Saturday, July 11, 2009

Moonwalking

It's taken my brain a while to make the connection between two of the recent themes at this site - the 1969 Moon landing and the death of Michael Jackson, Moonwalker.

In relation to Jackson, it's his popularisation of the Moonwalk dance that has been the centre of the various flashmobs since his death. For instance at the recent Fusion festival in Germany, there was this mass Moonwalk (well yes I know most people seem to be just shuffling backwards, rather than creating the illusion of stepping forward at the same time, but they are trying):



Contrary to popular mythology, this dance was not invented by Jackson. The backslide (as it was known) has long been in the repertoire of dancers as the following film makes clear with examples from dancers including Fred Astaire, Bill Bailey, Cab Calloway (in white suit at 1:49), Sammy Davis Jr. and many others. The earliest example features Daniel L. Haynes in King Vidor's film Hallelujah in 1929 (at about 2:36 in this video), but doubtless it goes back further than that. It has also featured in the mime routines of the likes of Marcel Marceau and Lindsay Kemp.



It was after Jackson started using these moves in 1983 to accompany his song Billie Jean that the move became known as the Moonwalk. According to Jeffrey Daniel, the dancer/choreographer who taught Jackson the moves, it was Jacko himself who called it the Moonwalk, mistaking the backslide for another dance move with that name (the actual Moonwalk step according to Daniel 'makes it look like you're on the moon and it's less gravity than you would have on earth'). By this act of creative misrecongition, Jackson linked the dance directly with the dreams of his generation - it was after all in the 1969 summer of Apollo 11 that the Jackson 5 recorded their first album and made their first TV appearance.

It is interesting that what caught people's imagination in relation to the actual moon landing was less the scientific achievement of a vehicle taking people from earth to its satellite and back again than the simple human act of walking on the moon. After all the first words spoken by Neil Armstrong in 1969 where precisely 'That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind'. And the Apollo 11 astronauts left behind a plaque with the inscription reading: 'Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.'

What would it feel like to take that most fundamental of biped actions in space? Jackson's Moonwalking answer is that it is something thrilling, a step beyond normal human motion. Other musicians have also pondered the significance of lunar steps, or used them as a metaphor. In Walking on the Moon by The Police it's the lover's feeling of weightlessness that prompts the comparison: 'Giant steps are what you take, Walking on the moon... Walking back from your house, Walking on the moon, Feet they hardly touch the ground, Walking on the moon' (there's a nice jazz version of this song by Philippe Kahn).

Walk on the Moon by New York indie band Asobi Seksu picks up on that other space meme - not elation but the isolation of the lonely traveller in a monochrome world 'swimming in gray'. Then from the hippy musical Hair (1967), there's the psychedelic dimension of 'Walking in Space' - a trip in every sense - 'My body Is walking in space, My soul is in orbit, With God face to face, Floating, flipping, Flying, tripping...Tripping from Mainline to Moonville... On a rocket to The Fourth Dimension, Total self awareness The intention' etc. etc.

Arthur Russell's This is How We Walk on the Moon, featured in an earlier post, seems to envisage the moon walk as an optimistic struggle, moving forward one step at a time: 'Each step is moving, it's moving me up, moving, it's moving me up, Every step is moving me up... This is how we walk on the moon'. A metaphor for a personal struggle against adversity or perhaps for something wider - moving on up. There are also instrumental pieces like Moon Boots by ORS (1977).

The imagining of walking in space (and dancing in space, sex in space...), beyond the limits of gravicapital, was part of the project of the Association of Autonomous Astronauts, of which more to come.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, and great film clips. Keep up the good work. Makes me want to try moonwalking!

Rachel said...

Hey! It's Pop Feminist. Still love your blog, though I've been lurking lately. Thanks for this. MJ's death was a tragedy, but I'm so glad he's being celebrated!

Transpontine said...

Hi Rachel, good to hear you're still out there, figured you must be working on your great unfinished novel or something!