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:
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:
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:
He even gives Michael Peters top billing. The credits for You Rock My World include this:
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:
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.
Willa: You know, Lisha, I’ve been trying to learn more about Fred Astaire because he was such an important inspiration for Michael Jackson. We see his influence in some of his dance moves and choreography, of course, and in some of his costumes, like his famous fedora. We see direct influences in the videos for Smooth Criminal and You Rock My World, and the lyrics to “Dangerous.” And we can see it more subtly in other places as well.
Michael Jackson always spoke of Fred Astaire with the utmost respect. For example, in a questionnaire he filled out in 1977, when he was only 18, he was asked which entertainers he admired most. His response was Fred Astaire and Stevie Wonder. And after he died, Kobe Bryant repeatedly mentioned how Michael Jackson encouraged him to go back and watch Astaire’s movies – like in this press conference and in a Time magazine article, “Remembering Michael”:
Beyond the genius of what he was, he was just a genuinely, genuinely nice person. He got me hooked on movies that I would normally never watch. Fred Astaire movies. All the old classics. … He was just a genuinely nice person who was exceptionally bright, exceptionally bright, and driven and talented. You mix those things together, man, you have Michael Jackson.
So I’ve been trying to watch as many Fred Astaire movies as I can, and last spring I happened to stumble across one called Ziegfeld Follies. It isn’t a movie with a plot like we generally think of. Rather it’s a series of song and dance numbers interspersed with comedy skits, like the original Ziegfeld shows that ran on Broadway for more than 25 years. And one of those numbers in particular completely captured my attention – in fact, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. It’s called “Limehouse Blues.” Here’s a clip:
Lisha: Wow, I have to say that’s really a beautiful Broadway/Hollywood style production number, but seeing Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer made up as Asian characters is pretty wild, isn’t it? I immediately thought of another film, Tony Randall’s 1964 movie 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, in which Randall assumes the role of 7 different mythic characters, including an ancient Chinese wise man, Dr. Lao, who claims to be 7,322 years old.
Did you know at one time Michael Jackson was under contract to remake the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao?
Willa: No, I didn’t!
Lisha: According to Captain EO producer/screenwriter Rusty Lemorande, it was just before the Evan Chandler scandal hit and unfortunately the project was scrapped due to the false allegations. That’s pretty disappointing, to say the least.
Willa: Oh, it’s heartbreaking. It really shows what an immediate and devastating effect those allegations had on his career. And it makes me feel so angry and powerless to think Evan Chandler plotted that all out and got exactly what he wanted, just as he predicted in those phone conversations with David Schwartz before the scandal broke – importantly, at a time when Jordan Chandler was saying he hadn’t been molested:
I will get everything I want, and they will be totally – they will be destroyed forever. They will be destroyed. June is gonna lose Jordy. She will have no right to ever see him again.… Michael, the career will be over.
And he was right – everything he predicted came true. He got “everything I want,” meaning the money he was after, June lost custody of her son, and Michael Jackson’s career was destroyed. In addition to the terrible blow to him personally, just think of how frustrating that must have been for him as an artist.
Lisha: Yes, for him as an artist and for us as an audience. We were all robbed. But while Michael Jackson’s career was damaged, it was far from “destroyed forever,” as Evan Chandler had planned. That’s pretty remarkable when you think about it. Anyone else most likely would have been ruined. In the end, Evan Chandler only succeeded in destroying himself, his family, and many, but not all, of Michael Jackson’s artistic and charitable projects. There were no winners in his vicious scheme.
Willa: That’s true. We all lost. Michael Jackson still produced some amazing work, even though his career was irreparably damaged, but I do wonder what he might have accomplished if those allegations had never happened.
Lisha: Thinking about the Dr. Lao movie, I can imagine Michael Jackson would have been wonderful in that role. And I have no doubt he would have enjoyed the challenge of taking on those 7 characters – Medusa, Pan, Merlin, Apollonius, The Serpent, The Abominable Snowman and the magical Dr. Lao.
Willa: Yes, kind of like the multiple characters he plays in Ghosts.
Lisha: Exactly. Jackson was also committed at that time to remaking a 1938 James Cagney film, Angels with Dirty Faces. I find it interesting that all of these films include the concept of different “faces.”
Willa: That is intriguing, isn’t it? Especially since the idea of changing faces was such an important and recurrent motif in his art, from videos like Who Is It and Black or White to his own changing face.
So what do you think of Fred Astaire’s changing face in “Limehouse Blues”? Or more broadly, his playing the role of a Chinese immigrant? I have a conditioned reflex to be wary of any Western portrayal of the East as appropriation – or as Orientalism in the Edward Said sense, meaning an attempt to portray Eastern and middle-Eastern people and culture as exotic, mysterious, alluring but dangerous, and essentially unknowable. And I see that to some degree in “Limehouse Blues.” But at the same time, I actually think it’s attempting to do just the opposite. I’m really struck by the tenderness and humanity in Astaire’s portrayal of this character, and how we are encouraged to see the events that happen from his point of view. He isn’t a mysterious and unknowable cypher – he’s a sympathetic member of the human race with desires and frustrations we can all understand.
Lisha: Well, I guess I’m still kind of on the fence with this. My knee jerk reaction is that it’s a bit offensive in the way it oversimplifies Chinese culture. I hear it immediately in the musical introduction, with the gong and traditional symphonic instruments playing a five-note scale to suggest Asian culture in a very Broadway show style of writing. You can hear the same sounds in the Dr. Lao trailer as well; it’s the typical formula for instantly depicting the Far East through the musical score. Then we see Fred Astaire made up with slanted eyes, wearing traditional Chinese clothes and shoes, which is a little disconcerting. But, I also wonder if I have been cued to judge it that way.
I mean, isn’t this sort of the whole point of drama? To act out something for the audience from another time and place and to play the role of someone you are not? And aren’t simple cues needed to some extent to achieve that, such as costuming, make-up, “ethnic” instruments and musical scales?
Willa: Those are all really good questions, Lisha. Michael Jackson said a number of times that pretending to be “someone you are not,” as you say, was what he loved most about acting. And isn’t that what empathy is, really? Putting yourself in someone else’s position and trying to imagine things from their perspective?
Lisha: I believe that it is. But what are the limits to how far you can go with this kind of oversimplification of culture before it starts getting really offensive?
Willa: Exactly. Or before you start imposing your own values and beliefs onto another culture….
Lisha: I agree with you that Astaire’s character invites the viewer to see events from his point of view and attempts to illustrate the commonality of human experience, rather than simply emphasizing difference. So, it may not be entirely fair to just dismiss this scene because it engages some of these stereotypes as a kind of cultural shorthand.
I’m thinking there is a real difference between intentional and unintentional uses of stereotypes. For example, in the opening of You Rock My World, there is an overt use of Chinese stereotypes – the restaurant, the rickshaw, the karate chop, etc. It leaves little room for doubt that the scene is intentionally invoking over-the-top racial stereotypes in order to make a point. In “Limehouse Blues” I’m not convinced there is much awareness of how problematic stereotypes can be. The scene is set in Limehouse, the Chinatown district of London, and the opening lyrics get my attention right away: “In Limehouse, where Orientals love to play / in Limehouse, where you can can hear the flutes all day.” Apparently the lyrics were cleaned up a bit from the original song, which included the line “learn from those Chinkies, those real China blues,” as in this 1934 recording by the Mills Brothers:
Willa: Well, you’re right, Lisha, those lyrics are offensive, especially in the 1934 version – though as you point out, those lyrics were left out of the film. But there are a lot of stereotypes on display in the film too, as you described so well. Still, I’m reluctant to simply dismiss this performance as offensive and walk away. Like you, I’m really conflicted about it. And part of that, for me, is because I see so many connections to the panther dance in Black or White, and that’s led me to view “Limehouse Blues” in a different way, through the lens of Black or White.
You know, some of the most scornful criticism of Black or White when it first came out was because Michael Jackson still called himself black but appears white. For example, the Saturday Night Live character Queen Shenequa asked, “Black or White? If it doesn’t matter, then why are you so white?” But to me, his crossing of racial boundaries is one of the most brilliant aspects of that video. So why does it seem offensive, or at least problematic, when Fred Astaire crosses the boundary from white to Asian, but not when Michael Jackson crosses from black to white?
I agree with you that part of it comes from the awareness of the creators. Michael Jackson seems very aware of the implications of what he’s doing in Black or White, while it’s not so clear that Fred Astaire understood those implications in “Limehouse Blues.” I also wonder if another reason is because of how they’re positioned. In the U.S., where both films were made, white is the dominant culture and black and Chinese are considered minority cultures. So when Fred Astaire, a white man, appears Chinese it feels like appropriation, but when Michael Jackson, a black man, appears white it feels like resistance – or at worst assimilation.
Lisha: Absolutely. I thought it was hilarious a few years back when some American Indian students at the University of Northern Colorado decided to re-name the basketball team “The Fightin’ Whities.” They chose a stereotypical white man as their new mascot and even changed their fight song to “Ever thang is gonna be, all White.”
Willa: Really? That is too funny!
Lisha: I thought that was a brilliant and very humorous way of calling attention to how offensive it is when the dominant culture appropriates a minority culture, like when American sports teams choose names like the “Redskins,” or the “Indians.” That really makes me angry, but I don’t have the same reaction to white stereotypes.
But now you’ve really got me curious about the connection between “Limehouse Blues” and the panther dance. I have to admit, I don’t see a clear connection.
Willa: Hmmm … Well, now I’m going to have to think a minute. It’s one of those things I just sort of intuitively felt, so I’m not sure how well I can give reasons and put it into words …
I do remember that the first time I watched “Limehouse Blues,” I was immediately struck by the set – the darkened street with the lamppost and the row of shop fronts with big plate-glass windows. In fact, my first reaction was to wonder if it was the same set where the panther dance was filmed. You know, MGM used to have a huge backlot of permanent structures that were used over and over again in different movies, and I wondered if “Limehouse Blues,” Singin’ in the Rain, and the panther dance were all filmed on the same location. They weren’t – if you look carefully, the style of the lampposts and the shape of the windows are a little different in all three – but the overall mood of these sets is very similar, I think.
Here’s a screen capture from “Limehouse Blues.” Doesn’t that look like the set for the panther dance – and for the signature Singin’ in the Rain number as well?
Lisha: Definitely has a similar feel to it. And I see what you mean that it’s not an exact quote, as in other Fred Astaire films that Michael Jackson cited more directly, like The Band Wagon, which he references in Smooth Criminal, You Rock My World and “Dangerous.” It’s a little more subtle than that.
Willa: Exactly. It’s like when the new VW Beetle came out – the designers said they weren’t trying to create an exact replica of the original Beetle, just something “evocative” of it. That’s how the Black or White set is. It’s not an exact duplicate, but it certainly evokes the set of “Limehouse Blues.”
Lisha: That’s a good way of describing it.
Willa: They also have a similar narrative structure. Usually when a movie includes a fantasy sequence, it’s just a brief interruption in the flow of “real life.” The movie will begin in real life, then switch to a quick daydream, and then return to real life. But in “Limehouse Blues,” we follow the main character on the streets of Limehouse for about 7 minutes; then he’s shot and loses consciousness, and we jump to the dream ballet for about 5 minutes; and then he comes to just long enough to see the woman he loves reject the fan he was holding when he was shot, and he loses consciousness again. So the daydream lasts nearly as long as the “real life” sequence, and the main character never reenters his former life.
Black or White has a much more complicated structure, but if we take a big picture view it’s pretty similar. We have a series of vignettes engaging with the real world that goes for about 7 minutes. Then a panther walks downstairs – into the unconscious? I think you suggested that in an earlier post, Lisha. He morphs into Michael Jackson at precisely the 7-minute mark, and then the panther dance begins. It lasts for about 4 minutes, and then we jump to Bart Simpson and the film ends. So as in “Limehouse Blues,” we never see the main character reenter the real world, which is very unusual.
Lisha: Wow, that is interesting. It makes me think about the other short film Michael Jackson made with John Landis, Thriller. At the very end, when Michael Jackson comforts his girlfriend and offers to take her home, it appears that the dream world has finally been broken and we are now watching the action from the perspective of “real life.” But then he turns around and looks into the camera, and suddenly, there are those werewolf eyes again. So when the film ends on that still shot, we know the dream isn’t over yet.
Willa: Oh, interesting! I hadn’t thought about that.
Lisha: And I’ve never noticed that the panther morphs into Michael Jackson right at the 7-minute mark in the film. That is fascinating, since the number 7 is also a recurring theme in his work, such as the “777” armband he wears in the HIStory teaser, not to mention the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao film he was interested in remaking. And as the black panther walks down those stairs and morphs into Michael Jackson, I do feel like he has just walked into the deep recesses of Michael Jackson’s unconscious mind.
Willa: I agree. And then another parallel is the scene where Michael Jackson’s character picks up a trash can and throws it though the store window. That’s usually seen as a reference to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, but there’s a very similar scene in “Limehouse Blues” as well. Interestingly, in Do the Right Thing, a black character breaks the window of a white-owned business (an Italian pizzeria) but in “Limehouse Blues,” a white character breaks the window of a Chinese business.
One very important similarity, I think, is how we as viewers are positioned. In all three films, we are not in the “white” position. In Black or White and Do the Right Thing, we are on the outside in the “black” position, watching the window break from the point of view of the person breaking it. Here’s a clip from Do the Right Thing:
And in “Limehouse Blues,” we are on the inside, in the “Chinese” position. We as an audience are inside the store, looking out the window and watching the white thugs break the glass toward us.
And actually, I guess that brings me around again to the main reason why I’m conflicted but not offended by “Limehouse Blues.” Usually in a film by a white production team, we are encouraged to see things from a white perspective, and to see whites as sympathetic figures – heroic, honest, virtuous – while minorities are portrayed as either not virtuous or simply as background characters, at best a comic sidekick. But in “Limehouse Blues,” the Chinese character is portrayed in very sympathetic ways, I think, and the white characters are thugs. And we’re encouraged to see things from his point of view. That’s a complete reversal from what we usually see.
Lisha: You are so right about that, Willa. And it’s not very common to see white men criminalized in that way either, unless it’s kind of a glorified thing, like Prohibition era gangsters or white collar crime.
Willa: That’s true.
Lisha: I guess the most obvious and striking similarity between “Limehouse Blues” and Black or White, for me, is a kind of racial cross dressing that happens in them both. As you’ve said, the criticism Michael Jackson faced was that he suddenly appeared white, not black, in that film.
I’m also thinking about something else you said earlier: “when Fred Astaire, a white man, appears Chinese it feels like appropriation, but when Michael Jackson, a black man, appears white it feels like resistance – or at worst assimilation.” As we know, Michael Jackson mastered the art of crossover long before Black or White, meaning he learned to make performance choices that appealed to multiple markets. Since market categories are often divided along racial lines, black performers have had to appeal to white sensibilities in order to reach a mass audience.
I think there are some great examples of Michael Jackson’s crossover talent in the early television series he did, and many of those performances demonstrate his fondness for Fred Astaire Hollywood-style production numbers. Here’s a number from The Jacksons variety show that begins with a lamppost/cityscape scene similar to what we see in the panther dance, “Limehouse Blues” and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain, a film the panther dance is often compared to. It also has many elements from The Band Wagon and Top Hat, and features the song “Get Happy” that Judy Garland sang in Summer Stock.
Willa: That is such a great example, Lisha! It really shows how well versed he was in the big song and dance numbers from the heyday of Hollywood musicals, doesn’t it? And from a very young age. Even the costumes – the white suit and white fedora with a black band, and the red dress with black gloves up past the elbows – are straight out “Girl Hunt Ballet,” Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s big number in The Band Wagon. Here’s a clip:
Lisha: It looks like a lot of The Jacksons variety show clip came straight out of that film. But, I also see a couple of things in Michael Jackson’s performance that could possibly elaborate on his connection to Fred Astaire. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend an outstanding presentation at Columbia College in Chicago by dance historians Bonnie Brooks and Raquel Monroe, titled “The Postmodern Genius of Michael Jackson.” They described Michael Jackson’s dance performances as a virtual history of dance and highlighted how he had synthesized so many disparate influences in such a seamless and original way, it could only be called “genius.” One of the most intriguing clips they used to illustrate this was a performance by the Nicholas Brothers from the film Stormy Weather. In The Jacksons clip above (starting around 2:25) I noticed the staircase, the ramp and the splits at the end, are quite similar to the end of the Nicholas Brothers performance:
Willa: Oh, and the spins as well! Wow, Lisha, when you put them side by side, you really can see those influences. And according to Fayard Nicholas, Fred Astaire told him, “That is the greatest dance number I’ve ever seen on film.” (Here’s a link to the Fayard Nicholas interview. That comment is near the end – about 7 minutes in.)
You know, one thing that strikes me about all this, Lisha, is that Stormy Weather is loosely based on the life of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the elegant but expressive dancer who helped pioneer dance and choreography for film. For example, he danced with Shirley Temple in a series of very popular films in the 1930s – and incidentally, I believe that was the first time a black man had ever danced with a white woman, or actually a young white girl, on either stage or film. The Nicholas Brothers pay tribute to Robinson in Stormy Weather, and Fred Astaire pays tribute to him in The Band Wagon (which mentions him by name) and in a very problematic number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” from the film Swing Time. So Bill Robinson influenced both the Nicholas Brothers and Fred Astaire, and then they greatly influenced Michael Jackson who, as you said, encompassed “a virtual history of dance.”
Lisha: It seems Bill Robinson was a major influence for all these artists. Fred Astaire’s work is based, at least in part, on the black tap dance tradition, as Brenda Dixon Gottschild notes in Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era. We know Michael Jackson was influenced by the black tap dance tradition as well – he even danced with the Nicholas Brothers in 1977 and possibly studied with them, too:
So the question is, who is appropriating whose culture in all these examples? Tap dance has roots in both European and African American traditions. Much has been said about Michael Jackson borrowing from Fred Astaire and Hollywood musicals, but little is said about how much white performers owe to black dancers such as Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers.
Willa: That’s an excellent point, Lisha. So when Michael Jackson quotes Fred Astaire in his dancing, is he pointing back to a white or black tradition? The answer to that is pretty complicated, as you suggest.
Lisha: At the same time that Hollywood marginalized black performers, it also capitalized on their talents. Anthropologist Elizabeth Chin wrote an incredible essay for the Journal of Popular Music Studies titled “Michael Jackson’s Panther Dance: Double Consciousness and the Uncanny Business of Performing While Black.” She sees a direct connection between Stormy Weather and Michael Jackson’s panther dance in this regard, as a dream ballet that represents “part of a continuing struggle on the part of African American artists to present their work on their own terms.”
Willa: Chin’s article is fascinating, especially the way she looks at the dream ballet, which she believes originated with Stormy Weather and perhaps reached its fullest expression in the panther dance. She sees the dream ballet as a place where black artists could break out of white stereotypes to some degree and express their own dreams and their own perspective – though as Chin acknowledges, this was tempered by the fact that those dreams and perspectives had to be made palatable to a white audience.
But I’m not sure Jackson did temper his dreams and his anger in the panther dance – at least not sufficiently for some white sensibilities, which is one reason it caused such an uproar when it first aired.
Lisha: I agree with you on that. When Michael Jackson puts on his hat and steps into the “spotlight” to perform a hyper-sexualized, hyper-criminalized tap dance, he is “performing” his race and gender in a very complex way that I believe exposes the beliefs, perceptions and expectations of white audiences. Again he embodies the lyric from “Is It Scary,” “I’m gonna be, exactly what you want to see.” As he acts out the dominant culture’s nightmarish perceptions of black men as hyper-sexualized criminals and entertainers, he also expresses his anger towards those beliefs and expectations. The dance is incredibly beautiful, but it’s also extremely intense and uncomfortable. “Shattering” is the word American studies professor Eric Lott used to describe the dance.
Willa: That’s a good description.
Lisha: But I think Chin makes an excellent point when she contrasts Gene Kelly’s “jaunty puddle splashing” in Singin’ in the Rain with “the stomping and screaming Jackson” in the panther dance. The black dreamscape is interpreted as taking back territory that white dancers appropriated from black tappers, something I think Kelly might be acknowledging in his performance with the Nicholas Brothers in The Pirate:
Willa: That’s a great clip, Lisha! And I agree that Gene Kelly seems to be paying homage to the Nicholas Brothers, specifically, as well as the black dance tradition in general – a tradition that both he and Fred Astaire drew from extensively in their work.
And that reminds me once again of that very problematic number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” that Astaire apparently performed as a tribute to Bill Robinson. What’s most disturbing about it is that he performs in blackface, and this is not in some obscure film no one ever saw. It’s from Swing Time, which many critics, including Roger Ebert, see as the best of his collaborations with Ginger Rodgers. I couldn’t find a clip of the entire number, but here it is in two pieces:
I remember the first time I saw this. I was stunned, and so disappointed he had done it. It feels deeply offensive, viewing it nearly 80 years after it was filmed, and I can’t shake that feeling. And I wonder what it felt like for Michael Jackson to see this, knowing how much he admired Fred Astaire?
Lisha: That scene is painful to watch, for sure.
Willa: It really is. But you know, if we look at this clip more carefully, there are some very interesting details that may complicate how we interpret it – especially those silhouettes that dance behind him in the second clip. Those silhouettes seem to represent the black dancers who have gone before him – specifically Bill Robinson, the “Bojangles” mentioned in the title – and those silhouettes are larger than he is. In fact, they tower over him, which makes sense psychologically. After all, our mentors can intimidate us as well as inspire us.
Those silhouettes also seem to be better dancers than he is (though of course, he’s dancing both parts). In fact, at one point he struggles to keep up with them. Later he proves he’s learned well and is a capable dancer – in fact, ultimately he seems to out-dance them. But ironically, even that can be read as a sign of how over-awed he is by them. It reminds me of Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence,” where he talks about how artists tend to undervalue their immediate predecessors simply to give themselves a little breathing room. The fact that Fred Astaire felt the need to prove himself in competition with those figures from the past reveals just how much they loomed over his imagination.
It’s also interesting to consider who’s foregrounded in this number. Fred Astaire is out front so it would seem to be him, but for me anyway, I can’t take my eyes off those silhouettes, and they’re actually leading the choreography for much of it. So if we look at this number as a reflection of Fred Astaire’s mind, there’s a lot going on in this performance – much more than we may think at first glance.
Lisha: Wow, that really is interesting and gives a lot of credence to the idea that this could be seen as a heartfelt tribute to Bill Robinson, despite the fact that the blackface issue is about as deeply disappointing as it gets. Just like “Limehouse Blues,” it is hard to dismiss the number entirely, as much as it seems we should. If you look at the live performances of “Smooth Criminal” from the Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory world tours, it’s pretty clear that Michael Jackson himself gives a nod to this scene. He uses those silhouettes himself, possibly inserting himself symbolically into the history of dance, and paying tribute back to Astaire.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Lisha! And a very interesting way of interpreting this. You’re right, he does use those silhouettes a lot – on tour, as you say, and in the You Rock My World video, and in a very interesting and nuanced performance of “Dangerous” at the 1995 MTV awards. Here’s a clip:
Lisha: I don’t know that I had ever really thought about those silhouettes in this performance before, or how they were borrowed from both Smooth Criminal and Fred Astaire. What’s so interesting to me about this is that I usually think about this performance in reference to Judy Garland’s “Get Happy” in Summer Stock:
But now that you mention it, he has synthesized this performance with so many Fred Astaire quotes, you could see it either way.
Willa: Wow, Lisha, that’s incredible! There really are strong similarities to “Get Happy,” aren’t there? Especially in the intro. I hadn’t connected that – too focused on Fred Astaire, I guess. Astaire is referenced throughout the MTV “Dangerous” performance – from the lyrics and spoken lines that directly quote the “Girl Hunt Ballet” number in The Band Wagon; to the allusions to Smooth Criminal, as you mentioned earlier, Lisha, which is Michael Jackson’s artistic response to “Girl Hunt Ballet”; to those large silhouettes about 4:15 minutes in.
Like the silhouettes in “Bojangles of Harlem,” they move independently of Michael Jackson as he dances in front of them. But while those silhouettes seem to challenge Fred Astaire and even rebel against him, the silhouettes behind Michael Jackson nod approvingly and seem to support and encourage him. To me, that suggests he felt much more connected and aligned with his predecessors – more at peace with them – than Fred Astaire did.
Lisha: It seems many great Michael Jackson moments can be traced back to Fred Astaire, like the ceiling dance in Ghosts, which reminds me of “You’re All the World to Me” from Royal Wedding:
Fred Astaire’s kicking and shattering glass in “One for My Baby” from The Sky’s the Limit suggests to me the glass-shattering kicks in One More Chance or the sound effects in the opening of “Jam” to begin the Dangerous album:
Willa: Oh interesting, Lisha! I’d never made those connections before.
Lisha: Michael Jackson clearly admired and emulated Fred Astaire, so talk about feeling conflicted! Seeing Astaire in blackface in the Bojangles number is an intensely uncomfortable experience, much more so than seeing him portray a Chinese character. It would take a very lengthy and intense discussion to unpack all the reasons why that is so.
Willa: I agree absolutely. I feel so conflicted about that number, even kind of shameful watching it, but at the same time I think it’s an important discussion to have. And fortunately, there’s an expert on the subject who’s willing to join us and help us talk through all this.
Harriet Manning has just published a book, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask, that explores some of these issues we’ve been grappling with today. So far I’ve only read the first two chapters, but what I’ve read is fascinating, and it presents a very different way of seeing both the blackface tradition – which was extremely popular in both the US and the UK for more than a century – as well as Michael Jackson in relation to that tradition. And Harriet has very kindly agreed to talk with us about it. So I hope you’ll join us again, Lisha, as we explore this uncomfortable topic a little bit further.
Lisha: I would love to! Harriet’s book sounds fascinating, and she is just the kind of expert we need on this subject. I’m really looking forward to reading her book, and really digging into the subject even more. As a human family, we still have a lot of healing to do on this issue.Special Note:
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. is currently featuring an exhibition, “Dancing the Dream,” that celebrates American dancers who have harnessed America’s diversity and dynamism into dance styles that define the national experience, culture, and identity. The exhibit is named for Michael Jackson’s 1992 book of poetry, stories, and essays and will run through July 13, 2014. It includes a holographic poster of Jackson and photographs of Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers. Here’s a link to an article about the exhibit.