I'm not big on celebrity worship, and I never really have been. As a group, I don't find celebrities to be particularly interesting, either when they rise or when they (inevitably) fall. And as celebrity becomes a trait all its own - rather than an accompaniment for extraordinary talent and ability - there is less and less to be impressed with. Then I'm left with only either envy or disgust for the one thing that seems to differentiate celebrities from the rest of us - exceptionally good fortune. But I'm also not enamored with the proverbial "fall from grace", the watching of which seems to have supplanted baseball as America's greatest pastime. We appear to love nothing more that watching our most beloved stars become mired in scandal and disgrace. The "E True Hollywood Story" is the sort of thing which wouldn't be newsworthy if you glued the New York Times to the back of it, and yet, we've all camped, at least once, in front of an episode that we were just "clicking by".
Which is not to say that I haven't engaged in my share of celebrity bashing. It's difficult not to - I'm a writer who's prone to hyperbole and exaggeratory similie... how could I even hope to avoid Paris, Linday and Britney? But there was one target that I always left alone - even while the world piled on; one piece of low-hanging celebrity fruit that I never took a shot at; even when the jokes were passed around the schoolyard and, years later, the internet. I never took joy in the tragedy of Michael Jackson's life - and while I am disgusted by the throngs of people who likely participated in the widespread ridicule of his cloistered and strange existence and now are suddenly moved to celebrate his life and eulogize him in flowery prose, I am happy that I'm finally not standing alone in my admiration and gratitude for someone who taught me the most important lesson I ever learned: how to dance.
First off, here's what this blog entry is not about: Michael Jackson's death, the suspicious circumstances surrounding it, it's effect on the internet or how it's coverage might offer commentary on the state of consumer-driven media in the modern information marketplace. It's also not about how big of a recording artist he was, how Thriller revolutionized music, or whether or not he molested any children. I'm not going to write about how Neverland is the new Graceland, opine on the future of his three children or his obsession with plastic surgery. No. All of that either has been or will be covered in excruciating detail by both major and minor news outlets, gossip columns, and opinion wranglers much more widely read than myself. Because, in the end, the main character of a blog is the author - in this case, me. And Michael Jackson actually did change my life - in a way that you might not expect and that you certainly won't hear about in the countless dedications that will be offered in the coming weeks.
As you've no doubt gleaned from reading any number of my previous musings, I was a slight young lad. I had the sort of growth pattern (4'11" tall at 16 years of age) that might spur modern day parents to explore hormone therapy or other similar remedy - but alas, my parents simply bought me a computer so that I could at least do something productive with all the time I wouldn't be spending socializing. But, I digress. The sort of personality that accompanies this type of pituitary misfortune is exactly the one I had. I was painfully shy and scared even of my own shadow. I wouldn't have known what to say to a girl if I had been handed a script and the thought of attending school social functions made me anxious to the point of actual physical illness. My little sister, however, was a different story.
She was beautiful, confident, and had not suffered the same genetic misfortune of systemic underdevelopment as I had. In fact, it was quite the opposite. She also was a dancer, and upon her arrival at the high school, she was all but recruited onto the pom squad; a hyper-selective dance group that was, for all practical purposes, the same sort of high school royalty for girls that Varsity football was for boys. What's more, she was always keen to attend school dances, which seemed to be, from the stories that followed them, to be places of myth and legend where torrid romances were catalyzed and three and a half magic minutes' worth of Cutting Crew with your hands on the hips of the girl of your dreams was just a simple request away. With all the deductive reasoning that my hormone-clouded mind could muster at that point - I drew a tenuous line between the popularity I desperately desired and the dancing that always seemed to accompany it.
I distinctly remember seeing Michael Jackson dance for the first time. It was in the iconic Thriller video - and amidst all of the theatrics which made it the most famous music video of all time there was still Michael's dancing. The moves were like nothing I had ever seen. They were sharp and strong and big. Everything was iconic. It took me dozens of viewings before I realized that he was actually skinny, even slight - wearing pants that I'm not even sure my svelte younger sibling could reliably get into. But, every time I saw him, even after that, he commanded every bit of attention available, looking larger than life, with it being no matter that he was often one of the smallest people on stage. The music and dance scene of the late 80's and early 90's was dominated by moves and antics that we knew were ridiculous even back then, and are now difficult to even watch without cringing. But not Michael. In that crazy time he created his very own dance genre, which was every bit as classic as it was new.
I began to teach myself to dance by watching music videos in the basement of my parents' house. I jumped around in my socks and shorts with the sound turned up as loud I thought it could be without inspiring a tirade from my father, trying to imitate what I saw on screen and checking out how it all looked in the two waist-up mirrors mounted on either side of the television. I spent this time in the basement under the auspices of "studying" and if anyone ever caught me (I could hardly hear footfalls coming down the carpeted steps), I would dive onto the couch and deny that I was doing anything untoward save a little stretching. Though I struggled to find a similarly suitable excuse for why I was out of breath. But I persisted, watching the parade of performers and performances, always coming back to Michael, perfecting the points, the poses and those amazing spins. Michael always had a non-traditional spin - on a heel and toe, rather than on one pointed toe; a "street spin". I always loved the way it looked and, once I learned it, the way it felt - fast, smooth, and right on the edge of control.
Eventually, I made it out of my basement with those moves, but it was years later before I was confident enough to perform in front of others. Though I slowly grew into my own, physically, the awkwardness of those high school days stayed with me long after I had left those hallowed halls. But it was dancing that helped me out of that shyness. I found that although I couldn'tspeak to strangers, I could dance in front of them. Amazingly, this seemed to break down the other barriers, and I was able to make new friends for the first time in my life. Ten years after sliding around on the carpet in my basement, I was kicking, pointing and heel-spinning in front of hundreds of people a night in Orlando; making new friends, meeting new girls, and despite often being the smallest guy out there, feeling ten feet tall.
Watching Michael had taught me a lesson that most of us never learn about dancing: it's not about how well you do the moves, it's whether you've got your own. Dancing was about taking the things you learned from watching others and turning them into a personal expression. On the street, no one cared about how technically sound your dancing was, just whether you were bringing something real. And because of that, I came to believe that the highest form of dance was to create something truly original - and in that, there has never been a greater dancer than Michael Jackson. He fused tap, jazz, street and dozens of other styles into something we still only know by his name. He has been emulated by street buskers, global pop icons and laypeople alike. In the pop world, where everything is simply a flashy repackaging of long-ago created art, he fashioned something completely different and truly new - and changed the way people moved forever.
Michael's death was no more tragic than the rest of his life had become in the last two decades. His talent created unthinkable wealth and popularity, which ultimately enabled and fueled his inner demons to consume him in extravagance and oddity. As his personal failures became public, I was never outraged or angered. I felt pity. Which is an odd thing to assign to someone who you idolize. But as much as I was in awe of Michael's ability - I never much cared for or about who he was off the stage. I was just waiting for the next great thing he would come up with - the next spectacle; and whatever came in between was of no greater consequence than the work of the roadies or stage managers that surrounded his productions.
I don't see much point in the tributes and dedications that will dot the showbiz landscape in the weeks to come. They are profiteering from an unfortunate ending to an extraordinary life - and will give short treatment, if any, to the dancing I remember Michael most for. I also don't need to hear his songs played over and over on the radio - I have most of them on my iPod and have never needed a special occasion, morbid or otherwise, to cue them up. To me, his enduring legacy will be celebrated every day, on dance floors across the world, every time someone moon-walks, flips their jacket flaps behind them, or finishes a heel spin with a scowling point of their finger. I will continue to celebrate and thank him similarly. Though, I think he would have appreciated it best if we each took just a little bit of it and made it a part of our own style - so that the only person that ever dances exactly like you is the man in the mirror.