In the process of researching jazz dance history through a grant from the college where I teach, I eagerly anticipated the 1980s because that meant focusing on music videos - a phenomenon that played a major role in the decade’s explosion of dance. Dance in music videos captured the imaginations of the MTV audience. It is a presence in the most memorable and enduring music videos. Music videos are an aspect of dance history that tend to be minimized. Besides changing the way we looked at dance, the music video industry opened a whole new world of job opportunities for dancers and connected to the film industry, especially since prominent film directors became involved in the creation of music videos. Every 80’s movie had to have a montage that was basically a music video within the movie. And then there were the numerous dance movies such as Flashdance, Breakin’ and Fast Forward. It was an exciting decade in the dance world.
Here are 7 of my favorite 1980s music videos that featured new jazz dance innovations front and center.
1983 Beat It - Michael Jackson
What is there to say about Beat It? It was life-changing. No one had ever seen anything like this choreography and the way they moved knocked us out. The rumor was that the theme came from West Side Story but the director, Peter Giraldi, says otherwise. But no matter - it's a great music video in any case. Without the dancing it wouldn't have had the impact it did. It was choreographed by Black choreographer and Emmy and Tony award winner, Michael Peters.
1983 Love is a Battlefield - Pat Benatar
Love is a Battlefield was also choreographed by Michael Peters. I always loved this video because it presented fierce women who weren't going to take any s**t from anyone. As a young woman, this video empowered me, and the choreography blew me away. A sad note that Michael Peters died of AIDS in 1994 at age 46. Prior to his death he was fighting for more recognition for the contributions of choreographers. His death and so many others lost to AIDS robbed the dance world of important dance artists who were making a difference.
1986 How Will I Know? - Whitney Houston
A “dancey” video that probably doesn’t come to mind when you think about the music videos of the 1980s. But it had more choreography than most and is a good example of a style of 1980s jazz dance. Plus it’s kind of artsy. Whitney Houston was a rising star when this was shot. The video was a little rough around the edges but fun to watch anyway. The choreographer was Arlene Phillips, a well-known choreographer of West End (London) and Broadway musicals.
1986 What Have You Done for Me Lately - Janet Jackson
This video featured simple but feel-good funky choreography that had everyone doing the worm move on the dance floor and in dance classes. Paula Abdul is one of the dancers (a little hard to see) and she choreographed the music video. Paula Abdul started her dance career as an L.A. Lakers Cheerleader and got her feet wet choreographing for the team. She was quite successful during the 1980s as a music video choreographer and other projects such as the movie “Running Man” with Arnold Schwarzenegger that has some fantastic dance sequences. It was her talent as a dancer that really paved the way to pop stardom.
1988 Smooth Criminal - Michael Jackson
The Smooth Criminal music video was choreographed by Vincent Paterson in collaboration with Michael Jackson. Vincent initially intended to be an actor but pivoted to dance at the age of 24, starting with ballet training. He moved to L.A. and studied jazz dance with Joe Tremaine and danced at Dupree Dance studio. He danced professionally in L.A. in his late 20s. Paterson was hired to dance in the Beat It video and that is where he first met Michael Jackson. (He was the swoon-worthy blond mullet guy in the striped shirt.) The inspiration for Smooth Criminal was the famous Fred Astaire & Cyd Charisse dance sequence in the 1953 movie Bandwagon known as the "Girl Hunt Ballet."
1988 Straight Up - Paula Abdul
With the tap dance opening, the artsy black and white format and the abstract yet effective “storyline” this video choreographed by Paula Abdul highlighted Abdul's dance and performance abilities (as well as the male dancers’) and proved her worthy of being a pop star in her own right. I appreciate her musicality in this video and the jazzy film noir vibe.
1989 Rhythm Nation - Janet Jackson
Rhythm Nation needs no introduction. With the hip-hop choreography by street dancer Anthony "BamBam" Thomas it was cutting edge in 1989. The choreography combined militaristic precision, hip-hop steps, popping and locking in a tight ensemble that was at the time unlike anything anyone had seen. Thomas took his style of street dance and fused it with the music, translating it into a choreographed unison ensemble dance that was almost supernaturally sharp and clean. The dance in this video along with the high production values made this one mind-blowing and inspirational video.
There is no question that dance in music videos contributed to the zeitgeist of the 1980s. Music videos as well as the dance movies that fed off their popularity, created a whole new audience for dance and brought them to dance classes and clubs in droves. For serious dancers, who were living and breathing dance 24/7, music videos were another way to see themselves and their passion reflected and validated. While at first MTV planned to feature only Rock and Roll artists, music videos ultimately included diverse musical artists, genres, choreographers and dancers.