On April 19, 2009, Kevin Dua ’09 led an effort to break the Guinness world record for the greatest number of people performing pop singer Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance.
And now — just over two months after the record was broken on the College of William and Mary campus — the King of Pop is dead.
“At first I was skeptical about it, because various reports were saying he had a heart attack and he was in a coma, and when it was confirmed by several news stations, it was a very surreal moment,” Dua said. “It’s still hard for me to know or understand how I’m supposed to feel.”
The record-breaking dance was made up of 242 students, faculty and area residents. The group smashed the previous record of 147 people dancing to Jackson’s 1984 hit.
Dua has been imitating Jackson his entire life, and although he never attended a concert or met the singer, Dua said Jackson was an important to him.
“It’s strange that this person, who was so distant, was essentially a big part of my life,” Dua said.
The record will be broken again, Dua noted, probably sometime soon.
“Every time this record is broken, a lot of people will look upon it as a tribute, paying homage to Michael Jackson,” he said. “Someone pointed out to me that we can take credit for the fact that we broke the record; we were the last group to hold the title while he was alive.”
History professor Kimberly Phillips, an expert in African American cultural and social history, said she too had a longtime connection to the pop singer.
“I grew up with him. And then my children grew up with him,” she said. “When the news came on yesterday, both of my children stopped. They had no idea who Farrah Fawcett was… But they both stopped to hear about Michael Jackson.”
Although known for his wildly popular music in the 1970s and 1980s, Jackson was known more recently for various controversies, including allegations of drug use and child abuse.
“What happened to him in the early part of this century, it was so tragic, it was so different from how he had represented himself and how we had perceived him for nearly three decades,” Phillips said. “That, I think, was so counter to how he had been. That’s why people paid attention. I think people were saddened by it, perplexed by it.”
Despite the negative press, Jackson remained popular with his fans. Phillips attributed his versatility to a “chameleon-like” ability to adapt and present himself in a new light.
“He was like a phoenix, he would rise up out of the ashes, and he literally would look different,” she said. “And we were fascinated by that.”
Music professor Stephan Pennington will cover Michael Jackson next week during a summer music course. He said that the curriculum will change somewhat to reflect the celebrity’s death.
“It’ll have to. I’ll probably take a bit more time with him than I would have done normally,” Pennington said. “His legacy is already with us. So much about our current popular culture is imbued with Michael Jackson’s legacy.”
Phillips noted that, while it is too early to know how history will judge the King of Pop, his contributions to music marked a greater change in race relations in America.
“He had been such a catalyst in American music,” she said. “I think what people should remember him for is this remarkable shift in American popular culture. People should remember that he became popular at a moment when American racial politics were shifting, and shifting in ways we weren’t quite sure how it would happen.
“He was more than this crossover figure,” Phillips continued. “He was somebody that people of all races could embrace. He was a child, and he represented the best of what America could be and how we could sound. He gave us all permission to think beyond our own prejudices and our own concerns and just glory in his ability.”