Devoted fans of Michael Jackson have mastered the moonwalk – but still stumble when it comes to another one of his iconic moves. Featured for the first time in the music video for ‘Smooth Criminal’, in 1988, Jackson tilts his entire body forward almost halfway to the ground. Its standout feature was that Jackson bent himself only at his ankles, keeping the rest of his body ramrod straight.
As it turns out, even he couldn’t do it without help – and nobody can, for that matter. Three neurosurgeons at the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh, have determined that, irrespective of one’s core strength, it is physiologically impossible to do so. So don’t go too hard on yourself, dancer.
Manjul Tripathi, one of the three, is an ardent fan of Jackson’s and his dance moves have always captivated him. “As a child, I tried them several times but failed miserably, especially with the forward bending in ‘Smooth Criminal’.”
He found the answer when he was training to be a neurosurgeon. And “even with the [trick shoe], the move is difficult to execute.”
When you bend forward, you typically do so at the hip. This causes your centre of gravity to shift ahead of you – but you don’t topple because the muscles running along your backbone, called the erector spinae, act like suspension cables and hold the upper body up. We use these same muscles when we straighten our backs.
However, if you shifted your body forward by bending at the ankle, the erector spinae can’t do much do to hold up our body. So the strain is taken up by the Achilles tendon, the muscle on the back of your leg running from heel to calf, which cannot hold the body erect beyond a few degrees.
Even trained dancers with exceptional core strength can only bend by 25-30°, and not up to 45º, as the star dancer did.
Michael Jackson or not, the tendon can get painfully damaged beyond that.
(The tilt happens at 7:04)
“The secret lies in Jackson’s inventiveness and core muscle strength,” Tripathi said. “This much incredible movement could be achieved partly by [a] trick and partly by his ability to keep [a] straight spine with feet fixed to the floor.”
The trick shoe was invented by Jackson and a few others. It had a triangular slot in the heel. At just the right time, a peg would arise from the stage and lock in to the slot, providing additional support, and prevent him from toppling. This is how Jackson would perform the move onstage during tours.
“However, it is practically impossible to cheat gravity even with the trick. You really need good core strength in the calf and ankle, which only he could achieve,” Tripathi said.
Jackson has inspired generations of dancers to try and perfect improbable moves, for a sense of personal accomplishment as well as for fame and fortune. For example, breakdancing is quite popular in India, and for young dancers, it is a means for class mobility: to rise up in life, win cash prizes and maybe even make it to Bollywood.
This also means that these dancers sometimes suffer from uncommon back and spine injuries. Dance moves with continuous motion put the body’s entire weight on muscles of the muscles, which are not designed to take this weight.
According to Tripathi and his colleagues, these moves “challenge our current understanding of the modes and mechanisms of spinal injury.” In his practice, Tripathi has seen dancers with tears in tendons, ruptured muscles and even fractures of the neck vertebra. “Some of these patients need just physiotherapy and rest, but the more serious ones need surgical intervention.”
And when patients with surgical implants want to go back to dancing, the risk of repeated injuries is heightened, making it difficult even for neurosurgeons to fix parts of the body that keep getting broken. Tripathi warned that repetitive injuries could permanently damage the spine and other muscles.
Lakshmi Supriya is a freelance science writer based in Bengaluru.