Michael Jackson’s career was full of iconic moments—from Thriller to the Moonwalk—but nothing defied physics and spinal mechanics quite like the “antigravity tilt” dance move he debuted on his “Smooth Criminal” music video in 1988.
How could he keep his spine straight while seamlessly bending so far forward? Neurosurgeons from the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India sought the answer. Their findings were published in May 2018 in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine.
Decoding the Antigravity Tilt
The research team wrote that Jackson’s antigravity tilt sent him leaning 45° forward—all while keeping his back perfectly straight and feet anchored to the floor.
“Most trained dancers with strong core strength will reach a maximum of 25° to 30° of forward bending while performing this action,” the authors wrote. “MJ pulled off a gravity-defying 45° move that seems unearthly to any witness.”
The authors explained how spinal mechanics made the dance move a seemingly impossible feat. When you bend forward with a straight spine, your hips act as a pivot point and your spinal muscles act like cables to support your spine as your center of gravity shifts forward—this prevents you from falling forward. But when you lean far enough down that the pivot point shifts to your ankles, your spinal muscles lose their ability to support your center of gravity.
“This allows for a very limited degree of forward bending from the ankle joints, while keeping a stiff straight posture—unless you are Michael Jackson,” the authors wrote.
Was the Iconic Move an Illusion?
Was Jackson not only musically gifted but also anatomically? Was he able to defy spinal mechanics?
Yes and no.
The researchers discovered that Jackson registered a patent for a special shoe that allowed him to perform the move. The shoe included a slot in the heel that could fit a peg that would emerge from the stage floor. The peg would help anchor Jackson to the floor, so he could master the exaggerated lean forward while keeping his spine perfectly straight.
Yes, the move was made possible with the help of some inventive footwear and creative thinking. But the researchers noted that Jackson still deserves credit.
“Even with specially designed footwear and the support of the hitch member, the move is incredibly hard to pull off, requiring athletic core strength from strengthened spinal muscles and lower-limb antigravity muscles,” they wrote.
MJ: An Inspiration for Dancers and Creator of New Challenges for Spine Specialists
Among Jackson’s enduring legacies is his ability to inspire dancers and choreographers to push boundaries. The foundation he laid will undoubtedly drive dancers to new heights—and perhaps also new lows in terms of spinal injury.
Just as dancers are becoming more innovative in their practice, so too will neurosurgeons, orthopaedic surgeons, and other spine specialists when it comes to addressing the needs of dancers who endure complex back injuries. Will minimally invasive techniques allow dancers to recover quicker? Will the use of spinal implants prevent dancers from returning to their art? These are just some of the many questions Michael Jackson’s legacy has posed to the spine field.
“Ever since MJ entertained us with his fabulous moves, throughout the world dancers have tried to jump higher, stretch farther, and turn faster than ever before,” the authors wrote. “The rapid rise in popularity of dance as an art and exercise the world over is bound to produce new forms of injuries that may perplex the neurosurgeon.”