It was 29 October 2017, the last Sunday before Halloween, and the costumed participants in World Dance for Humanity’s performance of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” were gathering at the intersection of Grand and Alamo Pintado Avenues in the small Santa Ynez Valley hamlet of Los Olivos.

The dancers’ “stage” was the intersection itself, around the central flag pole in the middle of Grand Avenue. Eventually they took up their positions, the music started, and they launched into their Michael Jackson warm-up routine of “Beat It”.  They then went to ground, and lay prostrate until the unmissable opening notes of “Thriller” started. Slowly the zombies were pulled to their feet by the beat, and then they began to dance!

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Even as a Michael Jackson fan who has become a bit tired of everyone referencing “Thriller” rather than some of Michael’s later material and routines (which tend to be my favorites), I nevertheless found myself beaming at the spectacle before me, while shooting photos as quickly as I could.

Nearby, my friend Lisa was videoing the show on her phone, while many more observers were clapping, tapping, swaying to the rhythm of the song and picking up on the adrenaline of the dancers.

They were GOOD!

Having Michael’s music blasting in the main street of what had been his local community, with a horde of dancing zombies performing his famous choreography, was a wonderful tribute to the King of Pop.

Then, suddenly it was over; the dancers cooled down and wandered around talking to us folk who had been watching.  Some of them gathered for a group photo (and a glass of wine) in front of Larner’s Tasting Room and the Los Olivos General Store.  My little MJ doll was co-opted into the photo and came in for his share of kisses and cuddles from admirers.  (I’m used to this – that’s why my “business” card says “I’m with the doll” – because he’s the one everyone remembers!)

The dancers then departed for the next location where they were scheduled to perform in the SYV, but we would meet up with them again later in the day – at Neverland itself.

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In the meantime, there was time for Judi, Lisa, Gigi and I to enjoy the view from the top of a hill near the town of Santa Ynez. It was a beautiful vista; being late October, temperatures in the Valley were pleasant, the days perfect for walking, driving and exploring.

Finally we headed off to Neverland and the next performance of “Thriller” by World Dance for Humanity.

World Dance was founded in 2010 by Janet Reineck, a dancer, anthropologist and aid worker. It began as a low-cost exercise class in Santa Barbara and has now become a nonprofit organization that has supported grassroots projects in Nepal, Kenya, Ghana, Liberia, and Uganda and provided grants to Santa Barbara charities. World Dance for Humanity now helps 25 rural Rwandan cooperatives left divided and destitute by the 1994 genocide in that country. As stated on the organization’s website “every dollar contributed through a class or donated helps ease suffering and build new lives…” Their website is http://worlddanceforhumanity.org/who-we-are/

In front of the big gates of Neverland, just off Figueroa Mountain Road, Janet gave a moving speech of thanks and appreciation for Michael Jackson and the special location, as well as for everyone who helped World Dance make a difference in the lives of others “one step at a time”.

A small audience had gathered in front of the big gates to watch. As in Los Olivos, there was a spirited warm-up dance, and then it was time for “Thriller” once again.

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“Last year they opened the gates behind us while we danced,” I heard someone say.  Then a cheer went up as again, in 2017, the big gates swung open behind the zombie dancers.  I took it as a small, but important, token of appreciation from the caretakers of Michael’s former home for all of us who gathered to dance, watch or donate in his honor.

And, of course, it was Thrill the World weekend all over the world and just a couple of days before Halloween itself.

I still had Mickey’s Halloween Party at Disneyland ahead of me on the night of the 31st, but this, right here – in the company of my friends and with the World Dance for Humanity performers – this was the real Halloween celebration, done in a joyous spirit of giving.

Kerry Hennigan
December 2017
Revised February 2018

Story and photographs © Kerry Hennigan 2017

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