Michael Jackson’s signature moonwalk dance just turned 30 today, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
Jackson broke out what would ultimately become his signature dance move 30 years ago today on March 25, 1983. He debuted the move for a performance of “Billie Jean” at the Motown 25 show. The move stunned the audience and cemented then-26-year-old Jackson’s celebrity star. He was already a pop sensation, but this move single-handedly turned him into the pop sensation of his era.
Probably the most spectacular thing about the moonwalk is that Jackson didn’t even invent it.
Who exactly invented Jackson’s signature dance move is hard to determine. As writer Shanna Freeman has said, “the product of more than 70 years of dance evolution.”
So how far back does it go?
The earliest footage of someone doing the moonwalk shows 1950s tap dancer Bill Bailey performing Jackson’s signature move decades before Motown 25. Cab Calloway once said that he had been doing the move since the 1930s.
Jackson himself learned it from former Shalamar dancer Jeffrey Daniel. Back then, it was referred to as “the backslide.”
“The moonwalk was a dance that the kids were doing on the streets,” LaToya Jackson once said of it, “and Michael came along later. And he had a guy by the name of Jeffrey Daniel to teach him to do the moonwalk…and when he did it, everybody saw it and just thought this was the most wonderful thing they had ever seen, not really knowing it was a dance that was already out there.”
But Michael was the one who first called it the moonwalk.
“Michael called it the moonwalk,” Daniel recalled, though he noted that “actually the moonwalk is another dance.”
“The moonwalk is actually a dance that we do that makes it look like you’re on the moon and it’s less gravity than you would have on earth,” he said. “Michael somehow called the backslide the moonwalk. And commercially, I think, maybe, it worked,” he added.
Here’s Michael Jackson’s performing the “moonwalk” for the very first time at Motown 25. Below that, Bill Bailey’s “first moonwalk.”