Meghan Pugh, PhD Candidate, UC Berkeley English Department, explores Jackson’s dancing in the context of debates about race, gender, and American dance history. Jackson drew on a rich tradition of black vernacular dancing stretching back to the nineteenth-century, when Billy Kersands first did the Virginia Essence—the sliding, backwards step Jackson would make his own as the moonwalk—on the minstrel stage. Jackson also channeled the thrusting pelvis and wobbly hips of Elvis, a white man famous for singing like a black man. Jackson was by no means exempt from the history of minstrelsy, but in a way, he seemed to reverse it, lightening his skin to the extent that, had Americans not known about his past, it would have been hard to pin down his ethnicity.

Jackson borrowed liberally from other sources, especially Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, whom he references in “Smooth Criminal” and “Black or White.” And the finger-snapping in “Bad” and “Beat It” comes directly from Jerome Robbins’s choreography for West Side Story, which brought ballet into the streets. Jackson zooms between a longing for the dreamworld of Hollywood Musicals—where you can solve problems by putting on a show, where boy gets girl, and where everything ties up neatly—and the realizations that such dreams may not be attainable. For in the end, Jackson almost always ends up alone. His movements are more autoerotic than they are specifically “masculine” or “feminine,” and he never seems to need other people: he pioneered group dancing, in which a chorus follows a lead—imitating him, celebrating him, and never looking as good as he did.