Tuesday, June 30, 2009


We danced hard.

We watched him. We studied those moves. We studied those moves like our lives depended on it. We succeeded and failed. I had no rhythm in 1982. Eight year old me struggled to copy those moves. In third grade at Golda Meir Elementary, we had a talent show and a group of us practiced a dance routine to You Wanna Be Startin Something. I was the weakest link. I danced like the Tin Man in the Wiz, even though I always adored the limberness of the Scarecrow.

I remained a fan but kept it closed to the vest.

My late friend Peter had a saying, 'Sometimes, you just gotta dance out your demons.' He picked up from watching an episode of Charmed. I used to mock him, but I still accepted the underlying wisdom.

I've been watching old videos of Michael like everyone else has over the past few days. A few videos come to mind, Beat It, Jam, Black or White and the seminal work, Thriller. Watching Michael's dance solo at the end of the Black or White video (beg at 6:32) I can't help but feel he was dancing out demons. He morphs from panther to man dancing fluid, masculine, and wild, then back to panther.

Michael was Matrix before the Wachowski Brothers dreamed it.

What were those demons? Only time will tell us the full extent. We saw evidence of them over the years, never quite grasping his metamorphosis from black man to indeterminately ethnic. Perhaps it was a hybrid of love and hate for mankind that compelled him to make his body a template to teach us something. That we are one people, beyond artificial lines of color. I did see that. However, I also saw a soul in crisis, sacrificed to us for contempt and ridicule.

I did eventually figure out how to dance. It was in 1991. Shit was pretty bad then for me, but this song may have saved my life. Flexibility and abandon came when I finally let go and surrendered myself to pulse of the music. And the body memory of those moves revealed themselves to me.

Sometimes, you gotta dance it out.

Only now, I realize that I turn to his songs to help me deal. In his voice, the rage at injustice, poverty, racism, all the things that divide us vibrate underneath his songs. I connected to that. It's the equivalent of a primal scream for me. Growing up in '80s and '90s America and being black were challenging times. My family struggled during those times. My parents couldn't afford to buy me a Thriller jacket. We ate government cheese. I was lucky to score an old copy of Right On to clip pictures and pullout posters of El Debarge, Michael Jackson, and Prince. There were drugs. There was crime. There were senseless deaths. There was hunger.

Things that make you wanna holler. Or scream.

It seems to me Michael came from a musical tradition to give voice to those struggles. Marvin Gaye's What's Going On begot Stevie Wonder's Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life, begot the Jackson's Can You Feel It, begot We are the World begot Man in the Mirror, which begot Heal The World.

He was an artist.

He used music to give voice to our shared frustrations, local and global. He also gave us hope. He entertained us. His videos challenged convention and elevated story. He merged forms revolutionized dance as means of communication. He reminded us that there is ecstasy and joy in dance.

He held his crotch because when you have Kundalini energy moving through you, you gotta try to harness it.

Shiva is known also as the cosmic dancer. It is said that Shiva's dance manifested in two forms, gentle and violent. Shiva dances to destroy, create and build again. Watching Michael, I can't help but wonder if that was the energy he was trying to manifest in his fluid motions, pirouettes, pops and locks, gravity defying leans and moonwalks. Michael broke down old forms and barriers in everything and birthed something new.

He was a deeper creative spirit than I had originally imagined. It seems clearer to me now as I look back on all those years with adult eyes. Michael was a student of history and culture. It didn't seem obvious to me growing up, but now, I'm a better student. I've studied other cultures and their dances, and I understand now what Michael was trying to show us.

I weep for yet another marker of the end of my childhood. Nothing lasts forever. It sucks that sometimes you have to lose something to realize how much really had.

But I'll never forget the dance. I'll shake my body onto the ground as if all of creation depended on it.

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