When September starts to wane, and thoughts of autumn traditions like Halloween and Thanksgiving are whirling around like fallen leaves in people’s heads, for me, pumpkins and candy corn and turkey feasts are not the first things that come to mind.
Nope, my brain is programed to think “Thriller” — the annual end-of-October performance staged at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunken Gardens by local nonprofit World Dance for Humanity.
And I know that, as a long-time member of World Dance, for six weeks or so each fall, I will be eating, breathing and dreaming “Thriller,” the iconic Halloween-season song and dance made famous by Michael Jackson. His “Thriller” album still holds the record for best-selling album of all time.
Most of the World Dance regulars make the temporary transition from our normal workouts to the zombie routine, along with scores of others who, like those who show up to their houses of worship only on major holidays, come to class in the fall just to learn and dance “Thriller.”
It hasn’t been an easy dance for my body to figure out, but after five or six years, muscle memory has finally taken hold.
And there is always someone in front of me who I can follow, to say nothing of the recorded verbal directions with descriptive phrases like: “Booty bounce, booty bounce.” “Air guitar to the right (or is it the left?” “Roar turn, roar turn, roar turn, roar turn …” You kinda have to be there.
Over the years, it’s even become easier to teach the dance, according to World Dance executive director Janet Reineck. What used to take a month of instruction now takes less than an hour, she says.
What’s infinitely more time consuming is shopping for just the right costume, but for me combing local thrift stores for creative clothing pieces is more fun than a crypt full of zombies.
Last year I scored a pristine Elsa dress (from the movie “Frozen” for those of you whose grandchildren have not been obsessed with the platinum-haired Disney character).
For $8, I figured I wouldn’t feel too guilty zombifying the bright blue, sparkly, floor-length gown by slashing its hem and shredding the gauzy sleeves.
I was a little worried that an enraged Elsa might turn me into a pillar of ice for my sacrilege, but it didn’t happen.
Despite the “Get Scary for Charity” theme (money raised from the event pays for 293 Rwandan young people to attend school this year, and locally benefits the Downtown & Westside Boys and Girls Clubs), there was a different tone to Thriller this year — a little less fright and a little more fun-loving.
While worldwide tragedies are with us all the time, due to the ongoing war in Ukraine (World Dance has given more than $250,000 in relief aid so far to help that battle-torn nation), and now the war in the Middle East, dancers were asked to tone down the edgy zombie blood and gore, and turn up the smiles.
In a show of unity for all who are suffering, just before the official Thrill the World performance at 3 p.m. Saturday, dancers and audience members stood side-by-side in a prayer circle that filled the perimeter of the Sunken Gardens lawn.
We joined hands and swayed in unison as the anti-war ballad “Flower in the Gun” played over a loud speaker.
Performing “Thriller” is a process — weeks of dance practice; watching old videos of Michael Jackson learning the dance; finding just the right costume; and making time to attend flash mobs all over the county, many of them at night.
But at the end of the day, after the final show, when you start to leave the Courthouse Sunken Gardens, and some random guy sitting on the stone steps holding a walking stick looks up at you and says, “Thank you,” it is all worthwhile.