My husband doesn’t dance. Doesn’t know how, doesn’t try, and doesn’t even stop to watch dancers unless they are, say, female and nearly naked.
Which is why it was so weird when he ordered an instructional DVD last year and dragged the whole family into the living room one rainy Saturday to learn the five-minute dance made famous in the “Thriller” music video.
Um. We’re going to do what?
Like everyone our age, he’d been dazzled by Michael Jackson’s creepy, campy, and undeniably boogielicious 1983 mini-movie and its dancing undead. After seeing Jennifer Garner and Andy Serkis (Gollum moonwalks?!) bust the routine in 13 Going on 30—and watching 1,500 inmates at a Philippines prison nail it on YouTube—he decided no Gen X-er should be without the skill.
Plus he figured if the whole family could whip it out at parties, maybe we’d get invited places. “We just have to have those spooky, kooky Roshells!”
It turns out the instinct isn’t so weird. Okay, it’s weird, but it’s weirdly common.
For four years, people around the world have gathered annually, and at the same exact time, to set world records for the Largest Simultaneous Dance—while doing the “Thriller” routine.
This year, for the first time, Santa Barbara will join Thrill the World with a free performance at 4 p.m. Saturday (Oct. 23) in De la Guerra Plaza. While dancers do it here, hoofers will stomp out the same steps in Brazil, Germany, Japan, and New South Wales (some countries will dance 12 hours earlier to avoid, well, ghoulish hours of the night).
Led by world-dance instructor Janet Reineck at the Santa Barbara Dance Center, the local group is made up of 80 to 100 amateurs and experienced dancers, 7-year-olds and grandmas, and fans of the late King of Pop.
Michael Gurven has been learning the dance there for a few weeks and has it down cold. He’s a UCSB anthropology professor who does fieldwork in South America.
“It’s always been this half-joke, half-dream of mine to teach ‘Thriller’ to this group of Indians in the Bolivian rainforest,” he says, grinning. He convinced Reineck to come teach the moves—with names like “bootie bounce,” “wuz up,” and “hip ‘n’ roar”—to a dozen of his students on a campus patio last week.
“And reach, air guitar to the right, tick-tock, tick-tock, rock on, rock on,” Reineck instructed, “… and pose! Anything scary. Scary!”
She mainly teaches ethnic dance, but makes an exception for the iconic “Thriller.”
“The choreography is clever and fun, and the moves are very Michael Jackson—we all feel like we’re dancing with him. Plus, on the eve of Halloween, it evokes a mysterious, otherworldly zombie spirit,” she says. But the best part is dancing in sync with the 25,000 people expected to take part worldwide: “It’s like literally being part of a ‘worldbeat.'”
Thrill the World asks participants to raise money for charities of their choice. Reineck’s dancers are donating to Women for Women International, a nonprofit that helps women in war-ravaged areas of the world.
New dancers are invited to join the S.B. Thrill the World event: Master the steps by watching YouTube clips (search “learn Thriller dance”) or show up for Janet’s final tutorial from 9:15-10:30 Saturday morning at 127 West Canon Perdido Street.
Alas, the Roshells won’t be thrilling the world anytime soon. The kids got bored, the coffee table got in the way, and the sequence proved too taxing for our brains—which are crammed to capacity with the maddeningly undeletable lyrics to every song on the Thriller album.
But we’ll be there watching on Saturday. Bootie-bouncing zombies couldn’t keep us away.