News & Features

Thriller in Whitefish

Every year on the weekend before Halloween, dozens of people dressed as zombies pay tribute to the King of Pop’s iconic video and animate Whitefish’s spooky spirit

For the past six weeks, casual observers strolling by the glass-walled fitness studio at The Wave in Whitefish could be forgiven for thinking a zombie apocalypse was underway.

As it turns out, the dozens of bodies writhing in sync to Michael Jackson’s classic dance hit “Thriller” are, while not uniquely Whitefish, a strong testament to the tiny community’s oversized spirit of annual spookiness. And while they’re confined to the studio for now, come Oct. 25 they’ll stage their own scary sack of Stumptown, a community steeped in Halloween tradition.

The dancing ghouls rehearsing at The Wave are supporting “Thrill the World,” an annual worldwide flash mob that began in 2007 in an effort to break the world record for the largest simultaneous dance. Not wanting to miss out on the Halloween fun, Whitefish joined the global stage with its own rendition of “Thriller” — both in homage to the King of Pop and as another addition to the ski town’s quirky bag of Halloween tricks.

Organized by Lynn Grossman, a fitness instructor at The Wave, the troupe of undead dancers takes its cues from an instructional, step-by-step dance CD and video script developed by Ines Markeljevic, a Toronto-based dance instructor and head of Thrill the World, a movement that aims to break, each October, its previous record for the number of people dancing simultaneously to “Thriller.”

In 2007, for example, 1,722 people in 80 cities from 17 different countries participated in the event. In 2009, a total of 22,923 participants in 264 cities from 33 countries took part, raising money for charities and setting the record that stands today.

For the inaugural Thrill the World in Whitefish, Grossman and 50 other dancers learned the dance (a far more fastidiously choreographed affair than many MJ fans remember) and packed into the gym, quickly realizing that they chaffed under the constraints of the building.

“We had smoke machines and decorations and everyone was dressed up in costumes,” Grossman said. “It was madness. So we thought it would be fun to go through downtown Whitefish.”

Today, the Whitefish event takes place the weekend preceding Halloween, for reasons that are both logistical and a fitting testament to Whitefish’s spooky spirit.

“We can’t do ‘Thriller’ in Whitefish on Halloween because there’s no space to dance,” Grossman said. “The bars are too packed and people just go crazy.”

Instead, the local troupe will assemble on Friday, Oct. 25, staging at The Wave before beginning their performance at the Whitefish Lake Golf Club and creeping into the downtown corridors, hitting the bars along the way.

Anyone who’s witnessed a Thrill the World performance in Whitefish can speak to how closely it hews to the original 1983 music video directed by John Landis and narrated by horror star Vincent Price.

According to Grossman and other stalwarts who participate annually, that’s by design.

“People don’t realize that the dance is so involved,” Grossman, who said the step-by-step instructional lessons become engrained in dancers’ memories for years, said. “We start rehearsing to the song slowed down with cues, and then gradually speed it up until we’re dancing to it at regular speed without cues. If anyone misses a rehearsal they have to practice at home to catch up.”

The dance cues include segments like “Zombie March,” “March Booty Swim,” “Waz Up,” and “Stomp” — phrases that all figure prominently into Grossman’s lexicon this time of year.

“Let’s start with ‘Oh Snap Rock On,’” she shouts to the gymnasium full of zombie dancers before starting the corresponding segment. “Jump. Snap. 2-3-4-5-6-7-8. Jump, reach, air guitar to the right. Tick, tock, tick, tock. Rock on, rock on, rock on, rock on. Grab, pull in, punch, punch, punch, down. That was good! Remember, if you make it too dance-y then it takes away from the whole zombie thing. The jerkier the better.”

The troupe is filled with veteran zombies and newcomers alike.

Christine Rossi is participating for the first time and said the community of dancers that congregates twice weekly is as much of an allure as the day of the dancing dead.

“It’s so exciting,” she said, noting that the finer points of the six-minute dance are more challenging than she recalled. “You can’t just come in off the street and perform. It takes practice.”

Jan Metzmaker has been part of Whitefish’s Thrill the World every year since 2007, and said it’s an engaging team-building exercise and fitness activity building up to Halloween, which the town of Whitefish is notorious for celebrating in gusto.

“Whitefish always goes all out for Halloween, so Thrill the World is a great way to kick off the festivities,” she said.

For Grossman, whose birthday is Halloween, wearing the crown of de facto zombie maestro every year is both exhausting and rewarding. Leading up to this year, she planned on quietly letting the reins slip from her hands and calling the 12-year streak a wrap.

Then the phone started ringing.

“We weren’t going to do it this year but we had so many people calling The Wave asking when rehearsal starts,” Grossman said. “I had to do it.”

She’s expecting around 40 dancers to participate in this year’s Thrill the World event, with varying degrees of experience.

To the freshmen phantoms, she offers occasional morsels of advice on how best to navigate Whitefish’s downtown graveyard in the week leading up to Halloween.

“Be prepared for people of all levels of inebriation,” she said. “Some people will be very interested in you and your dancing and others will be very, very interested in you and your dancing. And some people will not care. So just have fun!”

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