Most contemporary dancers and music superstars cite Michael Jackson as an influence, especially when it comes to his moves. But how cool must it be to be able to say you were a direct influence on the ultimate entertainer, the best to ever do it, himself? Michael ‘Boogaloo Shrimp’ Chambers is one of very few who has that privilege, and it all kicked off whilst he was still a teenager!
Chambers is best known as teen street dancer Turbo from classic dance/hip hop movies Breakin’ and Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo (both released in 1984). He wowed viewers with his elastic-bodied poppin’ and break dancing, while his distinct slanted eyes (due to his mixed Creole and African American heritage) and cute gap-toothed smile made him an instant on-screen heartthrob. However his resume extends a lot further than these two movies, and he has contributed many more groundbreaking moments, trends and influences within hip hop culture and the world of dance.
For one, he was employed as a personal dance consultant to the king of pop through most of the 80s and the early 90s. Upon meeting Chambers, you can immediately see why this isn’t something that is a lot more in the public domain. Despite his outstanding talent, he is an extremely humble individual. Actually, he is maybe a bit too humble, and his initial passion and excitement about dance does not seemed to have dulled, despite the industry not always being that kind to him.
The now 42-year-old married father of one has also experienced rough times in his personal life, due to his first wife and mother of his now 17 year-old son, being murdered in a robbery in 2003.
Michael’s professional career has spanned three decades, and he has been dancing for four. He has added his magic touch to award-winning and game-changing work by Lionel Richie, Paula Abdul, Chaka Khan and even Bart Simpson. In addition he has had personal requests for lessons from the likes of Lord of the Dance legend Michael Flatley, and appeared in Hollywood movies such as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures. And once again, of course, there is Michael Jackson. But I’ll let Michael Chambers fill you in on the details…
So Michael…Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a city in California called Wilmington. It is a seaport city with a mixed community of Polynesians, Mexicasn and African Americans. It’s pretty close to the same area where Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube grew up.
At what age did you start dancing?
I’ve always been a dancer, and in the 70s when disco became really popular I caught onto that real quick. I am the youngest of four siblings (two older sisters and one older brother) and everyone was always dancing around me. At that time while people were disco dancing, a lot of the African Americans were doing the robot, so that caught my eye and I kind of latched on to doing that. I was like 9 years old at the time.
Who were your inspirations for dancing at the time?
I’m glad you asked me that, as I just spoke to one of my original mentors who I hadn’t spoken to in years. Sadly as everybody got famous his name got rubbed out of the history books. His name is Mark Benson, and he goes by the stage name of King Boogaloo Tut. He was a dancer I was really inspired by and if you look him up on Youtube you can see that there are a couple of moves that I was inspired to do that were directly influenced by him. There is a scene in the movie Breakin’ during my ‘broom dance’ routine where I do this move called the ‘whirlpool’, and pivot around the broom. So I was first influenced by Mark, and then by watching so many different dancers and seeing their distinct styles I was able to make up my own.
When did you realise you could make a living from dancing?
I got together with a group of friends and started entering dance contests and then once we started winning I realised. But the real sign for mewas when my older brother took me to go and perform on this beach pier with a boom box and a bucket. People would stop to watch, make a circle around me and then put money in my bucket. I was making a few hundred dollars a week just by myself.
What was your first job?
My first job was a CBS commercial (‘We’ve Got The Touch’) in the early 80s. It shows me performing my actual first moonwalk. I also did a couple of commercials (e.g Aqua Fresh, McDonalds), solo and with Pop N Taco (Bruno Falcon) the hispanic guy [from the rival crew] who was featured in Breakin’, and Shabba Doo (Adolfo Quinones), who played Ozone in Breakin’. This was before the movies, and they were two dancers I had met on the scene. After a while of doing commercials, we started going into auditions saying that we were a group.
You also featured in Lionel Richie’s All Night Long music video, how did you get that?
We all heard about the Lionel Richie video (see Michael at 2.27 in the below video), through word-of-mouth and we were hired as a crew. After that we were all cast in Chaka Khan’s I Feel For You. Then we went on tour with Lionel.
And then later came the movie Breakin…
Because of the success of Flashdance there were a lot of scripts floating around. Adolpho was originally hired as a choreographer for the film Breakin’, when we heard about the job. But we all had agents and went into the audition as a team. They read us, and the fact that we could read, and dance were obviously key. But what they really liked was the chemistry between Adolpho and myself, and that’s what got us the job.
What was it like being on set, especially as a first time actor, and so young (Michael was 16 at the time of the first movie)?
I had a lot of natural concentration because I realised very quickly that this was going to be something that was historical from the California side. A lot of attention had already been focused on New York, as there was a documentary called Wildstyle before Breakin’, and that was focused on the B-boy scene in New York.
Breakin’ The Broom Dance:
We were representing the West coast section of hip hop dance, so I was thinking if we don’t do anything else it was a chance for us to show people how we were living in California. I think that’s why it held up more than the first film as we weren’t just holding up one particular style, we were showing that we were well-rounded. If you look at the first film, I was doing all three styles, locking, popping and break-dancing. Even my first solo in my film, I am constantly break-dancing on the floor, showing I can do all three styles. I also mixed a little bit of ballet, with my popping. I was doing a lot of stuff on my toes.
Do you still keep in contact with Adolpho?
I wasn’t aware of it at the time coz I was a minor, but people told me later down the line that he didn’t really like to have me around, as it was like I was upstaging him. I was a lot younger than him and I had a different style, so I didn’t really understand all those politics and I just wanted to be best friends. As we got older we kind of fell out of contact. We don’t really touch base that much.
Did you get a lot of work after the films?
Not as much as I thought I would. There was a lot of stuff that was way ahead of its time back then. I got a sense that people didn’t start appreciating it till recently.
At the time the opportunities presented to me were overseas. I couldn’t really get a lot of work in the US because of gangsta rap and then there was a period when people weren’t really dancing in the late 80s and early 90s. I was making a living doing choreography, teaching private lessons and doing trade shows in Europe and Japan.
Was it difficult having fame at such a young age?
Err, yeah. I didn’t really understand how to carry myself as a star. I had just done two films and then straight after I came back to the same neighbourhood (Laughs). It was a bit overwhelming for people, as in their eyes I was supposed to be in Hollywood. But I was still a kid. I think people were amazed at how humble I was, because I just wanted to be a regular guy. I never put on any airs or walked around with my bling or anything like that. I wasn’t that guy. I was pretty much the same person I always was.
How did you deal with other people’s attitudes towards you?
Sometimes it got kind of difficult coz I used to have my little groupies hanging outside of my mum’s house waiting for me. I would wake up in the morning my mum and dad would go: ‘oh-oh, there they go again’ and across the street would be my little groupies with the signs saying ‘ Go Turbo’, waiting for me to wake up and come out of the house, so that was pretty wild. I had a customised car at the time and I had ‘Boogaloo’ on my licence plate so everybody knew I was in town and everywhere I went, people were like: ‘there he goes’.
Was there jealousy?
Yeah. For example I tried to go back and finish my senior year at high school, but having just done the two films and that was very difficult. People were very jealous of me as I had more money than their parents (laughs).
I was like the ‘it’ guy at a normal high school. I used to drive to school in a Corvet and people would spit on my windows and leave scratches. So it was hard. I wasn’t able to graduate with the people I grew up with, instead I had to get a private tutor. There weren’t that many African-American kids in the school to start with and then it was like I was ‘Mr Hollywood’, so people were a little bit mean to me.
So you worked with Michael Jackson, when did you first meet him?
Our first meeting was very interesting. A local news show called Eye In L.A featured a segment on street dancing and this new sub culture that was happening in the city in the early 80s. And I was featured on this segment along with some other street dancers. A lady called Susan Scanlan, who had been working on this TV programme, knew the Jackson family. She told Pop N Taco and I, who was also on the segment, that Michael Jackson would like to meet us. I was just 14 at the time.
What happened then?
We ended up going to the house, and it was kind of like an audition. We got there and the whole family was there. Michael introduced himself and then took us to a rehearsal room they had in the house, and as we were dancing I saw Joe Jackson whispering to Michael on the side, and I’m sure he told him: ‘you know what? These guys are the next big thing and you need to have them as your personal coaches’.
We had different styles, Pop N Taco and I , and you can see between the two of us the different styles that Michael Jackson was influenced by. That was the first time that we met. Then we saw him again backstage at one of Lionel Richie’s shows as we were dancing on Lionel’s tour. He didn’t know we were working with Lionel, so that helped to build momentum, as Lionel was his friend and it showed that our dance style/services was already been sought by other major stars. It helped seal the deal on our close proximity and our friendship.
Well, by that time I was already in the business, and had worked with Lionel Richie and Chaka Khan. I was already around a lot of A-Listers. Lionel Richie’s circle was basically the whole Motown family. I would go to these dances and see all these big people, from Diana Ross, Ashford and Simpson, Stevie Nicks, Rod Stewart… I knew I was in their company for a reason and it was my dance. So I wasn’t arrogant or star struck till around 1984, as that’s when I realised how much attention was on him.
But it was more like bragging rights as I got to hang out with him. And I realised that no matter where I was, if he was there he would come up to me and be like ’How you doing Shrimp?’ So it was a personal thing. It kind of made me proud.
So what signature moves of Michael’s were ones you taught him?
When he did the Motown special, he worked with Jeffery Daniels, Cooley Jackson and Casper – these three guys from Shalamaar. Right after that show, I had been working out with him and he was looking to make his solo bigger. So if you go online and look at the Victory tour, which was directly after Motown 25, you will see the change in that solo. My move that you see, is when he does the Billie Jean solo, and he is stationary, doing the moonwalk in a circular flow, he doesn’t just goes backwards – that’s floating.(6.29 mark)
Also when you see his solo sets on his History tour, you see him doing a lot of mechanical ticks, which is like an animated robot. It’s the same kind of ticks I demonstrated when I came out the store in Breakin’, just before I did the Broom dance, and when I appeared on US TV show Family Matters as a robot Steve Urkel (see examples after 7.00 mark of below video).
Michael Jackson always loved the robot. He used to do it in the 70s but I had an updated version, and he really loved that and he wanted to master my version of the robot. So him mixing those two styles, it gave him more to play with on his solos. I was always called in as like a creative consultant for his solos. Other dancers worked with him for his choreography, but I worked with him on his solos.
My signature style is liquid animation, more robotic, and there was no other person around him who had my style, so that set me a part from them.
How long did you work with Michael?
I worked with him from 1983 till about 1991, whenever his scheduled permitted. But he was such as genius and master of dance that we really didn’t have to work out that long. We would practiced for like an hour or so and ‘boom’ he got it. He did a lot of filming and I often wonder what happened to those tapes and whether they will ever surface.
I definitely raised the bar on his dance solo as a popper. Jeffery Daniels only did so much, and Jeffery Daniels was associated with the 70s. I’m associated with the 80s and it was the 80s dance style that made people go ‘Woah, Michael’s crazy!’ He learned from jazz dancers and other styles, but the popping stuff I was teaching him took him straight over the top. After that, during all his solos he just wanted to pop.
Do you feel like you get enough credit for what you added to his performance?
When I started working with him, I was still a young artist without management and I didn’t have representation. Choreographers these days come into each situation with a public relation teams and lawyers etc, and are then able to say, ‘yes, I am the choreographer behind this artist and that artist’. But I didn’t do that. It was more of a friendship thing and knowing that if I work with this person, I can see my artistry through him.
I didn’t get a lot of credit, because while everybody was trying to make their name and put some heavy-duty credit on their resume, in the dance world I was already known as Turbo. Breakin’ came out in 1984. Michael came out with the moonwalk in 1983, so all these thing that were ground breaking came out one after the other, so people were like ‘Well he got the biggest credit by being in the film, well I’m gonna grab this credit, coz he doesn’t really need it’. So for 15 years I didn’t really push the issue publicly coz the whole thing about teaching Michael was to contribute to him being the greatest performer, and that’s exactly what I did.
‘If anybody would have come out at that time and said, ‘yeah, I’m the guy behind Michael Jackson’, it would have taken credit away from him. He accomplished exactly what he wanted to do and that was to be known as one of the world’s greatest performers. Period.’
That’s very noble of you…
If anybody would have come out at that time and said, ‘yeah, I’m the guy behind Michael Jackson’, it would have taken credit away from him. He accomplished exactly what he wanted to do and that was to be known as one of the world’s greatest performers period. During that it was the people that really cared about him and respected him, that were like ‘okay, we know what we know, just let the man do what he’s gotta do’. So you didn’t hear Jeffery Daniels back then saying he taught Michael Jackson. You didn’t hear anything like that. It was years later.
It must have been hard being so noble all the time though, as that could have helped your career a lot…
It did hurt me at times, as there were moments when I really needed it, like when I was looking around for work… And there were opportunities for it to be put out there. Like when Michael did that interview with Oprah Winfrey back in 1993, she specifically asked him, ‘Michael, who taught you the moonwalk?’ And he said he had been working three kids in the ghetto, three different dancers. And then he said he perfected it. That was a chance for him to let us all shine as co-contributors, but he kind of skipped over it (laughs). I guess he felt he didn’t need to name us publicly since we were already known in our own right.
But I’m glad that stuff is starting to come out. I see a lot of artists who used to work with him stepping out of the shadows, and it helps me to get work and be acknowledged by a lot of people who looked up to Michael.
How did you react to Michael’s death?
It was kind of sad for me, as here was a guy who was just trying to provide for his family. There are a lot of artists who people may feel have questionable lifestyles, but that shouldn’t take away from their artistry. Believe it or not, the one good thing that came out of his passing is it showed how much people were paying attention to him as an artist and what he contributed, so it is a double edged sword.
Did you work with any other interesting people due to your association with Michael?
I got a call from my agent in 1992 that Michael Flatley, from Lord of the Dance, requested a practice session with me. It was just after he left the show, and I was very honored. It was the first time someone of his calibre of Irish dance wanted to work with me and experience my moves. He knew that Michael Jackson had worked with me and it was one of the reasons he got in touch.
To be honest, back then when word got out that I was working with Michael Jackson, a lot of big artists actually didn’t want to work with me. Michael Jackson is known for his style of dance, so other artists were afraid to work with me, as they didn’t want to look like Michael.
That’s ironic considering Michael’s influence now…
Yeah, I know.Years later the likes of Usher, Omarion and Justin Timberlake are now doing a Michael Jackson style of dance, and are clearly influenced by him. But that trend only started happening as he aged. But back in the day no one wanted to look like Michael.
You also worked with Paula Abdul on her groundbreaking music video Opposites Attract…
Yes, I auditioned for that video as they were looking for an animated dancer. We were at the same agency at the time, and when she saw me, she was like ‘yep, that’s the guy’. Basically they built the character of MC Skat Kat around me and my movements. If you look at my face, I have very distinct eyebrows, and the animator animated my face and told me to run with it and be that character, so MC Skat Kat is me. (see below video and links).
Was it a good experience working on that video?
It was good, and then it was bad, as even though this video won so many awards and was very groundbreaking at the time, as a contributor I just assumed, even though I didn’t really fight for it, I would have been a part of that. I didn’t get invited to the award shows or on tour (instead they had another dancer in a cat costume). I didn’t feel that I got acknowledged for what I contributed.
What affect did it have on your career?
That kind of hurt my career at the time, as, in the 1990s, to go from Michael Jackson to Paula Abdul, you are talking a major bump in your income. That credit would have put me in more demand for other jobs, but instead it stagnated my aspirations for being a worthy consultant.
Well, I never really considered myself a choreographer, as I never had to work with large groups of people as a norm. But as a speciality, I was a creative consultant, where I could consult on movement and contribute to other people’s style. At the time I really needed that credit. And now a lot of people who have seen it are like, ‘wow, why didn’t they show that clip at the time?’
Do you wish you pushed the issue more at the time, now?
I didn’t push the issue because I didn’t have the right representation, but I also didn’t say too much as I wanted to keep the working relationship with these artists. But if I did have a manager they definitely would have pushed for me to get more credit. But I guess all I can do now is speak on it and hopefully help younger artists. The best thing I can say to them is when you work with known artists, go in with representation so you can at least come out of that job and put it on your resume, and as a result be able to raise the amount you get paid.
Another big video you worked on, also involved animation, which was Bart Simpson’s , Do The Bartman. How did you get involved in that?
After the Opposites Attract video came out in 1989, Michael called me just to touch base and to find out how everything was going in my life. And I had echoed some sentiments, saying something along the lines of: ‘I really want to do some stuff with you where I can get a credit as people don’t really believe that I’ve worked with you‘. And he goes: ‘Okay, let me get back to you on that.’ So he calls me back a short time later and said: ‘I want you to come to Neverland, and we’ll spend the weekend working on some steps, for a new job I got called Do The Bartman.
However he was trying to keep his whole involvement with the project hush-hush, as he did it as a favour and was trying to water down his association. So I wasn’t allowed to mention his name in conjunction with the video, but I would get the full choreography credit. And that’s what happened. I thought that was really nice of him.
Did you get any work from that?
I got called for jobs like the film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures, where I played a secondary lead character. I also got called for a job on popular US sitcom Family Matters. So it allowed casting agents to see me as someone who was more than just dancing in music videos… My goal was to reach the attention of a George Lucas or Steven Spielberg and play one of these great characters in one of these Star Wars trilogies, like a robot or a creature, utilising my popping and robotic movement skills.
I read rumors that you were going to be on the next season of US reality TV show Dancing With The Stars?
That was a big rumor over here in the US as I think some people had been throwing around the fact that I should be on the show. It’s not something that has materialised, but it is definitely something I would do.
Which performers/dancers do you currently rate right now, in terms pf people who are in the charts?
I have always been impressed with Usher, Chris Brown, Omarion and Justin Timberlake. They all utilise popping skills, which they of course got from Michael Jackson. In terms of the female dancers, Beyonce is great, as she is like a new version of Tina Turner. Her and Shakira, they show stamina. They are more the power dancers.
Do any of the younger artists tell you you influenced them?
I met Omarion back when he was on the set of You Got Served and his mother came up to me and said that he was very much influenced by me when he was growing up and with the group B2K. I also met Ginuwine and he told me he wanted to do a tribute to me as he was a big fan. And he did, in the video for his song None of Your Friend’s Business. If you watch near the end, he recreated my broom dance number in the video.
What about this talk of a Breakin’3, is there any truth to those rumors?
There were a couple of scripts of the film being passed around, but there were conflicts of interest in the circle of the cast.I recently attended an event in Beverly Hills with Lucinda Dickey where they showed a screening of Breakin’ 2. It was like a reunion for her and I, but with other members of the cast, it doesn’t seem like we can get it together at the moment.
Is that mainly to do with with your strained relationship with Adolpho?
Most definitely. If we all were able to get it together, it would have been easier to get things moving, even if it was a direct- to-video movie.
And lastly, what are you up to these days?
I started teaching again, and am constantly looking for opportunities to be able to get more recognition. I’m gonna be working with a manager who is helping me put together more of a promotional campaign to get me in a position where I am more visible.
DID YA KNOW?
- Adolpho’ Shabba Doo’ Quinones used to be married to actress Lela Rochan. You can see her standing behind her man, in the below video for the movie’s signature track Ain’t No Stopping Us.
- Michael Chambers got his stage name Boogaloo Shrimp, from his father, a former military man, who later worked in the fishing industry. As the youngest in the family, his dad used to call him Shrimp.
- The infamous broom scene from the first Breakin’ movie was inspired by Fred Astaire in the 1951 film Royal wedding, who in one of his films danced with a coat rack. Ironically in the same movie Astaire also dances on the ceiling for another solo, which is something that was recreated in Breakin’ 2 , once again by Chambers. However Chambers says the idea for this came from the film The Thing (1982).
- The ceiling scene in Breakin 2, inspired Lionel Richie to write his huge 80s hit Dancing on the Ceiling. Lionel and Shrimp were close friends, after Shrimp toured with Lionel, and he had discussed the scene with the singer/songwriter.