Growing up in Crown Heights, Anthony Rue II wanted to be like Mike.
Not Jordan, prince of basketball — Jackson, “King of Pop.” Rue, a native of that Brooklyn neighborhood, was raised on “Moonwalker,” like so many children of the 1980s. But as a little boy harnessing a raw talent for dance, Jackson’s stylish, high-concept choreography and music videos lifted him toward a higher calling.
Now 27, Rue — who trained first on the street and then in the studio — is a professional dancer and choreographer, currently performing on Madonna’s “Sticky & Sweet” tour.
“He’s the main reason why I even started dancing,” Rue said of Jackson, who died of cardiac arrest on June 25. “But I didn’t think his death would have hit me as hard as it did. ... I guess those kid years kind of came back and reminded me how much of a fan I was.”
For many young dancers — especially boys — Jackson’s singular grooves were transformative. And with the MTV video revolution, they could be viewed any given second: the dance-centric visual classics (“Beat It,” “Smooth Criminal” and many more) introduced the superstar’s jaw-dropping, theatrical style to a younger generation of movers who also expressed themselves through dance.
“That was the teaching — watching stuff from the TV screen,” Rue said in an interview from Brussels, Belgium, near the site of Madonna’s recent concert in the city of Werchter. “When you’re watching him at a young age and he’s moving like that, you don’t think of anything else but ‘superhero,’ ‘not real,’ ‘magic.’”
Changing the way people moved to the beatBy all accounts, when Jackson danced, he morphed into a completely different person. As he struggled with his self-image and personal demons that resulted in a disturbingly altered visage, on stage he shrugged it all off with a showmanship that was pure, distinctive and unparalleled.
Stephen Hill, executive vice president of entertainment and music programming at BET, described his dance style in a ridiculously appropriate word: “Jackson-esque.”
Like none before him, Hill said, Jackson combined: the funky street dance called popping, akin to the robot and the moonwalk (which Jackson didn’t invent but took mainstream); the slick, jazzy technique of choreographer Bob Fosse; the electric twists and turns of R&B showmen Jackie Wilson and James Brown.
“He no less than changed the way that human beings moved and moved to the beat,” Hill said. “It wasn’t just dancing to the beat. What he would do was he incorporated poses into dancing. It was one, two, three, stop! He’d pose for two or three beats and then keep moving.”
Citing the video for “Billie Jean,” which featured a sidekick, toe stand, among other showy flourishes, Hill explained: “It’s dance, obviously, but it’s more of a series of movements that are, ‘OK, watch this move, now watch this move, now watch this move,’ and it’s not necessarily coming beat after beat after beat. I think that was definitely brought to music.”
Jackson’s deceptively effortless footwork — likely as much an emotional release as an artistic statement — inspired legions of imitators since he began moonwalking decades ago. MJ wannabes popped up everywhere from urban dance floors to suburban basements to MTV, where stylized choreography heightened the elaborate concerts and music videos of dance-pop stars such as Justin Timberlake, Usher, Britney Spears and Chris Brown.
‘It wasn’t just about his dance moves’Jackson influenced not just young people but also contemporaries such as Madonna and Lionel Richie, who has said he began dancing in his videos because of Jackson. While on tour in the ‘80s, Madonna even co-opted a “Billie Jean” routine before launching into “Like a Virgin” during a concert.
“It wasn’t just about his dance moves, it was about the entire performance,” said JC Chasez, 32, a judge on the MTV street dance-competition series “America’s Best Dance Crew” and former member of the boy band ‘N Sync, who sang and danced alongside Timberlake.
“He’s one of the first people in pop music to really take the theatrics to such a scale, incorporated with the choreography. ... Now, it’s kind of being viewed as that’s what every kind of pop artist does now,” said Chasez, who grew up “running around, singing ‘Beat It’ and ‘Billie Jean.’”
He added, “And everywhere I stepped, the floor was supposed to light up in front of me.”
But for those whose sole motivation was dance, Jackson helped spotlight the art form.
“He brought dance as a whole to a bigger level,” Rue said, citing the videos and other large-scale productions. “His influence and his presence made our craft stronger. It made people pay more attention to it.”
According to Rue, who began his training at the National Dance Institute at 9, Jackson’s death has left a void in the dance world and his colleagues remain “in shock.”
As a memorial, Rue — who goes by the stage name AntBoogie — posted Jackson concert clips on his Web site, Antboogieworld.com. Madonna, Rue and his fellow backup dancers paid tribute at a recent show; they swayed and clapped as a Jackson impersonator donned a single white glove and black fedora, striking a pose to the pulse of “Billie Jean.”
Jackson was a passionate performer, renowned for his choreographic perfection. And because of accidents, frequent plastic surgery and the all-out intensity of his dancing, physical agony was the persistent problem with being Michael Jackson. Painkillers became a part of his life.
Inspiring a new generationNow that he’s gone, an ever younger generation — more familiar with Jackson the Freak Show than Jackson the Entertainer — is discovering his performances anew.
Alonzo Williams, 27, who runs the New York-based hip-hop dance company Rhythm City, recently choreographed a medley of Jackson’s greatest hits for the group to perform at an Apollo Theater tribute. Naturally, they watched his videos, learning routines from “Thriller, “Remember the Time,” “Black or White” and other hits; on stage at the Apollo, the kids — ages 14 and up — slid with ease across the floor, earning loud cheers and whoops from the audience.
“When they have the opportunity to do what they love on stage and perform and dance, it’s a sign of release,” Williams said of his dance crew, some of whom come from troubled homes. “They get to let that energy out. ... It’s their getaway. And I felt like that’s how we relate to Michael, because I really felt like him being on his stage was his getaway.”
Williams said during rehearsal they held a moment of silence and performed their favorite Jackson moves. Their respect deepened, he said, when they realized how much hard work Jackson must have put in to make it look that easy.
Miles away in Chicago, news of Jackson’s death reverberated to the Joffrey Ballet School. The initial mood was a bit somber among the students at the intensive summer course, recalled ballet master Willy Shives, but that soon wore off.
“The kids, the girls, they’re trying to do the moonwalk en pointe,” said Shives, 47, whose wife, a former ballerina, successfully attempted that technique after observing Jackson’s signature move (which he debuted during his appearance on the 1983 TV special “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.”)
According to Rue, the most important quality Jackson imparted was an irresistible stage presence.
“It’s funny because people say when they watch me dance, they can see his influence in me, even though I’m totally a hip-hop dancer now,” he said.
“His calling card — his makeup, his genetics and how he moves — I still keep. It’s hard to explain, but it’s there.