In 1982, Michael Jackson made history by performing what became known as the "moonwalk dance" before an amazed crowd on the MoTown 25 television show. He was performing his hit Billie Jean, and to this day the distinctive bass sound of that song brings to mind the strangely fluid backwards-walking motion. As Michael himself has said, though, he was far from the first person to use that move.
The History of the Moonwalk Dance
It might be thought that the "moonwalk" move wasn't even created by humans, as there is a Central American bird called the red-capped manakin that does a similar move in a mating dance. For the purposes of human mating dances, though, the roots of the moonwalk are more diverse.
Michael Jackson has credited a couple of sources for his inspiration for the move: one, children he saw playing dance and two, the famous mime Marcel Marceau who used a variation of the move in his iconic "Walking Against the Wind" routine. It's just as likely, though, that Jackson saw it in a number of other performances:
- 1932 Cab Calloway, one of the greatest jazz performers, performed this move during a live-action segment of the cartoon Minnie the Moocher (featuring Betty Boop).
- 1943 Tap dancer Bill Bailey included this move in his repertoire.
- 1981 Timothy 'Popin Pete' Solomon (part of the "Electric Boogaloos" troupe) performed a moonwalk dance as part of the Talking Heads Crosseyed And Painless music video.
- 1982 On the same show that Jackson would be on, MoTown 25, Jeffrey Daniels danced it during Shalamar's performance of A Night to Remember.
Regardless of where it started, the dance has spread all over the world, including variants such as the "side glide" (a moonwalk to the side) and the "airwalk" (moonwalking without actually moving from place to place. Part of the popularity is just how easy it is to learn.
How to Moonwalk
Because of its popularity, the moonwalk has become a part of the dance curriculum in many forms of dance from jazz to hip-hop. Videos and books have been produced to teach it, and YouTube is full of both instructional and demonstration videos. Here is the basic overview of the dance:
- Stand with your feet parallel. Wearing flat-soled shoes with low friction is a good idea. Shift your weight onto your left foot.
- Slide your right foot back until the toe is even with the left heel, keeping the foot flexed (this will cause your heel to lift off of the ground and your knee to bend. This is good! It is what creates the illusion of walking forward even as your body moves back).
- Keeping the right toe in place, straighten your right leg, which will pull your entire body backwards, shifting your weight onto your right foot.
- As your left leg is pulled back, allow it to continue until the left toe is even with the right heel, again keeping the foot flexed and bending the knee. This move should happen at the same time as step three.
- Repeat step three, but with the right leg, which will cause the right foot to come back, and then the move is repeated as often as your choose.
While the individual steps are easy to teach, actually performing the moonwalk dance well is a more tricky thing. Here are some tips to help smooth out your performance:
- Keep your center of gravity low. Avoid any up and down motion in the torso - the upper body should seem to glide across the floor.
- When straightening the flexed leg, imagine you are pressing down into the floor.
- Keep practicing until the move is smooth and almost mechanical.
- Leaning the body forward as if you expect to go in that direction can increase the illusion that you are walking forward but moving backwards.
While it has been well over twenty years since Jackson made the moonwalk a household name, it is still a fun move to add to any dancer's repertoire. Whether being perfected or ridiculed, it is an iconic part of American dance culture.