It was Sunday 29 October 2017 and the 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.

On this last Sunday before Halloween, there were plenty of people browsing the boutiques, dining, wine tasting and also, as noon approached, more and more turning up with folding chairs to await the performance.

We (i.e. Judi, Lisa, Gigi and myself) had grabbed a table and ordered refreshments from Panino’s while waiting for everyone to arrive, which they soon did, by the van-load.  I was surprised at the numbers – there were a lot of dancers, and their costumes ranged from “fun” to “inspired”.

The dancers’ “stage” was the intersection itself, around the central flag pole in the middle of Grand Avenue.  Traffic was, of course, closed for the duration, but anyone driving through town at the time would probably want to stop, park and watch the action, or at least check out what was going on.

Eventually the dancers formed up, the music started, and they launched into their Michael Jackson warm-up routine of “Beat It”.  Then they 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 other, particularly 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, hoping to catch a special moment or two that would be worth sharing on-line afterwards.

Nearby, Lisa was capturing a video of the show on her phone, as others were doing.  Many more 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 on the list of locations 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 visit the horses and new-born foals owned by a friend of theirs, followed by an opportunity to take in the view from the top of a nearby hill.  It was a beautiful vista, and being late October in the Valley, the temperatures were pleasant, the days perfect for walking, driving, exploring – and horse petting.

Then we were 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 front 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 had heard someone say beforehand.  And yes, a cheer went up as again, in 2017, the big gates swung open behind the zombie dancers during their performance of “Thriller”.  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 by which time I would be staying in Anaheim, but this, right here, in the company of my dear 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

Story and photographs © Kerry Hennigan 2017

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