Michael Peters Is the Hot New Choreographer Who Makes Dancers Out of Video's Rock Stars

UPDATED 06/25/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/25/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

He was the white-suited, switchblade-wielding gang leader in the award-winning Michael Jackson video clip, Beat It. Then he was a suave dude strutting with Lionel Richie in Running With the Night and Hello. Next he was slithering past Pat Benatar in Love Is a Battlefield.

His name, MTV fans, is Michael Peters, and he sure can dance. "Like a cat," says colleague Vince Paterson, the rival gang chief in Beat It. "His movement seems to cut through the air without disturbing any molecules."

Which is only half the story. Michael Peters not only performs in rock video's minimusicals, he has staged some of the best. As one of today's most sought-after choreographers—"the Balanchine of MTV," some call him—his credits range from Diana Ross' Pieces of Ice and Jackson's Grammy-sweeping Thriller to TV commercials for Dr Pepper, Egg McMuffin, Sasson Jeans and, oh yes, the Pepsi spots with the Jacksons. Peters is not responsible for the hair-burning pyrotechnics. "That was one step off the beat," he says reproachfully.

His own state-of-the-art choreographic style can hardly be termed timid. Instead of counting out the steps, as is the rule in classical ballet and modern dance, he has tilted the emphasis of dance toward the sounds of the instruments—a slick drum riff, say, or a guitar lick. "When you dance by the numbers," he says, "you extract all emotions and sterilize the movement. You remove the dance from its inspiration, which is the music. What I love is the capability of a body to be free in the sense of street or social dancing and, at the same time, do something that is technically hard and tremendously disciplined."

Thus, the Peters style is endowed with high energy and precision. "He originated a lot of the movements other choreographers now imitate," says Vince Paterson. Among the Peters' signatures that appeared in Bear It was an undulating step called the Worm. "As you back up, the body makes a wormlike movement, like a wave," Paterson explains. "You just send this energy wave from your pelvis to the tip of your head."

For Debbie (Fame) Allen, a friend and colleague, the Peters style of choreography represents something "very hot and very now." But for Peters, the here and now was a long time arriving, having consumed nearly all his 35 years. His earliest times were spent in a low-income housing project in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. His mother, Rebecka, is of German-Jewish descent; his father, John, a retired factory worker, is black. "The story goes that they lived together eight years, then got married and were divorced after a year," Michael says. "In the context of the 1940s, you're talking about a real radical situation."

"It was difficult," admits Rebecka Peters, "though we moved into a fairly well-integrated neighborhood so he would not be the only black child and I would not be the only white person." Still, she remembers the moments when Michael would place his arm next to hers and ask, "Why can't I be the same color as you?"

In school he was beaten up by black and white kids alike ("He would never hit back," says his mom). Because of his high IQ, he was placed in a special program for gifted children in the fourth grade, and yet, he says, "I didn't want to do schoolwork. I just had so much energy, and I got bored so easily—still do." He spent four years at New York's High School of Performing Arts but didn't graduate. "I didn't have the grades," he says.

But Michael did find a place of solace in the Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Center in Queens, to which he commuted by subway and bus. There he flourished, as did kindred spirits like Ben Vereen and Lester Wilson (later the choreographer of Saturday Night Fever). Most of all there was the encouragement of black dance instructor Bernice Johnson (wife of noted jazz saxophonist Budd Johnson). "I told Michael it's out there for you," she says. "Just go and get it." He did, though the going was bumpy for 15 years. Peters danced in Europe in Lola Falana's nightclub act, then joined the Alvin Ailey dance company, lasting barely six months. "He was a terrific dancer, quick, fast, kind of explosive," Ailey says. But he was also "volatile, strong-willed and restless. Already he had that spark of creativity."

Peters moved to California and staged acts for Donna Summer, Connie Stevens and Debbie Reynolds. In early 1980 a Broadway show he choreographed, Comin' Uptown, closed after six weeks. "I just sat in my apartment and stared out the window," he says. "Total depression." Needing help, he called old friend Vereen, who took him in as "friend, confidant and choreographer."

Meanwhile, Pulitzer prize-winning director Michael (A Chorus Line) Bennett had been so impressed by Peters' work in Comin' Uptown that he had stopped by to chat. "His commitment to dance was obsessive, and what became apparent to me from our first discussion was that we could collaborate," noted Bennett. Bennett and Peters, joined by Bob Avian, toiled a year and a half to whip together the 1982 musical Dreamgirls, which won six Tony Awards. Afterward Bennett passed his co-prizewinner on to TV director Bob Giraldi, who was moving from successful commercials to MTV, thereby launching a second successful collaboration.

Peters soon showed an extraordinary knack for turning rock superstars into competent hoofers. "He really knows how to tear down the fear by showing you that the steps are basically simple," says Lionel Richie. "When I first saw myself dancing, I couldn't believe it was me." Explains Pat Benatar, "Whatever movements you do naturally, he translates them into dance steps." And, adds Bob Giraldi, "Michael has that uncanny ability of making a dramatic idea explode into dance," a talent fully appreciated by yet another Michael (Jackson), who asked Peters to dance the gang leader part in the Beat It sequence.

These days Peters is enjoying the taste of money, thanks to a six-figure yearly income (he makes an estimated $50,000 per video). He has bought $1,000 outfits and 150 pairs of shoes. "He splurges on clothes," admits his mother, "but I'd rather have that than gambling and drugs." He rents a one-bedroom, high-tech Hollywood pad and a Manhattan duplex and relaxes by hanging upside down in inversion boots or watching old movies on home cassettes (favorite: Auntie Mame).

Though he travels in fast company now, Michael Peters insists his closest friends are "the people I grew up with." He clears time from his hectic schedule to go back to Bernice Johnson's in Queens to teach, observe and to start a building fund for her school. He is quick to lend a hand to colleagues and young dancers. Currently he is planning to work on a Broadway musical version of 1982's hit movie Victor/Victoria and he is choreographing a major new work for the Ailey company for the fall. While he never completely relaxes, he seems to have found himself at last. "I don't know when that turning point came," he reflects. "Perhaps with the realization—and recognition—that I was good at what I did. And there's one thing about dance today nobody can deny—it has no color line."

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