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I Was a Flash Mob Virgin

You’ve seen it on YouTube and Modern Family. Swarms of inconspicuous passersby break into a seemingly spontaneous dance routine in a train station or the food court of a mall. Known as a flash mob, it’s a surprise public performance à la guerrilla theater, sans the buzzkilling political message.

Flash mobs create order out of chaos. In aiming solely to bewilder — and then delight — unsuspecting onlookers, they wind up doing much more: They celebrate the exuberant and unpredictable art of performance itself.

When I learned a New York choreographer was organizing a flash mob here in Santa Barbara, I signed on. I have no dance experience, but I can rock stretch pants and tie a do-rag on my head, so I figured I could fake “hip, urban hoofer” if necessary.

There were 120 people at the first rehearsal. Within a week, the number had dropped to 65 community members of literally every shape and size. Little girls. Old men. Giggling moms. In only five hours — and with just a little bloodshed — we learned the keys to conjuring order from chaos: Frustration. Repetition. Sense of humor. Motown.

“I’m Doug, and I’m a recovering choreographer,” said our “mob” boss Doug Elkins, in town for a residency with Santa Barbara’s esteemed DANCEworks program. He started us off with fancy arm work in our Lobero Theatre seats, and soon had us up onstage adding fast footwork. Elkins knew it wouldn’t be easy: “If it gets confounding or frustrating” (it did), “just go with your favorite curse” (we did).

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In Honor of MJ

My husband doesn’t dance. Doesn’t know how, doesn’t try, and doesn’t even stop to watch dancers unless they are, say, female and nearly naked.

Which is why it was so weird when he ordered an instructional DVD last year and dragged the whole family into the living room one rainy Saturday to learn the five-minute dance made famous in the “Thriller” music video.

Um. We’re going to do what?

Like everyone our age, he’d been dazzled by Michael Jackson’s creepy, campy, and undeniably boogielicious 1983 mini-movie and its dancing undead. After seeing Jennifer Garner and Andy Serkis (Gollum moonwalks?!) bust the routine in 13 Going on 30 — and watching 1,500 inmates at a Philippines prison nail it on YouTube — he decided no Gen X-er should be without the skill.

Plus he figured if the whole family could whip it out at parties, maybe we’d get invited places. “We just have to have those spooky, kooky Roshells!”

It turns out the instinct isn’t so weird. Okay, it’s weird, but it’s weirdly common.

For four years, people around the world have gathered annually, and at the same exact time, to set world records for the Largest Simultaneous Dance — while doing the “Thriller” routine.

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