Watching the Smooth Criminal video by Michael Jackson in my early years, I remember mimicking the anti-gravity lean. I failed at it miserably, as not only did I lean, but I leaned on the TV. My short but brilliant career in dance came to an end there with my mom’s scoldings.
And I’m sure, that I wasn’t alone in trying this gravity-defying stunt, but also the authors of the paper–How did Michael Jackson challenge our understanding of spine biomechanics?
Three neurosurgeons at the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India, set out to analyse the physiological possibilities of the human body regarding leaning forward at 45 degrees while keeping the body rigid. They published their findings in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine.
Manjul Tripathi, a co-author of the paper, told PopSci, “Being an ardent MJ fan, I was always fascinated with his dance moves. During my neurosurgical training, I again got interested in this mystery move.”
To execute the step in Smooth Criminal video, MJ did use wires to balance himself. “But even with the trick, the movement is difficult to execute,” Tripathi says. Curious and thrilled, he decided to investigate the biomechanics behind the movement.
When we bend forward, we tend to bend from the hips, using the erector spinae muscles. These muscles are responsible for straightening the back and being able to rotate it. So when we bend from the hips, the erector spinae muscles “act like cables to support the suspended spinal column”, so that you don’t fall, the study said.
But when we bend from the ankles, these muscles have no play in balancing the body. The authors explain that the strain of the lean shifts to the Achilles tendon in the heel, which is not designed to hold your whole body.
This is why most humans can only lean the MJ way to about 20 degrees before falling. Though Michael Jackson used wires in his video, the anti-gravity lean was seen to be performed on stage, live, with no wires at all!
How did the legend do it?
His secret was in his shoes. Jackson used custom-designed shoes, outlined in U.S. Patent 5255452 A, of which he is a co-inventor.
The shoes have a slot in the heel that conveniently locks in a peg raised from a dance floor. This peg secured Jackson to the ground as he tilted, which was then retracted by stage technicians before he lifted his feet again.
But even with the special shoe trick, the move is strenuous to pull off. The authors note that it would have required “athletic core strength” to pull off.
And it’s not just that move, but lately, hip-hop breakdance routines have become so complex that they defy the strength of the human body and in the process, sometimes end up “breaking” the dancer.
Tripathi says he regularly sees dancers with spine injuries, ranging from tendon tears to muscle ruptures to prolapsed discs and fractured cervical vertebra. Some only need physiotherapy, while others require surgery from experts like him.
So, if your mom’s scolding hasn’t stopped you from pursuing break-dancing, we at The Better India suggest that all ardent dancers have a smooth routine.
(Edited By Shruti Sinhal)