How Michael Jackson's tilt defied gravity

Michael Jackso...

Posted: May 22, 2018 8:46 PM
Updated: May 22, 2018 8:46 PM

Michael Jackson's musical achievements are legend: the first artist to win eight Grammys in one night; the first artist to sell more than a million digital tracks in one week.

His impact on dance has been just as powerful. Fans around the world have tried to imitate his smooth slides and spins, his racy crotch grab and pelvic thrust and, of course, his trademark moonwalk, with varying degrees of success.

Michael Jackson created a dance move that defied gravity

To accomplish it he patented a special shoe

But there's one move that stunned the watching world: the gravity-defying tilt he debuted in his 1988 music video for "Smooth Criminal." In one scene, Jackson and a few of his dancers lean forward 45 degrees, backs straight, feet flat upon the floor, and hold the pose until they return upright with little apparent effort.

"It's not really possible physically to do it," said neurosurgeon Dr. Nishant Yagnick, a longtime Jackson fan who practices at the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India. "He was cheating gravity."

"You can bend a maximum of 25 or 30 degrees forward before you fall on your face," added his colleague Dr. Manjul Tripathi, another fan. "I tried to do it, and I fell."

Fascinated by Jackson and his seemingly inhuman abilities, Yagnick and Tripathi began to investigate just how the pop legend was able to accomplish his feat. Along with another colleague, Dr. Sandeep Mohindra, they published their observations from a neurosurgeon's point of view on Tuesday in the Journal of Neurosurgery: "How did Michael Jackson challenge our understanding of spine biomechanics?"

When the human body bends forward with the back straight, the doctors explain, the erector spinae muscles that run parallel to our vertebrae "act like cables" and support the body as the center of gravity shifts. But when the focus of bending is switched to the ankles, those erector muscles aren't the major support. Instead, the strain is put on the calf and Achilles tendon, which aren't really built for that role.

"This allows for a very limited degree of forward bending from the ankle joints, while keeping a stiff straight posture -- unless you are Michael Jackson," they explain in the study. "Most trained dancers with strong core strength will reach a maximum of 25 or 30 degrees of forward bending while performing this action."

Though Jackson was in marvelous shape, even he couldn't do the maneuver without help. So he and his team invented a special shoe that would anchor him to the floor during the tilt.

Patented on October 26, 1993, the shoes "have a specially designed heel slot which can be detachably engaged" with a "hitch" (such as a nail) projected through the stage surface "by simply sliding the shoe wearer's foot forward, thereby engaging with the hitch member," according to the US Patent Office description.

"Very inventive idea of him," Tripathi said with a laugh, "because even with that shoe, I am not able to do 45 degrees. You need a very good core of strength, and that strength was in Michael Jackson and his Achilles tendon."

Yagnick agreed: "Normal people, even with the shoe, probably can't do it. It takes a lot of practice to develop the core muscles, abs and central trunk muscles to get the strength to do it."

Not only would most people need intensive training to accomplish the move, said Atlanta physiatrist Dr. Jose Garcia-Corrada, but they could seriously injure themselves if they fell. Garcia specializes in the medical rehabilitation of the spine at Emory School of Medicine.

"If you were to lose your core balance during the lean and didn't catch the fall with your arms, you could hit your jaw," Garcia-Corrada said. "That might hyperextend the neck and cause serious spine damage."

It's not just the spine that might be affected, he added.

"You're holding most of your weight with muscles that you normally wouldn't use in this way," he said. "You could really strain your back and legs muscles and tendons."

Many audiences who watched Jackson and his dancers perform the feat on video and in concerts had no knowledge of the trick. To them, Yagnick said, it seemed like magic.

"When Michael Jackson brought out the video and then did it live on stages around the world, people didn't know he had this shoe system," he said. "Particularly in India, where Michael Jackson is very popular, many people tried to copy him, and some even hurt themselves."

"MJ style," as it is called in India, is so popular that one of the top dance groups is called "MJ5" because they imitate Jackson, while children emulate the moves in competitions like "Dance, India, Dance."

Tripathi believes that Jackson's legacy has "pushed whole generations of dancers to go beyond their limits," which he says is putting new kinds of stresses on the spine. "So in India, neurosurgeons are perplexed due to all these new kinds of neuroskeletal injuries we are now seeing."

Studies on the newer forms of dance inspired by Jackson back up the doctors' observations.

A 2012 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports followed three types of hip-hop dancers: popper/lockers, breakers and "new schoolers."

Popping and locking are foreshadowed in many of Michael Jackson's routines. Locking requires freezing from a fast movement and "locking" into that position for a short time before suddenly moving again. Popping involves quickly contracting and relaxing muscles to produce a jerking motion or "pop" in the body.

Breakers or "B-boys" practice a highly acrobatic type of dance that involves tumbling, spinning headstands and lifts in which the entire body is supported by one arm. "New schoolers" borrow inspiration from many styles of dance and fit them to the music.

There were 738 injuries among the 232 dancers in the study; breakers had the highest number of injuries. The study's conclusion: Hip-hop dancers "should be educated concerning injury prevention, biomechanics, and use of protective equipment."

A 2009 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found 1,665 injuries among 40 breakdance professionals and 104 amateurs, mostly in the wrist, spine, shoulder and ankle. Breakdancing, said the authors, "must be considered as a potentially high-risk dancing sport," especially since dancers didn't often take enough time to heal before jumping back into training.

That is a significant problem in India as well, Yagnick said, particularly among young people who see dancing as a pathway to a profession.

"We are seeing a lot of complex dance moves that they just copy but don't really learn from a professional," Yagnick said. "They are young, 18 or younger, and they want to get ahead, and they are pushing themselves. They don't know what they are dealing with. There should be education on the right and wrong way to do things."

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 52037

Reported Deaths: 2762
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion12111693
Lake5677249
Elkhart366260
Allen2971134
St. Joseph221169
Hamilton1735101
Cass16489
Hendricks1470100
Johnson1351118
Porter84938
Vanderburgh8016
Tippecanoe7859
Clark71944
Madison68164
LaPorte62928
Howard61058
Bartholomew60545
Kosciusko5844
Marshall57011
Noble52428
Boone49244
LaGrange48710
Delaware48152
Jackson4793
Hancock47436
Shelby46025
Floyd41844
Monroe36128
Morgan34431
Grant32226
Dubois3196
Henry30318
Montgomery29720
Clinton2903
White27810
Dearborn27123
Warrick26829
Vigo2618
Decatur25732
Lawrence25325
Harrison21822
Greene19932
Miami1942
Jennings17912
Putnam1748
DeKalb1694
Scott1659
Wayne1596
Daviess15117
Perry15110
Steuben1402
Orange13823
Jasper1362
Ripley1357
Franklin1288
Gibson1282
Wabash1193
Carroll1142
Starke1093
Fayette1087
Whitley1086
Newton10110
Huntington942
Jefferson872
Wells831
Randolph804
Fulton761
Jay720
Knox710
Washington681
Pulaski661
Clay645
Posey640
Rush623
Spencer591
Owen531
Benton510
Sullivan511
Adams491
Brown441
Blackford402
Fountain362
Crawford330
Tipton331
Switzerland320
Parke280
Martin260
Ohio230
Vermillion200
Warren151
Union140
Pike120
Unassigned0193

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 66853

Reported Deaths: 3064
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin12301449
Cuyahoga9359399
Hamilton7046208
Lucas3079306
Marion275539
Montgomery257936
Summit2382209
Pickaway222942
Mahoning1971239
Butler189747
Columbiana139560
Stark1244116
Lorain118970
Trumbull106678
Warren101826
Clark82010
Delaware76315
Fairfield71917
Lake62723
Tuscarawas62110
Licking60012
Medina59932
Belmont57324
Clermont5157
Miami51431
Wood51051
Portage50960
Ashtabula45244
Geauga43143
Richland3906
Allen38541
Wayne37655
Greene3659
Mercer30410
Erie30122
Holmes2625
Darke26126
Huron2602
Madison2259
Ottawa21724
Athens1921
Sandusky17615
Ross1503
Washington14720
Putnam14515
Coshocton1434
Crawford1405
Jefferson1272
Morrow1271
Hardin12512
Union1151
Auglaize1124
Muskingum1061
Preble961
Lawrence920
Clinton912
Monroe8917
Hancock871
Hocking839
Guernsey824
Scioto770
Shelby774
Williams772
Carroll713
Logan711
Ashland692
Fulton680
Wyandot665
Brown621
Fayette580
Highland581
Champaign571
Knox571
Defiance553
Van Wert491
Perry481
Seneca442
Henry370
Paulding340
Jackson310
Pike290
Adams282
Vinton232
Gallia211
Noble140
Harrison131
Meigs130
Morgan120
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Few Clouds
84° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 84°
Angola
Clear
82° wxIcon
Hi: 84° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 82°
Huntington
Broken Clouds
82° wxIcon
Hi: 84° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 82°
Decatur
Clear
82° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 82°
Van Wert
Clear
82° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 82°
Storms Late Wednesday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events