I hadn’t intended on dancing; I was just gonna to watch. But once I heard the driving rhythms of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and saw the oh-so familiar choreography of Michael Peters, I simply could not resist. I believe we should never pass up opportunities for public displays of collective fun. I registered, had my face zombified, and joined the world in the dance.
If you haven’t heard of Thrill the World, here is a synopsis. Creator and director, Ines Markeljevic invented Thrill the World in 2006 intending to set a world record for simultaneous dancing of a single choreography, as well as to get people into the streets for the purposes of merriment. Each local sponsor also uses this as a chance to raise funds for local charity. (In Santa Cruz Mariposa’s Art was the recipient). Markeljevic’s choreography is based on Peters’ original with all the iconic moments intact. It is performed simultaneously all across the globe during the Halloween season (for obvious reasons).
Dance instructors at Motion Pacific Dance Studio (one of the sponsors) had been teaching the choreography to students and fans for months. Beginning around 2:00 in Santa Cruz, CA, the choreography was taught and rehearsed at the corner of Cooper and Front Streets. There were makeup artists donating their time to paint our faces. (My makeup artist said they had planned on stopping at 3:30 but at 5:00 there was still a long list of zombie wannabes awaiting transformation.) At just after 5:00, the Motion Pacific crowd paraded through town to the performance area and met up with the motley crowd of independents. According to the local newspaper there were 236 zombies present. And I was delighted to be one of themWe begin and end lying on the pavement, a field of the dead waiting for Jackson’s voodoo music to bring us to life. This is what surprised me. All variety of people—young, middle-aged, men, women, dancers, non-dancers, brown and white alike—chose to take a risk. Ignoring health concerns (the spread of H1N1 flu is on the nightly news), ignoring social sanctions against bodily contact with strangers, ignoring class, ethnicity, and gender barriers, ignoring notions of proper public behavior, hundreds of people chose to lie in the street and to dance together. Why would we do this? I’ll tell you what I think: I think its because we needed to.
In her excellent “history of collective joy” Barbara Ehrenreich suggests that beginning in the 17th century European society began to suffer from wide-spread depression. And she attributes this “apparent decline in the ability to experience pleasure” to the deliberate repression of religious ritual and public expressions of ecstasy—like dancing in the streets—in Europe and America (132). This melancholia was a sociosomatic condition—the development of physiological responses to social conditions—and its effects were very real. I think its safe to say that we are collectively experiencing a similar phenomenon.
With the world in economic decline and society in the middle of becoming something new, we have all lost our footing. It becomes harder everyday to experience simple pleasures when you are worried about health care and putting food on the table. Empirically, I can tell you that my current economic standing is very depressing and that within moments of arriving at the street rehearsal of Thriller I had a smile on my face. I deliberately placed myself in the middle of the crowd so I would be surrounded by these dancing zombies. What a blast. But now I want more communal fun. I want to see our urban landscapes turned into landscapes for we the people. I want to cover the walls with murals. I want to stage flash mobs of dancers in raspberry berets. I want people to break out in song at the least provocation. And every day in every way, I want to dance in the street with strangers. Like the song says, “The time is right…”
2006 Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, NY, NY: Metropolitan Books.