Michael Jackson died in Los Angeles yesterday at 2:26pm. He was 50 years old and had been a star for as long as I can remember. The Jackson story that has always stayed with me is how Michael and his family came from nothing, formed a family band, learned to play instruments and rehearsed as though their lives depended on it. Even after The Jackson Five was signed to Motown and became a huge sensation, they continued to work even more frantically than they had before attaining success. Somehow it always appeared as if Michael worked even harder; as the band's voice his burden was just a little heavier than that of his brothers. I guess I attribute the bizarre behavior of Michael's later years to the boy who bore that burden, the kid whose talent pulled his family out of desperate poverty and made them into American icons. Even though the true extent of his genius didn't become apparent until the '80s and '90s, the Michael Jackson I remember is the one who taught me to dance.
This is my Michael Jackson story:
In third grade I learned to do the robot. I was living in Oak Park, a housing project built for the families of military personnel stationed at Camp Roberts, a small army base located 15 miles north of Paso Robles, my home town. Oak Park was a melancholy place, but it was populated with many kids my age and our grammar school was within walking distance.
My cousin Doris, who was a year older than me, had worked up a dance routine for the school talent show with two other girls, Sonia Mitchell and Yvette Dancey. Unfortunately, like most girl groups, they broke up. Yvette and Sonia got into a screaming match a week before the event and Yvette dropped out. (Yvette had a very hot temper; she beat me up at school once over a tetherball match that remained tied throughout one recess. Frustrated by her inability to win the game, she punched me in the face.) Down a member, Sonia and Doris needed someone to occupy the middle space in their trio, so they taught me how to dance.
We did a piece inspired by the moves we'd seen Michael Jackson do to "Dancing Machine" on TV. The beginning and end of the dance was done in unison, but the center section was an extended "robot" that I improvised alone, while the girls repeated the routine on either side of me. We didn't perform to "Dancing Machine" but chose another song, which I can't remember anymore; it may have been "Space Race" by Billy Preston. The routine that Sonia and Doris had designed must have been good, we ended up winning the talent show and I, like many others in my generation, learned to dance by imitating Michael.