The 2019 Monster Mash proved to be a thriller – in more ways than one.
The Halloween event, launched more than 10 years ago, has become a tradition at United North Elementary School – and a welcomed one if audience attendance is any indication.
Family and friends lined three sides of the school’s gym and filled the hallway outside last week to watch the annual event, which encompasses the entire student body dressed in their Halloween costumes and performing to choreographed dances. This year’s event featured a new – and quite difficult -- choreographed dance: Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Undeterred by technical glitches in the music this year, the students pulled off an exceptional performance of the piece.
The annual Monster Mash is the brainchild of United North Physical Education Instructor Angie Lybarger Around 2007-08, Lybarger was working with Monmouth College students who were student teaching at United North and were required to teach a dance unit in the fall. Dance is now part of state and federal physical education standards in education too. A Halloween-themed dance made the most sense in the fall, and the student body that first year loved learning the dances.
“We had performed it and we thought, ‘well, let’s perform it in front of an audience,’ “ Lybarger recalled. “And it has just grown and grown since then.”
Lybarger choreographed the Monster Mash early in its inception, but third- through fifth-grade students have for years now choreographed the moves themselves under her guidance, with students voting on the best moves. Normally, students perform to the songs Monster Mash and Theme from the Addams Family.” Lybarger added Thriller this year, performed by the upper grades, teaching the students choreography from online videos of the song.
“I wanted something different,” she explained, laughing. “I was burned out listening to Monster Mash 12 classes a day, and I just thought Thriller would be neat.”
It was a challenge, she noted. In the past, students usually created movements to the words of a song. For Thriller, they had to carefully and simultaneously follow an 8-count beat.
“It started out really rough,” she noted.
Making it even more difficult is the fact that the student body never practices together. Beginning about three weeks prior to the Monster Mash, the students practice the dances verse by verse daily in their P.E. classes, but seldom during the entire class period.
“The whole group doesn’t come together until that day,” Lybarger emphasized.
Fourth-Grader Ella Brown said Thriller was easy for her to learn and she liked it. She enjoys the annual event.
“I like it because we change it a lot,” she said of the Monster Mash.
Lybarger, who also choreographs an annual square dance performance by the student body in February and is currently training teachers to dance, was a cheerleader throughout high school and was a Wrangler cheerleader at Western Illinois University for two years. She was one of 16 selected from a field of 225 girls for the latter post. Three hours of dance practice daily during those years honed her dance skills.
“I just really enjoy dancing,” she explained. “I still do it.”
That love of dance may be the most challenging aspect of the annual Monster Mash for her.
“I’m kind of picky when it comes to dance,” she said. “I’m a perfectionist. I think it comes from my dance background. So I have to remember they’re still little and I can’t expect perfection. I think that’s probably the hardest part. And I think the kids kind of get frustrated because we go over it and over it and over it just because I’m looking for that perfection.
“But the cute part really is that they’re not perfect,” she added. “It really is OK for them not to be perfect. So if they’re walking in the wrong direction and bump into each other, it’s OK. I try to keep that from happening, but it really is OK.”
Students clumsily waddling through a dance in a blow-up dinosaur costume, or losing a fake head halfway through a performance make the Monster Mash that much more appealing, she admits.
“I think that’s what really makes the Monster Mash – getting them dressed up and getting all the costumes together,” she said. “And whether they’ve got a mask on and their head’s flipping and their mask falls off, it all pulls together and it just looks great.”
Second-Grader Mason Jenks says he was one of those who went in the opposite direction at one point.
“I think it’s fun. There are so many people who are doing it,” he said. “It’s fun and you get to perform in front of a crowd.” He says he is excited about learning Thriller next year.
Lybarger’s other challenge each year is selling the idea to some older students who believe they’re “too cool” to dance or who simply don’t feel comfortable dancing.
“But I think once they get moving and once they realize what it’s going to look like in the end, everybody’s kind of proud of themselves,” she said.
Students learn that it’s OK to “step out of the box” and try something new, and they surprise themselves -- especially the boys, who aren’t accustomed to dancing.
“Because some of them were really good and some of them could hear the 8 count better than the girls could,” Lybarger said of the Thriller performance. “And once they get that little bit of confidence, I think they’re fine after that. But that’s true with everything that you do. You just need that little extra push to try it.”
Fifth-Grader Brett Painter said it just takes practice. He didn’t feel Thriller was that difficult.
“It was fun,” he said. “It was easy to practice. Some kids thought it was a hard 8 count, but I also practiced it at home.”
Lybarger was pleased to have a boy in fifth grade thank her after this year’s Monster Mash. It was something he hadn’t had the opportunity to participate in elsewhere.
In contrast, the youngest students have the enthusiasm for the dance, if not always the coordination.
“It’s something new for them and they haven’t been doing it for a long time, so they really want to get right in and do it,” Lybarger said. “That sense of embarrassment isn’t there yet, and so they’re still free-spirited… and just willing to try new things. They still have their creative mind too.”
Aside from a couple of youngsters scared of the music initially, this year’s kindergarten proved to be the best yet in learning the dance moves, she added.
“They did not get nervous. They did not forget the moves. They are a performing group, I think,” she said.
Teachers and staff were especially proud of the student body this year, as they not only performed the difficult Thriller performance, but faced two technical glitches with music, forcing them to start over in their particular dances. The students remained focused and undisturbed by the events.
“There’s a sense of pride in some of these kids,” Lybarger said, growing more serious. “They just want to make everybody proud of them. They really do want to make people proud.”
Feedback from students and family and friends alike is always very positive, she said. Parents/guardians and grandparents are usually overwhelmed by how well the students coordinate their movements. That feedback is part of why she keeps the Monster Mash on the schedule.
“And I do it for the kids because the kids enjoy it,” she added.
Fourth-Grader Kora Shimmin enjoyed learning the Thriller choreography. She said it was fun, nice to have something new to learn, and not difficult.
“I want to do it next year,” she said. She agreed that she would like to see the younger students join the dance next year.
Lybarger omitted the younger grades from the Thriller performance this year, thinking the 8-count beat would be too difficult for them. But, given how eager many of the younger students are about wanting to learn the dance, she is considering allowing them to join it next year, perhaps learning the choreography off a screen. She may also make the piece longer.
Asked if she had plans to add anything else to the event next school year, Lybarger burst out laughing.
“Maybe more seating!” she said. “We’re trying to figure out how to get everybody into the gym. I added more seating this year, and I thought that would do it. It still didn’t do it!
“But I really love that it’s bringing in everyone,” she added. “It’s so nice to see that people will take their time out for their kids and come watch, especially in the middle of the day: 1 o’clock in the afternoon. And to have an audience like we have is awesome. We have great support from our community.”
Those who missed the Monster Mash this year can get a special treat this year watching each class dance against the school’s new green screen, which depicts a life-like backdrop for their performances. The videos are available on the school’s website.