Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’
Only a week to go before the Michael Jackson memorial flash mob, and I haven’t even mastered the crotch grab. Weak. My dancing is so weak.
In honor of the two-year anniversary of MJ’s death, Bay Area Flash Mob (BAFM) organized an all-day überevent: dance numbers across the city intended to pay tribute to the Gloved One, may he rest in glittery peace. Dancers, wannabe dancers, and people who “dance” only when it’s to tiptoe quickly across a gravel driveway (ahem, like me) have spent the last several weeks learning to move to a medley of “Beat It,” “Smooth Criminal,” and, of course, “Thriller” via a series of rehearsals at the Bollyhood Cafe and step-by-step video tutorials posted on the BAFM website.
Dozens of people have come out to rehearse in the steamy sweatbox of a rehearsal space, and who knows how many other studio-shy MJ fans are learning the routines at home. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, trying unsuccessfully to mimic “Thriller”’s signature “zombie walk,” and wonder if I should have gone the rehearse-alone route. When one can’t even properly walk like a zombie, one shouldn’t be allowed within 500 yards of a dance studio.
The founders of BAFM disagree; their philosophy is that everyone can and should dance like nobody’s watching – while crowds of strangers are staring intently.
The group was founded, somewhat serendipitously, in Michael Jackson’s honor. In 2009, founding BAMF members Carol Johnstone, Julien Rey, Jacqui Magee, Marcia Nisam, and Jennifer Arbuckle – then strangers – met while participating in Thrill the World, an annual worldwide simultaneous dance of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Carol says that the experience was so powerful that the five new friends decided to keep on dancing, assembling an informal troupe dedicated to performing classic King of Pop routines. They had no rehearsal or performance space, just each other.
“We were squatting at UCSF, in a sort of outdoor alcove on campus,” Carol tells me. “None of us were affiliated with the school, and we figured that one day we’d get busted and thrown out. But we rehearsed there for over a year. The security guard apparently loved us because we made his day more interesting.” Over time more people joined their troupe – so many that the group made the UCSF newsletter as part of its “fun things to do on campus” feature.
Eventually, the crew outgrew its tiny space and began rehearsing at Bollyhood. Lacking a venue to perform, the founders started organizing flash mobs.
I can’t remember my first exposure to flash mobs. I have vague memories of watching what is now a somewhat tired cultural fixture of the Internet; a video of dozens of inmates at a prison in the Philippines executing a spot-on rendition of, yes, “Thriller.”
I do, however, have vivid memories of my first encounter with the Gloved One. I was five or six and had just discovered pop music, thanks to my jazz musician dad, who encouraged me to listen to what he thought was good music. I was sitting in my pink canopy bed one night and in walked Dad, who smiled and tossed a cassette tape onto my bed.
“Can you read what it’s called?” he asked.
“Thrrrrr… Thriller?” I sounded it out cautiously.
“You got it,” Dad replied. We popped the tape in, and HOLY SHIT.
Fast-forward to the day the King of Pop died. It was a powerful moment for me and for the world. Two years later, his legacy is kept alive by groups like BAFM, who aim to honor by imitation.
The week leading up to the flash mob, I am devoting several hours a day to dancing along with the video tutorials, desperately trying to figure out how to properly shuffle my feet and flick at my fedora for the “Smooth Criminal” chunk of the medley. “Beat It” feels pretty good; “Thriller” is passable. I figure that, at the very worst, I’ll just hide in the middle of what I expect will be a sizable crew of dancers.
On Saturday, the plan is for mobbers to show up at scheduled locations at specific times, mill around like we just happen to be dressed like ’80s mobster drag queens, and wait to hear the opening strains of our music. BAFM has asked dancer Ruby Anderson to perform a brief solo at the beginning so that the rest of us will know when to start.
I show up at the Powell Street cable car turnaround a few minutes before we’re supposed to begin, trying to look inconspicuous. I’m sweating like a meth fiend, terrified of fucking up, of ruining the performance for everyone with my dancing. Have I mentioned that I have the grace of a three-legged Clydesdale?
Then, I hear it: the opening strains to “Beat It.” And there Ruby is, absolutely fucking owning it. She’s mesmerizing. She is Michael Jackson, her movements simultaneously smooth, sharp, and pristinely sexual. Then, it’s our cue!
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Snap, step, snap, step, reach, reach, step, step.
From out of nowhere (that’s the plan, right?) dozens of people close in around Ruby, around me, dancing their sparkly hearts out. There’s a woman in full-scale MJ red-leathered regalia; there’s another one who is so pregnant I wouldn’t be surprised if her water breaks perfectly on cue. We dance. We laugh. We enthrall a growing audience of tourists. And then, it’s over. We scatter.
An hour later, I wait impatiently outside of Hot Cookie in the Castro for our next performance. It’s hot. It’s Pride weekend. There are a lot of naked men. Ooh, there’s a drag queen! She looks pretty. Pride Saturday in the Castro is, as one might predict, absolutely fudge-packed. Where the hell are we going to dance? There’s no space to walk, or even breathe, much less – oh crap, I hear the opening notes of “Beat It.”
I scramble over to the tiny plaza in front of Twin Peaks Tavern and spot Ruby amid a sea of black fedoras. It’s time! I shove my way in and start to dance. There are so many people –dancers, spectators – that I can move only a few inches in either direction. My dancing is SUCKING. But nobody cares. People are screaming, cheering, crying, laughing. The crowd is exhilarated by our mob, by the ridiculousness yet poignancy of it all.
I duck out before “Smooth Criminal” starts so that I can watch. The flash mob moves in a perfect union of imperfect dance moves, executed by the ever-loyal subjects of His Highness, the King of Pop, who shall reign eternal.
Bay Area Flash Mob organizes regular excursions. For a schedule of upcoming events, rehearsals, and do-it-at-home video tutorials, visit www.bayareaflashmob.com . A special Michael Jackson mob series is planned for August 28, the day before what would’ve been his fifty-third birthday.