Sure, science can be serious – from climate change to cancer, the big problems are being tackled every day by the world’s best minds. Don’t say science doesn’t have a sense of fun, though: Michael Jackson’s dancing has now been put under the proverbial microscope, and researchers have genuinely figured out what makes his “antigravity tilt” both possible and so marvelous at the same time.
If you’re not familiar with the tilt, check out the video for Smooth Criminal. At one point during this 1987 classic, the late maestro leans forward at an angle of 45° while keeping his feet flat on the floor and his back straight. If you ever attempted to do this, you’d almost certainly tear a muscle, fall on your face, and seriously injure yourself.
According to the paper, published in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine, most people can manage a 20° tilt, but that’s their limit; even the most proficient dancers tend to peak at 30°, so how on Earth did Jackson manage it?
That’s what the three researchers from the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India, desperately wanted to know, so these self-professed fans looked into it. As it so happens, it requires a combination of Jackson’s muscular trickery and some bespoke footwear – both, in concert, produce the desired effect.
These aren’t your normal dancer’s shoes. Although not exactly a secret by this point, his kicks were specially designed; containing a small heel peg or hitch, which would stick out and attach itself to the stage, allowing Jackson to alter his center of balance and safely lean.
As noted by Complex, these patented shoes weren’t always reliable. In 1996, the peg broke and Jackson was almost met with a rather unfortunate injury. Still, the risk of the shoes – and to his ankles – was clearly worth it; prior to this point, the illusion was accomplished with less aesthetically appeasing wires.
Admittedly, that’s how the Smooth Criminal lean was achieved, but from 1993-onwards, shoes ruled the roost. Following the near-injury, the shoes were redesigned to be safer, and they accompanied Jackson on numerous tours of the world.
It’s safe to say that the shoes are doing the bulk of the work, but we shouldn’t underestimate Jackson’s skills. After all, the study is entitled: “How did Michael Jackson challenge our understanding of spine biomechanics?”
As the researchers explain, with or without the shoes, leaning forward in this way puts the strain not on the spine’s base, but on the Achilles tendons and the calf muscles. Keeping up all your body’s weight in this way would, for most people, cause a lot of strain, pain, and possibly damage. Not to mention injuries from potentially jaw or spine-rattling falls forward.
Co-author Dr Manjul Tripathi said in a statement that, although a “visual delight, such moves also lead to new forms of musculoskeletal injuries. ‘The King of Pop’ has not only been an inspiration but a challenge to the medical fraternity.”
Jackson, then, was profoundly athletic in this sense. Sure, he needed those shoes to defy gravity, but if you think you’ve got comparably muscular magic going on, you can beat it.