Dancing in the Street: who does it best?

Do Mick Jagger and David Bowie win with the boyish swagger of their 1985 video, or are they outclassed by Martha and the Vandellas' effortless-looking choreography?

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Back in June 1985, rival rock gods Mick Jagger and David Bowie were momentarily united on the moral high ground, adding their support to Live Aid with this cover of Dancing in the Street. Vocally the duet has become a collector's item – two such differently stellar singers in one Motown classic. But the visual juxtaposition of the two men's dancing is no less cherishable, and no less revealing of their personal style.

Jagger's body language – as always – is dominating by his mouth. Snarling, growling, pouting or violently pursed, it has a choreography all of its own. The sound that comes out of it is also phrased for maximum attack, belting vocals that pounce on the rhythmic emphasis.

But if you watch Jagger's dancing, it, too, is all about nailing the beat. In the opening seconds of this video [0.27], he sets up a characteristic syncopation between the upward aerobic spring of his jumps and the clipped angular pumping of his arms. It cinches the beat no less than the flamboyant semaphore of his gestures, and the cut-and-thrust of his pelvic moves.

David Bowie's voice, by contrast, tends to weave around both the harmony and the rhythm, and his dance moves are similarly lighter, more detached, and very slightly parodic. At our first glimpse of him [0.38], he's got his hands pushed deep into the pockets of his trenchcoat – a pure statement of cool – and in place of Jagger's rock-star grind he's allowing himself an ironic, loose-hipped sway.

Then look at them when they're out on the street. Jagger is bounding along, impatient to show off the stamina that he's apparently developed from 12-mile runs and a daily ballet class. Bowie is almost mooching along beside him and, showman that he is, reserves his energies for more calculated special effects: the leap into frame at 0.43, the Latin diva pose at 1.56 and the slightly surreal hand flourishes (back turned to the camera) [2.10-15], that remind us of the early apprenticeship Bowie served with the great mime artist Lindsay Kemp.

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I love this duet, but my heart still belongs to Martha and the Vandellas, who first recorded the song in 1964.

The three women are dancing the tight, snappy routines that characterised all those Motown singers. Formally dressed in matching cocktail frocks – or, in the later footage, the newly hip trouser suits of the 60s – they mostly limit themselves to coolly coordinated shimmies of the shoulders and hips and to unison hand jives (the opening shout-out at 0.10, though, is surely a gesture that Jagger was referencing in his own routine [0.26]).

Yet it's the restraint of the women's performance that's key to the intoxicating effect of the song. The moments where Martha Reeves curves her voice into an upper emotional register of rebellious exhilaration [at 1.07, 1.42, or 2.02] and it is all the more infectious because of the overriding control of the music and dance formation.

It's that tension between tightness and ecstasy that made Dancing in the Streets one the great anthems of pop – and the reason why it can still fill a dancefloor half a century later.

Contributor

Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

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