Many of you know that I've spent a part of each day for the last few weeks learning how to Moonwalk. It's a goofy pasttime, and that joyful mindlessness is part of my motivation. I like what I learn from the process of making my body do things against its grain.
So, inspired by Lynn's recent post on dance and technology, I'll share a few thoughts on Moonwalking in a digital age. Really.
Learning a new dance step isn't entirely new for me. I used to take one and sometimes two dance classes a week, usually jazz, modern, or tap. After an accident that required surgery and rehab a few years ago, I switched from dance to pilates. I love pilates, but miss learning new dance moves so I try to teach myself one or two a year, usually silly pop dances from MTV videos. It keeps me humble. And laughing.
But the Moonwalk is more ambitious. It is part dance and part magic act, an optical illusion that requires perfection to pull off well since it plays against one's expectations of forward (or even backward) movement. The Moonwalk has a long tradition in dance going back to the twenties and then also a tradition in mime perfected by Marcel Marceau, but no one did it quite like Michael Jackson and, after his death, I, like several million others apparently, began watching Moonwalking videos, of Jackson, of his predecessors, of the many people who think they do it better than he did, and of dancers teaching the Moonwalk. My favorite is the simplest, the one that explains the trick right off the bat and then focuses on the basics. It's on YouTube by Ange DeLumiere: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EEynvjfljU
What is brilliant about the brief DeLumiere video is that it shows you how you think the Moonwalk works, the way most people intuitively believe the optical illusion to happen. Like good dance teachers everywhere, he actually shows the way you think you do it. He performs it. Then, "That's wrong," he says definitively. "Don't do that." Then he shows you the right way, breaking it down, very simple.
Except it's not simple at all.
Back in the 1980s, right after MJ did his first Moonwalk live, I bought a booklet at a shoestore (I still remember this), so I could learn how to do it. The instructions were so insanely complex, pre-YouTube, that I gave up after a few weeks, even though I was still actively dancing then. Toe here, instep there, left arm here, right arm there, neck here, head there, shoulder here, touch down with right foot, move . . . Maybe 20 or 25 illustrations for the first move. I didn't get anywhere with it. I was ecstatic when I saw the DeLumiere video because he tells you the trick, like a magician breaking the secret oath and telling you how you saw the woman in half or produce the elephant behind the curtain.
And here's where I get all philosophical on you. . .
As readers of my Cat in the Stack blog know, I'm finishing a book called The Rewired Brain: The Deep Structure of Thinking for the Information Age (forthcoming from Viking Press), and I'm putting together two decades of research from neuroscience with about the same amount of research on technology to propose a new model of mind for the digital, customizing, collaborative, interactive era. In Part Two, which I'm working on now, I'm looking at real world examples of what Toffler calls the essential literacy of the 21st century: the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. That is, you think that the way you have been doing something all along is right because it has served you very well (i.e. like walking). But when confronted with an entirely new set of challenges, you are failing. Your tried-and-true practice just doesn't work in the new situation. It isn't getting you anywhere. You try to change but that doesn't get you anywhere either. That's where unlearning comes in. Until you quite consciously inventory what you are doing, mark it off as not working, and then set out to relearn how to learn, you are likely to repeat past mistakes.
"That's wrong," Ange DeLumiere says about how you thought MJ did the Moonwalk. "Don't do that." You need to get that "wrong" into your head before you can learn to do it right. It still takes months of practice (even for MJ, by the way), but you'll never get there, no matter how much you practice, until you absorb that crucial un-learning lesson. "That's wrong. Don't do that."
In dance, unlearning is particularly tricky because you are working against both mental preconceptions and bodily ones, what in the West we call "muscle memory" (because we have a notably impoverished vocabulary for talking about physical patterns and actions--we often embue terms about what the body does with mental terminologies; we are great, in the West, at describing certainty, doubt, rationality, cognition, and the whole spectrum of states for thinking). So when I asked Laurie, a performance artist and mime, about Moonwalking, the first thing she did was to give me balance exercises, to develop new sets of muscles and new forms of balance that one doesn't practice in everyday life. Because walking is about balance (as you know from watching any infant on the way to becoming a toddler) and Moonwalking is about reversing a pattern of balance that you've mastered long ago. Laurie has me going from flat feet to my toes and then holding that position steady as if by the strings holding up the knees of a puppet. And then I cut the strings and, plop, my feet return flat to the earth again. If it sounds easy, try it. And that's the beginner step. The real exercise is doing that on one foot.
(When I asked Radonna, my pilates teacher, the best balance exercise, she did a full plie effortlessly. Twenty-five years as a dancer makes it easy to have full turnout, perfect posture, glide all the way down to the floor and up again without batting an eye. Let's just say my attempt didn't turn out quite so gracefully.)
Can I Moonwalk after several weeks of practice? Well, in a manner of speaking I can but, no, not in any true sense. I'm definitely not camera ready yet.
I watch MJ do it over and over on YouTube and note some important new tricks each time. For example, he does the Moonwalk at a pause in the music and sometimes against the actual rhythm. By not walking exactly on beat, it enhances the illusion of floating. He also teases the audience, they go crazy waiting for him to do it in a live performance, and he does lots of tricks that require similar kinds of reversals of normal walking balance . . . but he holds off on delivering on the Moonwalk, the audience goes crazy, and then he stops, really after only five or six steps. The audience is so excited, and then it is over. Old entertainer trip: Always Leave Them Wanting Something More.
Balance, illusion, unlearning in order to relearn, expectation, counter-expectation, delivering, but not overstaying your welcome. Lots of lessons to be learned there. But the key lesson, for me, is the one I learned from Ange DeLumiere's video. Your preconceptions lead you to believe you do it this way. If you go with your preconceptions, you fail. "That's wrong. Don't do that," he says so simply. And then he shows you the right way. There are many other videos on line, several that are far more detailed and complex, and confusing. The others don't start with that most basic trick: get rid of how you think this works because it doesn't work if you think that way. Shedding a preconception, losing a pattern, is lots hard than it looks. But without that crucial unlearning step, no amount of practice will get the result you want. You'll only come up with frustrating approximations that reveal how far you are from where you want to be. Moonwalking is harder than it looks because it requires a lot of practice.
But, even harder, learning to Moonwalk means breaking one of our oldest, most familiar, and most reliable patterns. How to Walk. You have to break that familiar pattern before you can even begin practicing a new one. Learning, unlearning, relearning. Relearning how to learn. A lot of life in the twenty-first century is like that.