With a career that has spanned over three decades, the man who played Turbo, Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers, has carved out a niche in the industry for himself as a dancer, choreographer, and actor.
Chambers boasts an extensive resume. Along with a myriad of dance credits, he has several television and film credits under his belt, including playing the infamous Urkel-Bot in the hit show Family Matters, and in movies Naked Gun 33 ½ The Final Insult, Dudley Do -Right, and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
SoulTrain.com caught up with Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers to discuss his dance journey, working with the King of Pop, and his plans for the future.
SoulTrain.com: How did you get started dancing?
Michael Chambers: I got into dance because I quickly realized how it would bring joy and it was therapeutic for me and for my family. I was turned out by the movie Saturday Night Fever, especially when John Travolta did his solo, and just seeing John Travolta doing choreography by the late Lester Wilson. I was blown away because I realized just how much attention it got. I would do my interpretations of the dance at school and got so much attention from the girls [laughs]! In the 7th grade, my life changed; there was a kid in class that got up and he was doing his version of Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow character from the The Wiz, but he had a snap with it. That was when I first saw pop locking, so after that I watched him and learned his movement, and I started seeking out other people that were doing similar styles. By the 9th grade, I had really started developing my own style. In 1979 everybody was pop locking, but we were doing it and being silly, but I kept hearing that I was good. One of the biggest things that dance was doing for me, was really allowing me to be accepted as an African American in a world that was culturally divided.
SoulTrain.com: How did you get the name Boogaloo Shrimp? Some would assume you got the name from the popular dance, the boogaloo.
Michael Chambers: I’m actually the baby in my family. I have three other siblings, and everywhere my sister would take me, they would call me Boogaloo Shrimp. Now pop locking was a style, but there was another style called the boogaloo. The Electric Boogaloo is the actual name of the dance and it was featured on Soul Train. The name boogaloo goes deeper than that–it goes all the way back to Louisiana, and even in the Afro-Cuban jazz world. So you would either pop lock–which was stiff like the robot, or you did the boogaloo, which was cool and slick. So when the group Electric Boogaloo appeared on Soul Train, they had a very underground fan base and people were saying they wanted to boogaloo like that. So that’s how I got my name, because I loved to dance and people would just call me Boogaloo Shrimp.
SoulTrain.com: What role do you think Soul Train played in allowing dancers to showcase their styles of dance?
Michael Chambers: One of the things that Don Cornelius did for the dance community was to showcase the latest styles so he made sure that he didn’t allow sexually suggestive things to be shown. When he allowed certain people on the show, he did have to tell them to tone it down, so he really tried to protect the image the way blacks were portrayed to the world. I am very proud and very respectful to as far as what Don Cornelius laid down as a foundation. I learned a lot from several Soul Train dancers, especially Damita Jo Freeman; she was on the Lionel Richie tour with me and she had a lot of gusto. I also worked with Adolfo “Shabba Doo” Quinones. I am very honored to have worked with some amazing Soul Train dancers.
SoulTrain.com: You have an impressive resume. What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Michael Chambers: The highlight of my life and career and just being able to see how far Mr. Michael Jackson would take my dance technique to the next level. So many artists over the years–like Usher and Justin Timberlake and several others–looked up to Michael Jackson as one that influenced their style, and I was one of the ones that helped him build his solo and techniques.
SoulTrain.com: How did you end up meeting Michael Jackson?
Michael Chambers: It’s really interesting, I was featured in a spot on Eye on LA and there was a segment on what the kids were doing in Hollywood, and the street dance segment featured dancers that were on Hollywood Boulevard. What we would do is on the weekends walk around there challenging and battling people. So they featured us on the show, and that got Michael Jackson’s attention and made me stand out. At the time he had just finished working with Jeffrey Daniels for Motown 25 which was amazing.
A talent coordinator invited me and Poppin’ Taco to the Jackson compound, and we met the family and we basically showed them our styles of dancing. Shortly after, Poppin’ Taco started working with Michael as his choreographer and went on the road with him.
SoulTrain.com: Talk about how you ended up working with the King of Pop and how he took your technique to another level.
Michael Chambers: Michael saw me again on Lionel Richie’s tour. He saw the feedback that we got from his tour. I ultimately helped Michael with his technique. What happened is it started out with the moonwalk, with my sliding and floating technique. The first job that he did after our sessions of working together was the Victory Tour. I didn’t know if he was going to use the stuff, but talk about a highlight of my career–it’s documented, and you will see Michael Jackson at Dodger Stadium–doing a new version of “Billie Jean” that’s totally different from Motown 25. He implemented some techniques he learned from me into that. I had no idea he was going to do it, so I was shocked when I was at the show and saw him doing it. He did a lightening fast back slide, which is a much faster progression than he did on Motown 25. He started floating in place, which is a circular glide. That’s what I was known for at the time, doing a backslide combination into a circular glide. Later on, when Mr. Jackson’s schedule would permit, we would get together and he would ask me what I’m doing and where my style was. Back in 1987 I told him it was about the kicking and when he saw that, that was all he needed, because he was a great dancer and a brilliant student of anybody’s work. That’s how he got so good; he would put in the research and study it and then master it. In 1987 I showed him a claymation movement, and when he came out later that year the world saw a totally different Michael that was more reserved and cooler. He really just got comfortable with his solo dancing and no longer relied on his moonwalk. So he had a variety of styles in his dance–a little Fred Astaire, and a lot of pop locking. He started getting real smooth in his lines and his grinding and it was immaculate.
SoulTrain.com: What was one project you worked on with Michael Jackson that people may be surprised to learn?
Michael Chambers: That would be the last thing we did together in 1989, and he said he saw my work with Paula Abdul on “Opposite’s Attract.” I actually played the cat in that video. He said he was working on another project for the cartoon The Simpsons. He told me that he was trying to come up with some steps for Bart Simpson’s character, and so he said come up with whatever you can think of that will be cool and he wanted something simple for the character that was still appropriate. So I remembered this old school thing called “hand jive” and I worked up the choreography. Michael wrote the song, “Do the Bart Man,” and he sent the video of me doing the hand jive choreography over to the show. They sent me to Hollywood to film it and I was so happy when our work came out.
SoulTrain.com: Ginuwine took your broom scene from the movie Breakin 2 and incorporated it into his video “None of Your Friend’s Business.” What did you think about that?
Michael Chambers: I think it’s very flattering.
SoulTrain.com: What about Dave Chappelle’s use of the broom scene in one of his episodes on The Chappelle Show?
Michael Chambers: I didn’t really know what to think about that one because he is a comedian. I loved the fact that he would do the broom dance, but because he’s a comedian and that was like a serious theatrical piece, I don’t know if people were looking at his version of the dance as him clowning me or roasting me. Either way, whether it’s good or bad press, as long as I am in the press. It just makes everything that you have done meaningful and hopefully it leads to substantial respect in the industry.
SoulTrain.com: Is there an artist out now whose choreography and style of dance you admire?
Michael Chambers: Definitely. I admire Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga. For me, I grew up in the 80s with Madonna, and you see how big she became. I like Jennifer Lopez because she was an original Fly Girl on In Living Color and she’s really hip-hop. I love to see what she does because she uses hip-hop elements, and the thing that she does is dance. I love her choreography. I really respect Lady Gaga, because she does some amazing stage things. I really like Miguel and I’m starting to respect where Chris Brown is going with his live shows. I like Beyoncé because when she dances and when she does a video, she really presents energy and power. I’d like to work with all of these artists.
SoulTrain.com: What would you say has been your most challenging role?
Michael Chambers: My most challenging role to date is for a short film called I Got Soul. It’s a short film about James Brown. It was the most challenging for me as an actor because I have been trying to make my transition into acting. People forget I wasn’t just dancing in Breakin‘, I was acting and did a little comedy. I never stopped doing that, so now is the time I really want to focus on my acting and comedic skills. Being James Brown was such an honor. I approached the character not as the showman, entertainer James Brown, but I approached it to show what this man was going through at that particular time. So on that note it was more challenging for me because at the time in the 1960s and the movement that was happening in the black community it was a part of my research for the role. For the first time in my life I was able to play such a historical figure–it’s a blessing. People can get more information and updates on when the film will be out on the film’s website http://igotsoulmovie.com.
SoulTrain.com: What’s next for you?
Michael Chambers: Over the course of my life I have always worked with musicians and I love music. So I really love the whole process of recording and coming up with songs, just as much as I love dance. My next thing is I am finally going to record some material, so hopefully I can show my fans what I have become and what I am into. I am going to still be seeking out television and film roles, and work with new stage and theatrical productions.
SoulTrain.com: Will you be singing or rapping in your music?
Michael Chambers: Definitely singing. I’m glad you asked that. I am a singer and I have my own little signature style going so people are always asking me when I am going to record. I want to prove myself as a singer.
SoulTrain.com: Do you plan to write a book one day to tell your story?
Michael Chambers: I might write a book, but I don’t feel old enough yet. I still have so much to do. I’m still on a journey to see where I’ll end up, and it’s been a wonderful one.
Shameika Rene’ is a journalist of all trades. She can usually be found producing television news and writing for various websites such as Charlotte Vibe, Creative Loafing, Mosaic Magazine Charlotte, or her own websites, www.themofochronicles.com and www.conversationswithmeik.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @mofochronicles.