Of course everyone’s a fan now. But Tina Nicolaidis, a choreographer and co-owner of City Dance Corps, a school in downtown Toronto, had already shelled out to see Michael Jackson in concert at London’s O2 Arena when she heard the news of his death. “It was one of my lifelong dreams to see him once before I die,” she says. “His dance style has always influenced my choreography.” In fact, the routine that put her professional dance company on the map was a salsa recreation of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal. “When we performed it for the first time at the Canada Salsa Congress four years ago, we got a standing ovation and we started getting invitations to perform that routine at various other events.We’ve now performed it at salsa congresses all over the world.” After Jackson’s death, Nicolaidis wanted some way to pay tribute to her idol. So she came up with the idea for a series of Michael Jackson dance classes—open to students of all levels—beginning in mid-August. Already, it’s full and a long waiting list of would-be toe-popping, cigarette-turning moonwalkers is forming.
“The great thing about a lot of Michael Jackson moves and choreography,” she says, “is that they’re actually pretty simple to do. Anybody can pretty much pick them up. We simplify a lot of the body movements, so we’re not doing 100 per cent of what you see in the music videos. But a lot of it has to do with attitude.” This isn’t City Dance Corps’ first foray into Jackson-themed classes, either. Every October, the school offers a one-day Thriller workshop in time for Halloween. “Everyone loves it,” she says. “When you go to Halloween parties, you know they’re going to play Thriller. People love learning the routine so they can bust it out. Last year, it was so popular we held three different sessions.”
In New York, meanwhile, a group called NYC Thriller Dance is organizing a public memorial where hundreds will simultaneously execute the Thriller routine in Central Park on Aug. 30. Volunteer dance instructors have signed up to teach it to groups in advance, and organizers call the amount of interest they’ve received “overwhelming.” Undoubtedly, this renewed interest in being like MJ is nostalgia at work. But also, Jackson’s death seems to have awakened an ironic appreciation for the brow-furrowing, jaw-clenching faux thuggery of his routines. As a tribute to Jackson, Shaquille O’Neal, the seven-foot-one Cleveland Cavaliers centre, posted a video online featuring his own recreation of the Beat It video, recorded in a gymnasium. In it, he faces off against Damon Jones, his former teammate, in a slo-mo knife-fight sequence, their left wrists tied together, while Miami Heat cheerleaders in bikinis egg them on.
The unofficial carrier of the Jackson dance torch, however, is a London choreographer named Anthony King. His popular Michael Jackson dance classes, which he teaches at Pineapple Dance Studios in Covent Gardens, were endorsed by Jackson’s official website in 2005. King was first exposed to Jackson in the ’80s, at the height of his popularity, when King’s stepbrother worked as one of the singer’s personal decoys. “I was eight. I’m 27 now,” he says. “So he’s kind of been around our family all my life.” Ever since Jackson’s death, he’s been deluged with prospective students. “There has been a lot more interest and lots of emails and press every day. It’s really crazy,” he says. “But with a dance class, you only have four walls.”
At Toronto’s City Dance Corps, students will learn routines for a different MJ video each week—including Beat It, Smooth Criminal and Remember The Time (the one with the Egyptian-themed dance). For non-dancers, says Nicolaidis, Jackson’s routines are fun because they’re character-driven. “They give you a role to play so you’re not taking yourself too seriously,” she says. In Beat It, you’re a ’30s gangster looking for a fight. “Then you have Thriller,” she says, “in which you’re kind of a zombie coming to life. Then Smooth Criminal, where that’s exactly what you are. There’s a nod in that one you have to do like you’re in a dark club and you’re giving someone attitude. If you can do that, you’ll look right doing the moves.”
In reality, not even Anthony King (whose nine-step “How To Moonwalk” video is available free online) can properly replicate Jackson’s style. “I always say it’s in the execution of his dance steps,” says King. “He has a unique way of executing. Very sharp, very straight, very majestic.” Very much not the sort of thing you learn in 90 minutes.