As the King of Pop, Michael Jackson didn’t limit his showmanship to his incredible vocal range or bedazzled costumes. The man had an arsenal of perfectly executed dance moves that included, but was not limited to, the moonwalk, the toe stand, and the crotch grab. But one move stands out because of its pure defiance of biomechanical laws: the anti-gravity lean, a move so rad neuroscientists decided to break it down Tuesday in the Journal of Neurosurgery.
It appears to break the boundaries of what a human can do, the researchers explain, because it literally does just that. Jackson wouldn’t have been able to pull off a 45-degree lean, the team writes, without the help of a shoe he co-patented, complete with a triangular slot in the heel. At just the right time, a metallic peg would shoot up from the stage floor, allowing Michael to shoot on his shoe and achieve the deep forward lean. It’s an illusion — but that doesn’t mean it’s not impressive. You can only pull it off if you’re a very strong dancer.
“Personally, I believe it’s not possible for me to cheat gravity even with this shoe,” study co-author Dr. Manjul Tripathi, a neurosurgeon at the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India, tells Inverse. “However, as M.J. showed us the way, with good acrobatic practices and development of core muscular strength, it’s possible.”
As a big Jackson fan, Tripathi tried to pull off the move throughout his childhood. Later on during his neurosurgical training, he was determined to discover how Jackson pulled it off. Shoe or no shoe, he says, it’s still a feat of spinal biomechanics. Only the strongest dancers can maintain a 25- to 30-degree forward tilt.
We normies can’t look like a “Smooth Criminal,” Tripathi and his co-authors explain, because of our center of gravity. When we strand straight, our center of gravity lies in front of the spine’s second sacral vertebra. When we lean forward with a straight torso, the erector spinal muscles support the spinal column as our center of gravity shifts. But if a person keeps a straight back during the lean, and the shift is maintained in the ankles, eventually the spine will no longer be able to support the lean. The strain then shifts to the Achilles tendon, and at a certain point, you fall.
Which wouldn’t be very cool to do in a club at all. It also, the neurosurgeons note, can really hurt you good. In a statement released Tuesday, Tripathi said: “Though a visual delight, such moves [like the anti-gravity lean] 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.”
All of this knowledge, however, doesn’t mean Tripathi has stopped trying to pull the anti-gravity lean off.
“Me and my five-year-old son still try,” he says, “but in vain.”