When you think of Halloween in Lexington, you think of candy, pumpkins — and the Thriller community dance during the Halloween parade.
First conceived in 2002, Teresa Tomb of Mecca Dance Studio and Melissa McCartt-Smyth, who works in the office of Lexington mayor Jim Gray, refined the idea by putting out a note to see if Lexingtonians were interested in participating.
The idea was to involve Lexingtonians even if they didn't have formal dance training.
That first year, McCartt-Smyth recalls, "We worked on it for a couple of weeks. We did a little rolling (street) blockage with the police. We did word of mouth. We even invited my parents"
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It was a modest thing.
"We thought it would be just a fun little street performance," Tomb said.
Tomb and McCartt-Smyth thought that would be the end of it — until the next July, when they started getting calls asking when rehearsals for 2003 Thriller would start.
So Lexington's Thriller presentation kept getting bigger, as did the number of "Michael Jacksons." Now, there are six couples stationed along Main Street playing the roles of "Michael Jackson" and "Ola," the terrified girlfriend. The "Michaels" are Courtney Cummins, Albert Ignacio, Jared Martin, Cameron Jones-Commodore, Alex Livingood and Cameron Jones (yes, there are TWO Cameron Jones in the lineup). And this year, the annual Thriller parade is part of the Breeders' Cup week festivities, being followed up by a performance by the costumed funk group Here Come the Mummies on the Courthouse Plaza.
Each of the dancers playing Michael has a distinctive red jacket, like the one made popular by the Jackson himself in videos such as Thriller and Beat It.
Almost anyone can sign up to be a zombie. The zombie walk is open to even those who have no dance or theater training, but they must learn the dance.
"Everyone gets a little creative with their character," McCartt-Smyth said. "We give them a little bit of guidance if needed, on having a story for their character."
What if a zombie misses a step?
"It's perfect, because they're zombies, and it doesn't matter," McCartt-Smyth said.
Although the Lexington Thriller is a massive undertaking, it is not the biggest Thriller dance. A 2013 Rolling Stone article said that distinction belonged to a 2009 Mexico City dance in which 13,957 people participated. The article also notes that Thriller choreographer Michael Peters, who later won a Tony for his choreography of Dreamgirls, died of AIDS at just 46, in 1994.
Albert Ignacio, in his fifth year as the "Michael Jackson" who emerges from the Kentucky Theatre, is a medical massage therapist 364 days of the year.
But on Thriller night, he disappears into the character of the charismatic leader of the zombie dancers.
"I've always been obsessed, since high school, with Michael Jackson's stardom, and trying to learn this dance in detail," Ignacio, 47, said during a session with Jones-Commodore at Mecca dance studio's Manchester Street location.
The two went through one pass of the Thriller routine, which Ignacio describes, breathlessly, as a real aerobic workout. Ignacio will probably perform the routine eight times along the parade route; Jones-Commodore, seven times.
"I've had a passion for dance since I can remember," said Jones-Commodore, 25.
He remembers being a young child watching Michael Jackson on television and being transfixed by his dancing style.
This is Jones-Commodore's third year as a "Michael Jackson."
He said, "This is one of those spectacular events that you don't just see everywhere."