West Side Story. Motivated by empathy and a desire for social justice, but complicated by the mechanics of capitalism perhaps?

We’re seeing this same argument play out in the discourse around Beyonce’s Formation video. I think we should remain vigilant towards parties who want to diminish or draw attention away from the political and social messages at the heart of these activist-artists’ work even while it’s important to consider the economic context these radical statements are made. Any analysis of Jackson’s work has to grapple with a great deal of complexity and sometimes seeming contradictions, but I am personally committed to shifting the popular narrative around his life to a meaningful discussion on his incredible body of work, as I know both of you are. Thank god for this blog and the thinkers that contribute their voices in this endeavor.

In a similar vein, I’ve claimed elsewhere that Jackson’s versioning on Astaire and Brown’s dance moves and theatrical styles was a strategic positioning of himself amongst the entertainment greats. The relatively unknown dancers who taught him the moonwalk did not have the cultural capital that Jackson’s famous idols did (although Jeffrey Daniel was a known Soul Train dancer and member of the disco group Shalamar, which was assembled by Soul Train’s Don Cornelius, and of course Daniel later appeared in several of Jackson’s short films and co-choreographed Bad with Gregg Burge). However, as I mentioned before, it has not been the American entertainment industry’s practice to foreground the labor of the choreographers and dancers.

There are so many nuances and complexities in Jackson’s work and creative process, the topic of “credit-giving” being just one of them, and one that could also be attributed to the media’s general disinterest in the behind-the-scenes artists rather than Jackson’s actions. As many fans will know, there are notable interventions into the entertainment industry’s “tradition” of under-acknowledging choreographic and danced labor: for example, the terrific 2013 documentary on Vincent Paterson, a long-time choreographic collaborator with Jackson, by Swedish filmmaker Kristi Grunditz called The Man Behind the Throne, brings Paterson’s work with Jackson and Madonna center stage.

Willa: That’s a really important point, Elizabeth. In general, choreographers have not been given the credit they deserve, or the money they deserve either – and neither have dancers. But apparently Michael Jackson did try to make things a little more equitable. In her book, Megan Pugh says she had a private conversation with Paterson where he said “that Jackson put his dancers in ‘Smooth Criminal’ on an SAG (Screen Actors Guild) contract to guarantee them the same union wages actors were paid.”

He also included credits at the end of many of his short films – something artists rarely did in their videos – and he made sure to credit choreographers as well as directors and producers and screenwriters. For example, the credits for Thriller include this frame:

credits - Thriller

He even gives Michael Peters top billing. The credits for You Rock My World include this:

credits - YRMW

The Talauegas aren’t exactly household names – they certainly don’t have the star power of Fred Astaire or even Hermes Pan – but Michael Jackson is conscientious about giving them their due. And the credits for Moonwalker begin with Smooth Criminal and include this:

credits - Smooth Criminal

So while Michael Jackson may not have mentioned Jeffrey Daniel by name when asked how he learned the moonwalk, he did go further than most artists in giving Daniel credit for his work.

Elizabeth: Thank you for including the screengrabs of these credits, Willa! You’re right, it’s so important to note that Jackson’s very public acknowledgement in these instances complicates an easy narrative in which Jackson didn’t give credit where credit was due in the case of the moonwalk. All the choreographers Jackson worked with speak incredibly highly of him as an artist and individual, which points to the amount of respect he extended to them in working situations. It follows that he would attempt to give them the same amount of protection afforded union actors.

The particular instance of the moonwalk may be an example of a missed opportunity to credit the specific dancers who taught him the step, but I’m personally okay with accepting that Michael Jackson was a complex and contradictory person. I don’t feel that acknowledging any elisions he made in representing his creative process in the media necessarily diminishes or detracts from his legacy as a creative genius. It’s like saying Martin Luther King Jr.’s incredibly powerful social justice messages are compromised by his personal history of infidelity. We somehow have the desire to have our heroes be unblemished by complexity, which sets us up for disappointment and disillusionment. For me, that Jackson was a complex, changing, and flawed human like the rest of us makes his creative work – and his artistic message of love and compassion – so much more inspiring.

Lisha: And as you’ve so convincingly argued, it’s more complicated than one might think to quickly and accurately explain to a journalist where a dance movement might have originated from! There’s not always a simple answer.

Elizabeth, I know you’ve also approached Michael Jackson’s work through the theoretical lens of “kinesthetic empathy,” and I think this concept could be really useful in understanding Michael Jackson’s work. Would you like to explain a little about “kinesthetic empathy”?

Elizabeth: I’d love to try! Basically, kinesthetic empathy is the idea that in watching another body move you understand something of that body’s experience because of your own embodied knowledge. Very simplistically put, I can understand that someone is feeling a certain way because I have my own embodied experience with the positions, actions, or energetics of their body that express that particular emotion.

Willa: Wow, that’s fascinating, Elizabeth! A very important book for me, one that really changed how I see the world, is The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry. It’s a fascinating work and hard to describe in just a few words, and I’m sure I won’t do it justice, but part of her argument is that the body’s physicality is our most important touchstone for what’s real and what isn’t – it’s so crucial to our understanding of what’s real that it’s used to lend reality to things that may seem insubstantial, like ideologies. For example, the outcome of a war is made real through the scars of wounded soldiers and the bodies of those who were killed.

Yet in many ways that physicality that is so central to our concept of reality is inexpressible, especially the experience of pain. That’s one reason the body can be used to substantiate something separate from itself – even something hostile to itself, like war. We can be sitting right beside someone with a splitting headache and not realize it, and even if they try to describe it to us, it’s hard for them to express in words exactly what that pain feels like. Doctors have long struggled with this. Even more than that, extreme pain breaks down language, reducing the sufferer to inarticulate cries and moans. In that sense, Scarry claims we are each locked in our own physicality – an interior experience of our own body – that we can’t express.

So it’s really interesting to think about how some aspects of the body’s interior experience might be communicated in ways other than words – that if I stand in the rain with my arms outstretched, for example, I can experience some of the same physical sensations Michael Jackson experienced while making Stranger in Moscow, and maybe begin to understand “how does it feel” – at least in a physical sense.

Elizabeth: I love that you mention that beautiful moment in Stranger in Moscow because it’s absolutely one of the videos that I’ve thought about in relation to the idea (despite the fact it’s not very “dancey”). I want to read Scarry’s book on the failure of language to express subjective pain because although I’m fascinated and hopeful of the notion of “fellow-feeling” as being part of combating racism, sexism, bigotry, etc, I have major doubts that it’s possible to completely empathize physically either. Because of course my embodied experience is different than your embodied experience!

For this reason, the notion of kinesthetic empathy is a debated topic in dance studies. The notion was first propounded by dance critic John Martin in the 1930s by the various terms “kinesthetic sympathy,” “metakinesis,” and “inner mimicry.” Martin’s concept of how this aesthetic body-to-body understanding functions did not account for cultural, racial, gendered, degrees of able-bodiedness or any kind of difference. Dance scholar Susan Leigh Foster published a book in 2011 on the subject which troubled these essentialist underpinnings of the theory of kinesthetic empathy.  As I mentioned earlier, any kind of physical habit is learned, whether it be socially inscripted or learned in a more formal pedagogical context, so it follows that different cultures and communities will have different “archives” of embodied knowledge that actually mean different things.

Willa: That makes a lot of sense, Elizabeth. Different habits lead to the development of different muscles and different muscle memory, which has a big impact on how we experience movement. This is kind of a weird example, but I lived in Southeast Asia for a while, where it was not uncommon for the top of the “toilet” to be down on the floor. Islamic women, even elderly Islamic women, apparently had no trouble at all with the deep knee bends and balance needed to use those toilets – after all, they’d been using them all their lives. But many ex-pat Americans and Europeans had a lot of trouble with them. I personally would have liked a grab bar to hang on to!

So I imagine a 50-year-old Michael Jackson doing a dance step he’d done all his life – like that James Brown shuffle he performs so flawlessly in his Motown audition when he was 10 years old, and that we see him performing in concert throughout his life – would have a very different experience than a 50-year-old who was trying it for the first time.

Elizabeth: Exactly! (And two great examples, Willa.) It follows that our embodied experience extends to how we perceive and relate to someone else moving. There was an inter-institutional group from the UK that researched and reported on the theory of kinesthetic empathy in a multimodal project called “Watching Dance.” They found that audience members’ reactions were indeed colored by their experience and knowledge of the different dance forms included in their study.

I’m a very capable dancer in the forms I’ve spent years studying, but have pretty much failed in my brief attempts to master the moonwalk or any popping and locking techniques. I can’t imagine what it feels like in my body when I see another person doing any technique based on percussive isolations like popping and locking in the same way that I can relate to a ballet dancer in a space-consuming leap through the air. Watching any dancing I’m not personally versed in definitely creates an embodied response, but I don’t “feel” or relate to them in the same way. Ultimately, the idea of kinesthetic empathy is one limited by cultural and social inscription – what someone has spent time learning – but despite this I still think kinesthetic empathy is worth considering in relation to Jackson’s works that posit altruism as a way to bridge social division and prejudice.

I’m currently beginning to work through how certain examples of Jackson’s work implicitly engage this notion and how perceiving, feeling bodies are implicated in his call for altruism and social justice. How might kinesthetic empathy relate to the larger notion of empathy, and how might this incite moral action?

Willa: Those are some really intriguing and important questions.

Elizabeth: I think so! Jackson’s message of social justice often calls upon empathetic and altruistic responses to others in need. So what in art could compel people to care about others’ suffering or pain, and how do our own physical and somatic experiences shape our ability to react and relate to others? I think that Jackson’s mere posing of the question is powerful. As you quoted earlier, Willa, “how does it feel?” Of course Jackson’s lyrics ask this question in a number of ways, but as a dance scholar convinced of the potency of performance, a performative, bodily enactment of the question is what most interests me.

Lisha: What you’re both saying is utterly fascinating to me as a musician. Strictly judging from my own experience, I would translate this into sound as well. There’s no doubt in my mind that some musicians are more empathic than others. They somehow tune-in to what they hear around them and blend with other musicians in a way that makes it seem like there is only one instrument in the room. It’s an incredible feeling to work with players who can do this, and it’s something I clearly recognize in Michael Jackson.

A perfect example is “State of Shock” with Mick Jagger. Michael Jackson blends his voice into Jagger’s so completely in that recording it’s almost as if it’s one voice. Another example I know many will appreciate is “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” At times, it’s difficult to know where Siedah Garrett’s voice stops and Michael Jackson’s begins. It’s pretty remarkable.

Willa: It really is, and it’s interesting to think of that ability as a function of empathy.

Elizabeth: I love that you brought up musical empathy, Lisha, because of course musicality is rooted in the body and muscle memory.

Lisha: That’s my sense of it, too.

Elizabeth: Musicality, like the ability to move “well,” is both a “gift” that comes easier to some people than others as well as something learned and honed through continual effort and labor. Like language, dance and music express the worldview and values of the cultures in which they are created and practiced. As I’m working through this project I’ve realized I need to look into scholarship on music and empathy or sound and empathy, especially as they relate to cross-cultural communication or miscommunication.

Lisha: I’m interested in knowing more about this as well. I’m especially interested in the question you posed earlier: “how do our own physical and somatic experiences shape our ability to react and relate to others?” You must keep us posted on your research and come back to share your findings.

Elizabeth: I definitely will. This conversation has been so inspiring! It has also productively shifted some of my thinking around the topic of Jackson’s “giving credit.” You’re both so knowledgeable about everything Michael Jackson and I can’t thank you both enough for this rich and thought-provoking discussion. I’ll definitely cite your invaluable contributions to the evolution of my thought on these topics in all the forums they are aired.

Lisha: Thank you, Elizabeth!

Willa: Yes, thank you so much for joining us, Elizabeth. I love your way of looking at the artistic tradition as “riffing on” not “ripping off” the artists who’ve gone before! And I’m so intrigued by the idea of kinesthetic empathy.

I also wanted to let everyone know that a new article by Toni Bowers was just published this morning by the Los Angeles Review of Books. It begins with a review of Steve Knopper’s new biography but becomes so much more, and it ties in with some of the things we’ve been talking about today. For example, Toni points out that “Those incredible dance steps, after all, did not perfect themselves. Jackson did it, arduously.” Here’s a link to Toni’s article.


About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on February 11, 2016, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. ‘Thank god for this blog and the thinkers that contribute their voices in this endeavor.’ Amen to that Elizabeth.

    On the subject of artists being influenced by each other, I am reading a novel called The Goldfinch, and as is my wont, I looked up the actual painting of the Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, only to find out that he was taught by Rembrandt and went on himself to teach Johannes Vermeer. Knowing this and looking at the painting again, one can see that connection and in fact appreciate it even more.

    It therefore seem perfectly acceptable, and even inevitable, that in all disciplines of ‘art’ this is going to happen, especially when artists are paying homage to other artists, as Michael often did.

    When I first became interested in Michael 7 years ago, of course I had no idea of his ‘hat-nods’ to other artists when it came to his dance moves, but I can now see how this would happen, and I think it is just great, though Michael made the moves his own when he performed them of course. Loved the video of the side-by-side dancers, not only to see where the ideas originated, but more importantly how Michael moved them forward by his own interpretation.

    I think in many areas of his art Michael did give credit where due because that was the sort of person he was, and for which he was often not given credit himself!!

  2. Hello all –

    Interesting discussion that’s also distressing –

    As a scholar of dance you certainly are far more informed than I, Elizabeth, but much of this discussion seems to revert the default setting found in most writing about Jackson – ignoring the possibility that what he said was absolutely true.

    When you say “haphazard and vague credit” that Jackson did give the actual dancers who “taught him the moonwalk” it seems to discount the notion that Jackson first observed the dance on the streets in Harlem and practiced it for a long while by himself before hiring personal coaches to help him refine it.

    There’s a distinction between “observing it/being inspired by it/wanting to learn it” and “getting instruction in method.” I may be inspired by Mozart, but I hire a piano teacher to help me play.

    Presumably, all the choreographer-coaches whom Jackson hired in the early 1980s were paid for their work. It would seem that Daniel’s tutelage and partnership was most satisfactory to Jackson and he was kept on for years and was later credited in films. That the others weren’t named specifically in Michael’s autobiography is not at all surprising if they were doing work-for-hire and weren’t kept on.

    To speak of “the relatively unknown dancers who taught him” not having “cultural capital” that his famous idols did seems to imply an intent on Jackson’s part to associate himself with greatness. But that’s exactly the opposite of what happened! Jackson could have mentioned Bill Bailey or Cab Calloway once that knowledge was given to him by Casper if he wanted to link himself to previous stars. But he didn’t – he attributed his inspiration to anonymous street dancers in Harlem. I find no basis whatsoever for disbelieving that.

    To say, as Pugh did, that Jackson “hid his sources” and was attempting “a bid for authenticity” “to tap into the street culture of America’s most famous black neighborhood,” is really presumptuous and dismissive. Because (a) what is inauthentic about Jackson’s blackness? (b) we’re talking about a boy who was playing the chitlin’ circuit at age 10 and performed at the Apollo several times (c) Jackson spent another year or two in Harlem in the late seventies while filming The Wiz (d) are we saying that black street dancers couldn’t possibly be good enough to inspire the King of Pop? Must a professional have been involved? This is hideous to me.

    While I understand the desire of other choreographers to associate themselves with Jackson, I can’t take seriously with any thesis that automatically dismisses the authenticity of Jackson’s statements on his inspiration for the moonwalk.

    • Hi D.B

      I’d like to chime in on the topic of MJ’s “authenticity.”

      First of all, when was the last time anyone heard Frank Sinatra or JS Bach described in terms of authenticity? How about Leontyne Price, a black woman from a small town in Mississippi who devoted herself and her beautiful voice to opera, an artifact of white European culture?

      Secondly, who is praised for authenticity? How about Lead Belly? Can’t get more authentic than he is. He just oozes authenticity. According to Wikipedia, Lead Belly, “survived a life that included brutalizing poverty and long stretches in prison….A man possessed with a hot temper and enormous strength, Lead Belly [was] …convicted on charges of murder (1917) and attempted murder (1930), Lead Belly literally sang his way to freedom…”

      Not to take anything away from Lead Belly’s accomplishments as an artist, but Lead Belly conformed to the white stereotype for black men and, in telling the story of his life, his music confirmed the stereotype, upholding the principles of racism. And because he conformed to and confirmed the stereotype, a racist white culture could safely and comfortably praise him as “authentic.” To be authentically black is to be stereotypically black.

      Michael Jackson’s sin was that he didn’t conform to the stereotype. In fact, he and his art and his vision blew the stereotype out of the water – he challenged the racial stereotypes that were necessary to maintain white supremacy.

  3. Elizabeth June Bergman

    Thank you for your considered comments D.B. I want to stress that I am not making any claims nor stating a thesis just now about Jackson’s intentions, nor do I think that I ever can, but am looking at all sides of the competing claims made about the moonwalk. For this reason, I don’t readily discount Pugh’s interpretation but I also am not making claims staked on an alliance with her views. Part of my intention for participating in this discourse is to consider the nuances of this particular instance. In my research I am looking to historical precedents, specifically at how black social dances have historically “given credit” and the ethics of borrowing within these traditions (which of course, Jackson was heir to, as you point out via his grooming on the chitlin circuit and at the Apollo.) I also want to state that I’m not referring to “street dancers” as not deserving the same amount of respect that dancers in a professional forum receive, because of course, many of the dancers and choreographers Jackson worked with, learned, from and credited were educated outside of the parameters of a classroom. This is one of the most interesting issues that I hope to reflect upon as I continue to engage with this topic. Respectfully, thank you for bringing up these points.

    • Thanks for your reply! I know you’re not aren’t stating a thesis here, and it’s not my intention to derail this thread which is about much more than this aspect. However, I did find it a bit jarring to have this question come up in the midst of a discussion about racial politics.

      It’s Pugh that I’m taking issue with here. In her notes, she gives a great deal of credit to Dave Marsh ‘for informing much of my thinking about Jackson” This is Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone, who wrote “Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream.” Willa and I discussed Marsh in a previous conversation, here:


      …and, in my opinion, Marsh was stoned out of his mind on white privilege when he wrote that book. Pugh also says in her notes that Jackson considered acting in a bio of Bill Robinson in the late 1970s, but decided not to “perhaps because, as Marsh speculates, it would have associated him too closely with a black tradition.”

      Now that is the kind of thing white people have no business thinking or writing. And so when she says MJ “hid his sources” and was “making a bid for authenticity” she is doing it from the perspective of a white person who blames Jackson for not singlehandedly solving racism (really) and simultaneously not being black enough. These are lies from the pit of hell. Just fyi.

      I hope the first possibility your paper is going to explore is the idea that it could have happened exactly the way Jackson said it did. This topic has been discussed by many people, but I have never seen an explanation that starts by assuming he was telling the truth.

      Anyway – back to regularly scheduled programming…

      • Elizabeth June Bergman

        Thank you D.B. I completely agree with you on the ugly undertones in Marsh’s book and the rest of the Rolling Stone crew for that matter. Thanks for reposting the link to that blog by Willa and yourself! I was very resistant to even picking up the Knopper biography knowing he was a Rolling Stone writer, but I’m glad people, yourself included, have taken the time to confront the problems inherent in reprinting the same tired narrative.

        I think one of the most useful things I’ve taken away from this conversation is the necessity of distinguishing between inspiration and labor when talking about giving credit and this is what gets conflated in the conflicting claims about who “invented” or “taught” the Moonwalk. This relates to what Will and Lisha and I were discussing earlier about the complexities inherent in crediting dances created by a community, especially if the move in question has seen subsequent generational cycles as Thomas F. DeFrantz and other dance scholars evidence in their work. As demonstrated in the multiple, sometimes contradictory stories about the Moonwalk, confusion arises if there are individual instructors involved in a process of transmitting the step or dance style which “originated” from an interactive, mutually constitutive choreographic setting.

        I’m particularly grateful for the timing of this discussion since I haven’t yet begun to write the paper (as I’ve been focusing most of my attention on the topic of empathy) but your contributions in this forum and elsewhere have reminded me (yet again!) that there is still such a need to question what everyone thinks they know about Jackson and to interrogate why his own voice gets lost in the crowd of people arguing about (or against) his work. I believe I can do this as I maintain my critical perspective as a scholar. To riff on one of the larger themes of this blog post, I will make sure to give you credit for reminding me of the importance of valuing Jackson’s own account.

  4. Again, thanks for a great post. So much to think about, and I’ve been thinking…

    Willa said —

    “Yet in many ways that physicality that is so central to our concept of reality is inexpressible,…we are each locked in our own physicality – an interior experience of our own body – that we can’t express. So it’s really interesting to think about how some aspects of the body’s interior experience might be communicated in ways other than words.”

    I agree completely! But when you think about it, there is not that much difference between how we experience and communicate a feeling generated by the body and one that is generated by something outside the body. The only way we know anything is through our sense organs, so the only reality we ever know is subjective: all experiences are interior, but that doesn’t mean that we are totally locked in.

    First of all, as members of the same species, our sense organs are the same, so it’s not like one person’s hearing range is different from another’s. So, as humans, we sense things in similar ways. But it is what happens to all that sense data once it gets inside our heads that is interesting, especially where art is concerned.

    Sense data has to be processed, filtered and organized to produce a meaningful whole rather than a jumble of meaningless static, and how human brains process all this info has as much to do with culture as with nature. Just as having species- specific sense organs means that we sense data in similar ways, being members of the same culture ensures that members of any given society process data and interpret “reality” in similar ways — and that members of a society can be counted on to respond similarly to similar experiences.. Culture takes meaningless sense data and attaches meaning and value, ensuring that, members of the same culture aren’t totally isolated from each other, prisoners of our bodies – unable to communicate or cooperate. Humans are biologically determined to create culture and cultural symbols; without it, we wouldn’t be able to survive.

    Cultural symbols arouse basic human emotions and attach them to important cultural concepts. Symbols operate so deeply within the psyche that the emotional reactions stemming from symbolic associations appear to be “natural.” And, because, art deals with the most powerful human emotions and the artist is “an adept” at creating and using symbols to arouse these emotions, one of the most powerful ways cultural views and values are implanted and established — or disrupted — is through art..

    The artist is characterized by a powerful drive to express and share his or her own subjective experience with the world, and, as an artist, he or she has the requisite skills to communicate his or her vision. With the exception of poets and novelists, the artist communicates directly with emotions non-verbally, primarily through sound and visual imagery, even dance is first experienced visually before it is felt kinetically. Even the poet and the novelist use words to create imagery in order to arouse emotions and communicate their vision of reality.

    Being an artist also means being conversant with the grammar of cultural symbols, using them in the expression of his or her artistic vision. The artist uses well-established cultural symbols (e.g., dance steps and routines that carry symbolic meaning) that he/she alters in some meaningful new way, either to affirm the existing cultural views and values through symbolic assonance or to challenge them through symbolic dissonance – e.g., attaching positive emotions to imagery that the culture has presented as negative and/or vice-versa. If the symbolic dissonance is strong enough, a new cultural symbol is created – and possibly even a new culture.

    Michael Jackson was a consummate artist who pulled out all the stops to communicate his emotions and share his vision of the world – he was a multisensory sensation! And he understood cultural symbols better than anyone I know, and he used that knowledge to disrupt cultural views and values. Sometimes that’s what it takes to heal the world, one fan at a time.

  5. Thanks for another great discussion. I just wanted to point out that MJ was 9 years old when he auditioned for Motown with his brothers. It was in July of 1968, about a month before MJ turned 10.

  6. Hi D.B., Elizabeth, and Eleanor. This issue of authenticity is so interesting and important. As you pointed out, D.B., Megan Pugh does seem predisposed to disbelieve Michael Jackson – she even seems skeptical that he was really in Harlem as he says he was. As she writes,

    He claimed to have watched them [the children “sliding backwards kinda like an illusion dancing”] in action as he was chauffeured around Harlem – doing just what he doesn’t say. (274)

    One thing he may have been doing there was playing the Apollo Theater. It’s been well documented that he played there several times.

    However, there seems to be a larger issue at work here, as you all have been discussing. Pugh seems to view him as disconnected from black culture, or “inauthentically” black – that’s why she can’t imagine him in Harlem, “America’s most famous black neighborhood,” as she calls it.

    But that’s completely false to see him as divorced from black culture. He grew up in a black family in a black neighborhood, and attended a segregated black elementary school. He played the chitlin circuit and the Apollo at the very heart of black culture. He recorded at Motown with some of the biggest black entertainers of the 60s and 70s. And he maintained a deep connection with black artists throughout his career, up until his death. With the exception of Jennifer Batten and Orianthi, almost all the musicians he played with in concert were black, from his earliest days with the Jackson 5 up through the Victory, Triumph, and Bad tours and on through This Is It.

    So this tendency to see him as separated from black culture is just plain wrong, and something (primarily white) critics falsely project onto him. The question is why.

  7. Michael had another connection to Jeffrey Daniel – Daniel married Stephanie Mills, who was arguably Michael’s first serious girlfriend. I’ve read many references to Daniel working with Michael, but I’ve never heard of Casper Candidate. (Is that his actual name or a hip hop moniker?) It’s curious that the Rolling Stone bunch is so insistent on giving him credit for “teaching” Michael the moonwalk. Is there any proof that this guy even met Michael?

    When a ballerina gives a transcendent performance in Swan Lake, nobody expects her to credit the inventor of the arabesque. Fred Astaire was a superb interpreter, and the master of shooting dance sequences, but, unlike Bill Bojangles Robinson, he is not known for innovating any steps. That doesn’t diminish his genius as a performer. Likewise there is no logical reason to denigrate Michael Jackson for doing the moonwalk better, and more memorably, than anyone who came before him. He is rightly celebrated for putting the step on our cultural map.

    It’s ironic that while there may be similarities between Bob Fosse in The Little Prince and Michael Jackson in Billie Jean, The Little Prince was a flop, with some critics calling Fosse ‘ s dance performance in it a clichéd embarrassment.

  1. Pingback: Michael Jackson und „choreographische Versionierung“ | all4michael

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