How to Thrill the World -- Learning to dance Michael Jackson's "Thriller"
September 21, 2022
Since 2008 I’ve performed in dozens of musicals, plays, music videos, revues, TV shows and festivals as an ensemble dancer and/or actor -- including more than a dozen performances of Michael Jackson’s THRILLER, among them three Guinness World Record events and a thrilling private performance for the board of directors of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Why does this bizarre piece of music video history fascinate us? I have some ideas.
Ballet Austin’s Butler Community School had re-awakened me to the possibilities of becoming a dancer -- at age 38. That fall I took a thrilling step forward as a dancer and performer when I joined 800+ other local dancers to participate in “Thrill the World” at the Long Center, joining tens of thousands of movers worldwide to set a Guinness World Record for simultaneously dancing “Thriller.” That experience – and several more over the last seven years – are why I appreciate and celebrate “Thriller” as a way for people to connect with their bodies, channel their creativity and claim dance for themselves.
That day, lying flat and “playing dead” on the warm concrete plaza of our city’s performing arts center, we waited for the opening notes and footsteps that mark the beginning of Michael Jackson’s legendary song, “Thriller.” Together as women and men of all ages and races, we slowly rose to life, our bodies play-fighting against gravity. Acting our roles as stumbling, bumbling living dead, rising from our graves and ready to…dance. “Thriller”’s famous fanfare brings us to our feet, and we stare straight ahead, enlivened by the music. The beat drops, and we walk, slowly. Right. Pause. Left. Pause. Right. Pause. Left. Pause.
One of my favorite Broadway dance teachers often quips “if you can walk, you can dance.” (Please note: walking is not even a prerequisite for dancing, as beautiful dance troupes such as Austin’s Body Shift dancers demonstrate.) As we stumbled right-left-right-left across the Long Center plaza, I realized this truth: when we are moved by music, we are dancing.
If you were alive and young in 1984, then “Thriller” connects you to your present body and your past. Perhaps you, like me, watched Friday Night Videos while sitting next to your VCR, waiting for the “Thriller” video to air so you could “tape it” and watch it over and over. Thirty-one years later, “Thriller” reconnects you to your body, maybe unearthing muscle memory you’ve buried in adulthood.
But you don’t have to be middle-aged to be excited by “Thriller,” because it sparks creativity in all ages. In 2015, I taught “Thriller” to a group of young dancers, and we performed it at as a flash mob at an Alamo Drafthouse movie theatre. I gave them two pieces of advice on zombie costumes:
“Find some mud and some blood." (fake blood, please)
"And if your costume is too clean or too cute, it’s not a zombie.”
These 9 – 13-year-olds – and many of their parents -- channeled ghastly princess and cheerleader zombies and night-of-the-living-dead zombies in white t-shirts, flannel and jeans, drizzled in dirt, leaves, mud and fake blood. They even chomped fake blood capsules with me – and we all gagged and giggled as the food coloring ran down our faces. I learned that “zombie-fication” may be another path to girl empowerment!
“Thriller” casts a spell on adults, too. Learning and performing “Thriller” is a way for us to claim our identity as dancers. For most of us “Thriller flash mobbers,” our identity as dancer may fall behind our roles as spouses, parents, professionals, but the identity is no less dear. Last month I met a successful nonprofit executive whose career is a model and inspiration for many. Our conversation spanned many personal and professional subjects, and when we touched on the topic of dance, we went to a whole new shared space. She told me that she was starting a “Thriller” workshop the following week and dancing in Ballet Austin’s flash mob. Her enthusiasm and excitement for tackling this iconic dance – and performing it – was palpable.
In less than six minutes – from a creaky door to an evil cackle -- “Thriller” brings us back to life, living in our bodies, channeling our creativity and declaring our love of dance. As Vincent Price reminds us in rap: “For whosoever shall be found without the soul for getting down, may stand and face the hounds of hell and rot inside a corpse’s shell.”
Go ahead dancers. Thrill the world.
Laura Bond Williams, updated Sept. 21, 2022