City enjoys day of living dead

Zombies pay homage to classic ‘Thriller’ with flash mob

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec Pat Stuckey of Altoona waves to the crowd from his school bus-turned-float as the ZombieTown parade makes its way through downtown Altoona on Saturday afternoon.

The scene was not typical for Altoona: There were young and old, rich and poor, black and white, gyrating in unison, while an audience that reflected them in their differences pressed in like a crowd around a schoolyard fight.

It was part of ZombieTown weekend, but the flash mob was called to show that the art of dance here is alive, and that it can connect with and invigorate the larger community, according to Jamale Graves, new artistic director of the Allegheny Ballet Co., whose idea it was and who led the jumping and hopping and sliding and turning and thrusting of arms to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” at Heritage Plaza.

It may have been Altoona’s first flash mob, but the moves were practiced during the week leading up to it, with sessions open to the public at the company’s studio downtown and with videos and invitations sent via social media to other area dance academies — and with the message getting out to lots of people who practiced in basements or in bedrooms in front of mirrors, according to Graves.

“It was a montage of Blair County’s finest,” said Graves, a St. Louis native who won the 1991 MTV Video Music Award for Best Choreography.

The flash mob may have felt different from events typical for Altoona because dancing is disarming — exposing “the passion

in your heart,” Graves


The dancing of Peirce Condo, 15, one of Graves’ students, epitomizes that, although Peirce does it at a high level that “you can’t buy and you can’t teach,” according to Graves.

“Emotion in motion,” Graves said, echoing a board member’s description.

It’s a talent that can be nurtured here, as demonstrated by the long list of Altoona dancers who have made it big in the big cities, Graves said.

Peirce is fortunate to live in a generation that has largely discarded scorn for young men who dance artistically, as reflected in the inclusion in the flash mob of working-class fathers, Graves said.

It used to take commercial success — a measure of fame — for that scorn to turn to admiration, but now the peers of people like Peirce realize that he’s worthy of envy, as he not only “gets to be with the hottest girls,” but gets to turn them and lift them on the dance floor, Graves said.

He dances because he loves it, and he doesn’t worry about what others may think, Peirce said.

There were younger boys in the flash mob, too, and they will grow up admiring and eventually succeeding dancers like Peirce, Graves said.

Peirce, along with dancers like Gracie Steele, 15, of Martinsburg, are athletes, Graves said.

Like most athletes, they pay the price, working three to six hours a day, six days a week, while keeping up with their schoolwork, he said.

Though new to town, Graves took charge of the flash mob with no trace of embarrassment.

He’s been doing choreography since his early teens, and by now, leading a dance is like “walking or chewing gum,” he said.

Graves wants to make the flash mob dance an annual event.

Saturday’s first version worked, despite — or maybe because of — the band’s unfamiliarity with the dancers and vice-versa, he said.

“The whole thing had an anxiousness,” he said. “A nervous energy.”

That can be a good thing, he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.