Meet the man who taught MJ to moonwalk
By Dave Dondoneau
In the 1980s and 1990s, Jeffrey Daniel worked as a dancer and choreographer with some of the biggest names in music, including LL Cool J, Babyface, Paul McCartney, Sheena Easton and Vanessa Williams.
He also founded the '70s soul group Shalamar, was a featured dancer on the influential '70s dance TV show "Soul Train" and is regarded as one of the pioneers of the West Coast street dance movement that involved body popping (hinge movements, like the robot dance).
Impressive resume, yes, but Daniel believes his legacy will forever be tied to one other factoid: He is credited with teaching Michael Jackson how to moonwalk after Jackson saw Daniel and dancemates Geron "Casper" Candidate and Coolie Jackson perform on "Soul Train" in 1979.
Daniel will be in town next week to talk story, teach dance classes and perform exhibitions at the Boys & Girls Club of Hawaii, Palama Settlement and the Hawai'i Convention Center.
The appearances are a chance to learn from the man who choreographed Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" and "Bad" videos, as well as a chance to hear personal stories about Jackson, and how Daniel's life has changed since Jackson's passing in June.
"I'm very, very proud of my 20-some-year relationship with Michael," Daniel said from his family's home in Los Angeles last week. "These dance classes are going to be for everyone, not just master dancers.
"These classes will be a combination of Michael's legacy and my legacy. Michael has fans all over the world, and since he passed, I've been getting letters and e-mail from his fans either offering condolences or wanting to know more about Mike. I'm living testament to that era when he was at the pinnacle of his career."
The following are excerpts from a Q&A with Daniel, who was brought in for the workshops by former Broadway dancer and 'Aiea resident Christine Yasunaga. Daniel discovered Yasunaga in 1989 while she was at a dance class in Los Angeles, and they've been friends ever since.
"I was so blown away, I put her in my video, 'She's The Girl,' " Daniel said. "At that time Asian women weren't in a lot of dance videos, but she could really move, and I wanted the video to reflect all cultures."
Q. You knew Michael in a way few people did, as his mentor. What sticks out about him?
A. It will sound like a cliche, but apart from his working ethic, his humanitarianism and how he was a giving person and a good guy. When we worked together, he never yelled directions. He'd ask, 'What do you think?' and incorporate it. You can lead in a bitchy way or an encouraging way. Michael was always encouraging, and he had a great sense of humor. He loved to laugh. I don't think enough people knew his funny side.
Q. How did you two meet?
A. Dick Griffey of S.O.L.A.R. Records was also a concert promoter and invited me to a Jackson 5 concert in 1979. Dick introduced us at the after-party and Michael busted out lyrics from "The Second Time Around," a song from my band, Shalamar. I couldn't believe it! Here was one of the biggest stars right after a sold-out concert, and it turns out he was a fan of mine like I was of him. He said he liked watching me dance on "Soul Train." He could have blown me off. It was his night. But he sang our song instead and talked about "Soul Train." That was really cool of him.
Q. So that's how you two started working together?
A. No. In 1980, we were doing a grad night party at Disneyland, and we got a call that Mike and little Janet (Jackson) wanted to come watch Shalamar perform. We did a series of body-popping moves, dancing, just having fun. After that, we started teaching Michael.
Q. How quickly did he pick up the moonwalk?
A. That's tough to say. We showed him the back slide in 1980, but he didn't perform it until "Billie Jean" in 1983. I think he was just waiting for the right time to bust it out. The moonwalk was actually a different move, but when he called the back slide the moonwalk after the "Billie Jean" video, it stuck.
Q. I saw one video online of prisoners at a jail in the Philippines doing the moonwalk. Everyone seems to have tried it at least once, but any performances stick out in your mind?
A. (Laughing.) In the movie "Robots," there is one robot that actually does "the robot." That had me on the floor. He was body popping, doing the moonwalk, and I was the only one in the theater going crazy.
Q. What was it like working with MJ?
A. He and I were alike in how we danced. He never used the "1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8" counts. We both danced "in the music." It was about feeling the music to us, not cadence, so later in the videos I choreographed for him, we both had hard times with dancers because neither of us liked to use combination counts like that.
Q. Like Michael, you're willowy and able to move body parts that I'm not even sure I have. How do you teach someone to enjoy dance, or how not to embarrass themselves if they're pulled to the dance floor?
A. That's something nobody's ever asked, but very important. We're all different shapes, but because I didn't come up as trained dancer, I don't teach like other teachers teach. I'm not as rigid. I don't start it off as a combination. I'm more concerned that you enjoy dancing than the health aspects or learning steps. I teach like we're in a club.
Q. Were you the first to moonwalk, or back slide?
A. I was the first to do it on television. (He performed it in 1982 on the British music show "Top of the Pops." Jackson moonwalked on TV about a year later.) I found out in 2007 about a guy named Theo Bailey who was doing what looks like the basics of it back in 1955. We wouldn't have known that before. There was no YouTube, no Internet like today. I followed The Electric Boogaloos, a group from the 1970s and '80s, who brought the art of body popping.
Q. Where were you when you heard about MJ's death?
A. I was at an airport in London just about to board to go to Japan. My bags were already on board. Michael loved to pull jokes. I thought he was pulling a prank on me. I was praying, so I sat in the terminal and refused to believe the news until the coroner came on the news and pronounced him dead. I couldn't breathe when I heard it was true. It was like I was in another universe.
Q. You said his fans have been contacting you?
A. Since he died, his fans have gravitated toward me and want to know more about him and how he did what he did. My Web site is getting more hits. I'm getting more e-mails and letters from all over the world. Michael's fans have always been loyal. They defend him tooth and nail, so from the start when someone hears I taught him the back slide, there's always something popping up on the Internet like, "Well, he may have taught him, but Michael was much smoother or sexier." (Laughs.) Michael and I would always laugh at those comments because that's not what he was about. Neither am I.
Q. At a fit 54, are there things you can no longer do dance-wise that you did 30, 20 or 10 years ago?
A. I've gotten away from acrobatic things because I didn't do them for a long time. I've been concentrating on my music since Shalamar reunited in 2000, and we play all over the world. But I can do things I've always done. Before Michael died, I never thought I'd teach dance or do a video again, let alone moonwalk, but I'm more than happy to go around and keep his legacy alive.
Q. Anything else you want to add?
A. Tell people they don't need to be intimidated about coming. This is not just about dance. You don't have to be a dancer to enjoy this class. It's not going to be just about me and Michael. I'll cover it all, but I want to vibe with the group and see what's up. I want it to be a social exchange with whoever comes. I want to leave something with them and take something with me from this trip.