A faint but steady whine of ’80s synthesizers ebbed across campus Sunday, floating through Colonial Williamsburg, across the Crim Dell, and reaching as far away as the Commons. Students were drawn away from their treks to Swem Library and tourists strayed from Duke of Gloucester Street to investigate the source of the music on the Sunken Garden where an interesting sight confronted them.
A collection of students, faculty and local residents met on the Sunken Garden in an attempt to break the Guinness world record for the largest ‘Thriller’ dance, performed to Michael Jackson’s 1984 hit single. Some were decked-out in shredded clothing, sporting ghoulish zombie make-up, while others chose to personify the decade-du-jour and showed off their best sideways ponytails, neon-colored clothing and bangle jewelry. Many others, true to College of William and Mary involvement, simply showed up in what they had been wearing that day.
All, however, wore red bracelets required to monitor the official turnout numbers.
“I was very skeptical when I first showed up,” organizer Kevin Dua ’09 said. “I didn’t think anyone would come. Then I saw three zombies, and a minute later, lots of people started coming in.”
The day began for Dua at 5 a.m. when he awoke early to purchase supplies for the day.
“I guess we’re required to provide drinks to keep you alive or something,” he joked in front of the crowd of eager participants ranging from a purple-haired pensioner in yoga attire to a preschooler zipping through lines of dancers on his bike enhanced with training wheels.
Dua began organizing the event last October.
“I’d heard of many groups who’d done this dance before,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’ll be a second-semester senior, why not do something fun?’”
Dua contacted the Guinness Book of World Records after reading an article about a group in New York that had performed a similar stunt. After several correspondences ranging as late as February, it was determined that he would have to beat a gathering of 147 people.
“There’s no one more interested in Michael Jackson as much as me,” he said. “But this wasn’t about me, and it wasn’t about whether we broke the record or not. It was about bringing the campus together to do something random.”
Early Sunday afternoon, the crowd began to form, and though the official registration line quickly grew, the number of people actually dancing in the Sunken Garden stayed relatively stagnant. Despite the costumes, it seemed many were not ready to throw themselves in entirely.
However, some were almost too eager.
Bethany Woods ’09 was dragged down from the sidelines, almost kicking and screaming, by her friends.
“I’d been planning on coming to watch, but I definitely wasn’t planning on participating,” she said, giggling, her face glowing with embarrassment.
As time passed and participants became more restless, the day’s organizers took action. Around 2:30 p.m., 10 red-shirted dancers took control and broke the crowd into smaller groups.
Measure by measure, the crowd slowly learned the dance. Though some in attendance showed grace, elegance and actual ability, many clearly had about the same dance background and finesse as the zombies they were imitating. Nearly two hours later, the group was ready. It was go time.
By this time, a large crowd had developed around the Sunken Garden who, though declining on several occasions to join the dancers, cheered enthusiastically from their safe perch behind the bushes.
There was only time remaining in the afternoon for one taping, a changed from the original three that had been planned, so Dua decided to act quickly.
Pumping the song over massive speakers, the participants who half-filled the Sunken Garden started convulsing sporadically as they began their zombie walk. The dance had begun. Three verses, two choruses and a bridge later, the group collapsed, their crowning dance finished.
A siren erupted to signify the end of taping and a cheer swelled from within the crowd. They believed were finished.
But not quite. Dua asked the excited but antsy crowd to remain just long enough for a final headcount, the one which would be submitted to Guinness along with a videotaping of the performance.
As students waited for the headcount to finish, a verse of “Our Alma Mater” began to make its way through the crowd. Despite some vocal protests, a large majority of the crowd was chanting by the final chorus.
“It was great to hear the school song come from the crowd,” English professor Colleen Kennedy said.
Kennedy was one of several members of College faculty who attended the event. She said that she and her colleagues had all independently found the event on Facebook and decided to show.
She said they were all surprised by the event’s popularity.
“I was really impressed [Kevin Dua] was able to get all those people involved,” she said. “If we ever need to defend the record in the future, we will be able to do it again.”
She said the event spoke to the true character of the school.
“I think we have an external impression, even among our own [Board of Visitors] members that we are a very serious, academic school,” Kennedy said. “I hope this gets on the website, so prospective [students] will see we do some things just for fun.”
The crowd quieted down to hear Dua’s final count for the event. Dua finally announced that 242 dancers were in attendance, nearly 100 more than the previous record, and another cheer arose.
Dua said the results would be sent to Guinness for confirmation, and that the school would hear back within a week.
Confident in his success, an almost uncomfortably large grin was plastered across Dua’s face, but this was coupled with a look of utter shock at the unexpectedly large and heartening turnout.
“I was surprised,” he said. “There were a million things going on today, but people still showed up to do this.”