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Moonwalking his way to Amateur Night fame

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- Photo courtesy of Catherine Robinson
Malcolm Cox dances for the third year in a row at the MEAC basketball tournament in 2010.

Malcolm Cox was confused when his mother took him on a surprise trip to New York last October and told him to bring his dancing shoes.

And his Billie Jean jacket.

Malcolm, a rising junior at Independence High, makes up his own dance routines and has started to make money dancing like Michael Jackson at events. Now, he’s won two Amateur Nights at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and he’s advancing to the Top Dog competition show in October.

His ultimate goal is to win the Super Top Dog contest in November, which comes with a $10,000 prize. Amateur Night is a talent contest at the Apollo Theater in New York City that debuted in 1934 and accepts contestants from all around the world. The audience judges by either booing or cheering contestants after they perform.

Malcolm’s mother, Catherine Robinson, said he’s been watching Michael Jackson music videos daily since he was 2.

“He watched ‘Smooth Criminal’ and ‘Billie Jean,’ and it was just like he was drawn to Michael Jackson’s dancing,” she said.

Then he asked her to make him outfits. “I don’t sew,” Robinson said. “He’d ask, ‘Mom, can you please make me one of those jackets?’ I was up in the middle of the night making those socks.”

Malcolm, now 16, said he always loved dancing but became inspired to do more with dance after Michael Jackson died in 2009.

“I was kind of, like, really depressed,” he said of his reaction to the King of Pop’s death. “I was like: ‘I need to do something.’ ”

He hasn’t had much formal training, he said, but took up learning dance routines on his own.

“It’s like an outlet for me. If I’m feeling down for a day, I’ll listen to a song, then I want to make a routine out of it,” Malcolm said. “I can show all my emotions through how I dance.”

He first performed at a theater in Winston-Salem in 2010 (“Everybody went berserk over his dance,” his mother said), and he’s performed at events from basketball tournaments to banquets to birthday parties ever since.

Malcolm said he typically has a free period at school that he uses to get homework done. “When I go home, I just dance,” he said.

He said he practices every day for at least a couple of hours at home in an empty room. He’ll practice flips outside. Malcolm stays organized by drawing his routines on loose-leaf paper.

“Whenever I hear a song, I just fool around with it for about an hour, then I draw it out and just tweak what I want to without having to dance the entire time,” he said.

While Malcolm is extremely passionate about dancing, he said his parents care a lot about his future in dancing and don’t like him to do other sports or activities where he could injure himself. “They want me to sit and relax,” he said.

His main influences are James Brown, Michael Jackson, Usher and a little bit of Fred Astaire, he said. “The ’60s through ’80s music really influenced how I dance – and some of the ’30s. I’m an old soul.”

Jackson-style is certainly his forte – that’s what’s won him first place at two Amateur Night contests – and he has 15 outfits for M.J.-themed dance numbers. Malcolm said though he does other types of dance, that’s his most popular request.

At the auditions in Harlem last October – there are generally five to six a year – Malcolm loved being in the famous Apollo Theater. He got up at 4 a.m. to be No. 52 in line, and he said people had 90 seconds to audition before judges.

Cynthia Tate, a spokeswoman for the Apollo Theater, said judges typically only see the first 300 people who wait to audition, and that there are usually five or six auditions a year. People often wait outside the theater the night before in hopes of getting an early audition spot, she said. “During our previous auditions, we offered a second day because the turnout was so great.”

At the end of an Amateur Night season (spanning about seven months), there are just two winners: a child star (age 5-15) and an adult winner (16 and up), Tate said.

After the first 30 seconds of his audition, Malcolm said judges told him to stop. They asked how long he’d been dancing, and he told them all his life.

“They said, ‘Yeah, I can tell,’ ” he said. “I was like, ‘Woohoohoo, yeah!’ ”

He didn’t return to the Apollo to perform until May. He said when people backstage found out he was doing a Michael Jackson dance, they pressured him to do it justice.

“I could not stop shaking, and I don’t ever shake during a performance,” he said. “I saw another guy do Usher and get booed off. I thought he was good, but the crowd wasn’t impressed. I was sweating bullets back there.”

But Malcolm’s moonwalk was smooth as a criminal, and he won the contest that night. In late July he won again, performing the same routine against other previous winners. One audience member the Apollo interviewed in a video said Malcolm’s performance wasn’t worth just one cheer but a “double cheer.”

Now Malcolm gets to come up with a new routine, which he’s still planning, and said he’s excited about October’s competition.

“I love it,” Robinson said of her son’s dancing. “I’m a big Michael Jackson fan, and to watch him dance, it’s almost really like watching Michael Jackson dance, because he has mastered every step, he really has.”

Beyond Amateur Night, he wants to continue performing to make some money, and hopes to save up enough to buy a car.

He said after high school, he’d like to attend an art institute or Full Sail University. He has several interests: entertainment, songwriting, psychology and making music videos and video games. “I really want to go into the music field,” he said. He recently started taking voice lessons.

“He wants to entertain,” Robinson said, adding that she believes college is important. “He wants to dance and sing. That’s his dream, and I’m just glad to see his dream is coming true.”

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