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Columbia Missourian

Dancers remember Jackson's influence

By Kathleen Pointer
June 27, 2009 | 12:58 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Stephens College dance student Jessica Ray has had Michael Jackson’s song “Beat It” memorized for years.

“Whenever a Michael Jackson song came on, you either did the kick or the crotch grab or the spin or the moonwalk or you’d land on your toes,” Ray said. “And everybody tried, but not everyone could.”

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The death of the famed musician has garnered local, national and global attention. The watch count on Jackson’s official YouTube channel for Thriller, the 13-minute music video that premiered on MTV on Dec. 2, 1983, had hit more than 3.6 million views as of Saturday morning. The best-selling record’s release not only had a notable impact on the world of music, but also the world of dance.

“The song and the Thriller dance are so, so well known – it’s incredible,” said Lyria Bartlett, a three-year dance coach for the Rock Bridge High School Bruin Girls and a former performer with MU's Golden Girls. “It’s been repeated in movies, and everyone can do at least the one part with hands in the air.”

Carol Estey, chairwoman of the dance department at Stephens College, said Jackson’s death has many people remembering Jackson as a performer and has been a reminder of his “greatness as an artist.”

“He was brilliant — a brilliant performer, a brilliant dancer,” Estey said. “What I saw was that he was not only a brilliant natural dancer, but that he challenged himself and the dance world.”

Estey said Jackson’s ability to create theatrical dance performances changed the dancing community.

 “He just raised the bar and really changed what we thought of as dance,” Estey said. “He brought pop into the traditional and the traditional into pop.”

Bartlett said she still sees Jackson’s legacy everywhere, and her group will likely use some of Jackson’s music for a performance during their next season.

“The whole dancing world will never forget him,” Bartlett said. “At every (dance) competition, there is always a Michael Jackson song, always a Michael Jackson dance.”

Bartlett attended a dance camp when she was with the Golden Girls and a choreographer from the Thriller video taught them the dance moves.

“It’s amazing that, 20 years later, you can go places nationwide and there will be a group teaching the Thriller routine,” Bartlett said.

The Golden Girls squad performed the Thriller dance during the 2008 MU football season.

Bartlett said her dancers are upset by the loss of Jackson, despite not being alive during the height of his career.

“They all know the dance,” Bartlett said. “They can turn on the music and do the whole thing. It’s just something that every dancer grows up with.”

Ray, who also discovered Jackson’s music and dance years later, remembers exactly when she started listening to Jackson.

“My mom was like,  ‘You haven’t heard of Michael Jackson? You must be educated.’ So I watched 'Beat It,' and I was wowed,” Ray said.

Ray said she listened to Jackson's music all Friday afternoon before her dance performance at Stephens College.

“He was just the epitome of cool,” Ray said. “With all his moves, he inspired a lot of people to dance.”