Harry Shum Jr. writes about MJ and how it influenced his dancing

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

I didn’t dance when I was a little kid. Dancing just wasn’t on my agenda... I would have rather played football or re-create comic book scenes with my knock-off action figures from the 99-cent store. I was a random kid that found pleasure by putting my toys, comic books and drawings in a time capsule buried in my backyard. I hoped I would have something cool for people to dig up hundreds of years later. Being the impatient kid I was, I dug up that time capsule a whopping ten days later - I had a hard time sticking to one thing. I just wanted to do everything and it seemed that there was an overwhelming amount of hobbies out there for me to explore, yet I didn’t find one that I could stick with. I couldn’t help it, I was a shy kid and dancing in public wasn’t my idea of a good time but I certainly enjoyed watching it from the sidelines. Then, when I was about 7 years old, I witnessed a performance that would change my life forever.

A friend let me borrow a VHS tape that had a whole bunch of cartoons on it. In the middle of a Transformers episode right when Optimus Prime was about to strike Megatron, the screen unexpectedly flickered to an image of a man in a precarious pose dressed in a sequin jacket. Who in their right mind would record over my awesome Transformers?!? It took me several seconds to identify the interrupting image as Michael Jackson. I had obviously heard of him before but never really paid much attention because I wasn’t up to date with “pop culture” at the time (gimme a break, I was 7 and was consumed by cartoons and Tonka trucks). It also didn’t help that my sister would scare me by playing the demonic laugh at the end of the “Thriller” video, which caused me to run out of the room crying. That traumatized me for many years. Thanks sis. But, all that was forgotten when Michael started to sing and dance to “Billie Jean” on “Motown Live.” I’ve never seen a human move so effortlessly yet so powerful all at the same time, or a performer dominated every second that ticked by. I was hypnotized. Then he did the moonwalk (A.K.A. the backslide), and my jaw dropped. I immediately pushed the rewind button repeatedly and thought “How the hell did he do that?”

That seemed to be the recurring question every time he danced. From that moment on, I was a fan. My whole family sat glued to the television waiting for his new videos to premiere. Even my aunt from another country who spoke zero English knew what MJ was all about. “Oh, Mik-o Juckson-Ah!” she would utter out loud. He was the biggest international star and somehow he was able to affect millions by his dancing, music, and persona. I would listen to all his records and mimic his dance moves in the comfort and privacy of my own room. Kick, double turn, left then right shoulder smack, crotch grab and fist raise with a dramatic head whip. That was the extent of my dance vocabulary. It was all that I knew, but I did it with conviction and passion – Michael was my dance idol. Before him, I didn’t know anything about dance. I knew it was something I enjoyed but it never crossed my mind to pursue it as a career. In my head I had ideas of what a dance should look like but translating it to actual physical movement seemed like an impossible feat. It wasn’t until high school when I would get my chance to showcase what I learned from Michael.

I decided to try out for the dance team. It was more of a joke really, because I was dared to audition by a friend, but I also saw it as an opportunity and an excuse to meet girls. I gave my best Michael impression but it was far from impressive as I felt like a panicked donkey trying to kick his way out of an enclosed room. By some kind of miracle, I made it and my life took a sharp turn. Sure I’d been in plays and performed on stage, but when I danced, I felt a sense of fulfillment the moment the music started. The music inspired my body to paint a picture on my own canvas floor. There was no substitution for that feeling; it was pure joy. In future performances thereafter, I would always go back to the image of MJ and his Motown Live performance for inspiration.

People praise Michael for his legendary voice, music, and dancing ability. Inspiration is what makes the world of art go round, and I was always curious as to who Michael’s inspirations were. After much research I found that MJ loved musicals and studied some of the greatest; for instance, if you look up “Snake in a Grass” with Bob Fosse you’d find a familiar style that Michael so presently made popular: black high water slacks, black loafers and white socks. I was blown away at Michael’s ability to blend Fosse’s jazz movement with popping. Michael modernized a dance sequence in Fred Astaire’s “Band Wagon” in which Astaire wore a cream pin-striped suit and matching fedora while engaging in unique dance-fight choreography. This was where the epic “Smooth Criminal” video was inspired from. I couldn’t believe that all these amazing dance sequences existed and I was just finding out about them. Some of MJ’s inspirations, like the legendary street dancer, Poppin’ Taco, who was his personal teacher for many years, were never recognized as one of the ‘greats.’ Never would I have found my favorite dancers and performers like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, and Eleanor Powell if it wasn’t for the King of Pop.

I was able to incorporate MJ’s influences into a lot of my work, which allowed me to blend together different styles and add my own ingredients to an old recipe. I was lucky enough to work on a very unique project which came from the brainchild of my friend and director Jon Chu. The LXD (Legion of Extraordinary) was an ode to continuing what Michael did with music videos, telling stories through dance. Dance played an important role to his performances and gained the respect even from the people he looked up to himself like Fred Astaire. Rumor has it (from a good source) that before he passed, he was a fan of The LXD and wanted to work with us in the future. What an amazing opportunity that would have been but this coming week, instead of working with him, I get to pay the highest respect by paying homage to him in front of millions of people in a new Glee episode, While we were filming, I would remember watching the music video “Scream” over and over again with the enthusiasm of a 7 year old me watching Saturday morning cartoons.

“Scream” was the most expensive music video ever made reaching over $7 million in budget, which is like $200 bizilliion after inflation! Hah! And now Kevin Mchale and I get to cover it and create our version of that amazing performance! If you told me that I would be doing an epic MJ number on this scale when I was younger, I would have thrown my Tonka truck at you for teasing me with such an unreachable dream. The day we shot “Scream” on Glee was probably one of the most fulfilling moments for me. The whole time we shot, Kevin and I kept asking each other if it was all real while getting pulled to different elaborate sets to shoot our sequences. It literally felt like a dream. It was the ultimate “thank you” to the man who helped me focus on a hobby that I could stick with, a man who inspired me to take on this amazing journey. I hope we do you proud Michael. Thank you for existing and thank you for your continued influence for many generations to come. Oh yeah, and thank you for filling my time capsule with some cool stuff. I think I’ll let this one wait it out a few hundred years…

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