How the Moonwalk Works

Michael Jackson moonwalking
Maybe they should call it "the Michaelwalk"?
Phil Dent/Redferns/Getty Images

Short, black pants showing off sparkly socks ... a black sequined jacket ... a single white glove ... and a dance step that amazed the world. If you were sitting in front of your TV on May 16, 1983, and watching the NBC special "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever," you witnessed something truly amazing. During his performance of "Billie Jean," Michael Jackson debuted the moonwalk. If you were a child of the 1980s, you were probably talking to your friends the next day about what you'd seen -- and trying to replicate Jackson's moves. Even if you didn't see the debut, you doubtless saw Jackson perform the moonwalk numerous times afterward, because it became his signature dance move.

If you're not familiar with the moonwalk, it's a dance step in which the dancer looks like he or she's walking forward but being pulled backward. Swinging arms and neck jerks help cement the illusion, which is very smooth and convincing when performed by a skilled dancer. That's why any performance of the moonwalk (no matter who does it) tends to draw an appreciative crowd. Michael was such a trendsetter in the entertainment world, so it makes sense to conclude that the moonwalk was just another creation of his. However, this dance step had existed in one form or another for at least 50 years before he set foot on that stage in 1983. Michael didn't invent it; he just made it his own and made it a sensation. And while it may seem impossible, anybody can do it -- with a lot of practice.


First, though, let's take a look at the evolution of the moonwalk. On the next page, find out how dance styles from the 1930s to the 1970s meshed with mime movements and resulted in the iconic dance step.

Evolution of the Moonwalk

There's no way to pinpoint exactly where the moonwalk came from, as dances tend to evolve and build upon previous ones. However, the earliest footage of someone performing a sliding, backward dance step that looks something like the moonwalk comes from the 1930s short films of Cab Calloway, a jazz and big bandleader. Calloway called it "The Buzz," but it was jerkier than and not as floaty as the modern moonwalk. There was also a popular ragtime dance in the same era called "The Camel Walk," which is a forward, zigzag dance step that also requires the dancer to drag his feet. Tap dancer Bill Bailey's sliding backstep in 1955, however, was really the first to truly look like what we think of as the moonwalk.

So where does mime come in? There's a stationary version of the same kind of gliding step that is commonly used in mime, most notably by Marcel Marceau in his famous "Walking Against the Wind" routine first done in the 1930s, known as the airwalk. Mime artist and actor Jean-Louis Barrault performed the airwalk in the 1945 film "Les Enfants du Paradis." Shields and Yarnell, an American mime duo in the 1970s who briefly had their own variety show, also incorporated the airwalk into their repertoire. Mime influenced dance styles like popping.


Popping (see sidebar) also evolved in this decade and was shown to a national audience on dance shows like "Soul Train" and, in the early 1980s, on "Solid Gold." Dancer and singer Jeffrey Daniel probably has the distinction, along with fellow "Solid Gold" dancers Geron "Casper" Candidate and Derek "Cooley" Jaxson, of bringing the backslide (now actually called by that name) to a new generation in the 1980s. Daniel did the moonwalk as part of a routine on the British show "Top of the Pops" in 1982 (which also incorporated many mime movements) and astounded the audience there. Many people believed that the dance floor must've been oiled, or perhaps that Daniel was wearing wheeled shoes or being pulled by an invisible line, in order for him to glide so smoothly.

Next up, how Daniel, Casper and Cooley all taught Michael Jackson the moonwalk ... sort of.


Michael Jackson: Moonwalker

Jeffrey Daniel and band Shalamar
Did Jeffrey Daniel (pictured on left) help teach Michael Jackson his sweet moonwalk moves?
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The moonwalk became such a part of Michael Jackson's life that he named his 1988 autobiography "Moonwalk" and released a movie in the same year titled "Moonwalker." However, Jackson always claimed that the media, not he, dubbed the dance "the moonwalk." Jackson claims in Moonwalk" that up until the night before his appearance on the "Motown 25" special, he hadn't even decided on the exact dance moves that he would use during his performance of "Billie Jean." He says that he turned on the song and "let the dance create itself" [source: Jackson].

This does make it sound like the moonwalk just sort of sprung from Michael's brain, but in actuality, Jackson didn't choreograph his dances by himself most of the time -- he used choreographers. He had first seen the backslide done a few years earlier by none other than Jeffrey Daniel, who in addition to being a "Solid Gold" dancer, was also a choreographer and member of a band called Shalamar. Michael took his sister Janet to Disneyland in 1980 and watched Shalamar perform from the side of the stage. He was mesmerized by Daniel's backslide and asked him to teach it to him. According to Michael's sister LaToya, he actually hired Daniel to do so.


Michael probably also saw Daniel, Casper and Cooley perform the backslide on "Solid Gold", and in other publications, he claimed that Casper and Cooley taught it to him. All three were eventually hired by Michael in some capacity -- Daniel choreographed the videos "Smooth Criminal" and "Bad" and also appeared in them. Casper and Cooley were the "lean" dancers on either side of Michael in "Smooth Criminal." Daniel claims that he taught Michael the backslide, while Cooley says that he is "one of the guys" who taught Michael [source: Jaxson]. Neither man claims to have invented it, although Daniel was surprised during an appearance on a British talk show in 2007 when shown the 1955 Bill Bailey clip of the backslide; he didn't know that it dated back that far. Daniel gives credit to the 1970s popping crew The Electric Boogaloos, while Cooley mentions the mimes Shields and Yarnell as his inspiration.

We'll probably never know exactly who taught Michael what would become the moonwalk. The point is that while Michael didn't invent it, he certainly brought it, along with other funk styles, hip-hop and break-dancing moves, into the mainstream.

Does all of this talk of moonwalking have you itching to try it yourself (again, or for the first time)? Learn how to moonwalk, step-by-step, on the next page.


How to Moonwalk

illustration of white figure doing the moonwalk
The moonwalk looks effortless when done properly, but it's actually quite tricky to perform well.

The moonwalk is considered an intermediate to difficult dance move; if you don't have dance experience already (and even if you do), it may take you awhile to master this step. However, once you get it, you'll forever be able to impress people with your skills. You need to practice the moonwalk on a smooth floor, wearing socks or very smooth-soled shoes and comfortable clothing.

To start, stand very tall and straight with your feet together. Then, step your right foot forward and keep that leg perfectly straight. Bend your left knee and bring your left heel off the floor. While keeping your right leg straight, your right foot parallel to your body and your right heel flat on the floor, drag your right leg backward until the toes of your right foot pass the heel of your left foot, then stop. The power of the movement should come from the ball of your left foot; if you push at all with your right leg, it won't appear to be gliding. As your right foot drags, your left heel should lower simultaneously.


Once your right foot passes the heel of your left foot, switch your knees. Straighten your left leg and press your left heel to the floor. Bend your right knee and lift your right heel. This time, drag your left leg backward.

Sounds simple enough, right? Like most things that look effortless, the moonwalk is tough to master. Keeping your leg straight and your foot flat while dragging it requires a lot of balance and precision. If you bend the dragging leg, lift the heel of that foot off the floor or take the toes of either foot off the floor at any point, you'll spoil the effect. The timing of lowering one heel while dragging the opposite foot must also be exact. The moonwalk should look like you're floating; it should not be jerky or appear as if you're pulling your body backward. With practice, you will build up to doing the movements to speed and without thinking about them.

Michael's version of the moonwalk had more arm motion; when performing it, he usually swung his arms back and forth as the opposite leg slid backward. He also often popped his head back and forth and hunched up his shoulders as he moonwalked. Both additions make the illusion of walking more convincing.

There are other floats or slide dance steps that are related to the backslide, including the side slide, the circle slide and the forward slide. Once you master the backslide, you can start working on expanding your slide steps. The next time you see someone moonwalk -- or do it yourself -- you'll know that it's not just Michael Jackson's move, but also the product of more than 70 years of dancing evolution. That's almost as amazing as the moonwalk itself.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

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