Moves like Michael Jackson: Video of Pitman High junior’s talent show dancing goes viral

mrowland@modbee.comMay 21, 2014 

Please excuse Pitman High junior Brett Nichols from class today, he’s busy becoming a viral video superstar.

The 17-year-old Turlock student has found himself in one of the week’s most popular YouTube videos while showing off his Michael Jackson dance moves at the school talent show. His routine even caught the attention of the late King of Pop’s estate, which sent out a tweet Thursday afternoon congratulating the teen on his moonwalk.

The speed with which the video – posted early Wednesday on the Pitman High Facebook page and then reposted onto the networking and news site Reddit – took off is staggering. The clip racked up more than 2 million views in a day. By Thursday afternoon, it was at 6 million views and climbing.

In the video, Nichols dances to Jackson’s 1983 hit “Billie Jean” while mimicking the superstar’s moves – complete with suit, hat and one white glove – at the talent rally May 16. The post, shot and edited by the school’s video arts class, includes clips of other performers as well, but Nichols’ act takes up the last two minutes. He was crowned champion for his efforts – to the roar of some 2,000 classmates. But it’s the world that’s roaring now, with the clip being shared everywhere from the “ Today” show to CNN, TMZ, Australia’s No. 1 news site and seemingly everywhere in between.

“I thought it might get a roar from the crowd,” said the lanky teenager while standing on the same gym floor where he performed his routine. “I didn’t know it would escalate.”

But escalate it has. Wednesday, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” called the school to inquire about him. Thursday morning, Matt Lauer and Al Roker of NBC’s “The Today Show” were chatting about his dance skills on national TV. MTV News declared, “This Kid Does Michael Jackson Better Than Michael Jackson’s Hologram.” He has more views than the video Hollywood heavyweight J.J. Abrams posted the same day, offering fans a chance to win a role on the new, highly anticipated “Star Wars” movies – by more than 3 million hits.

And, yes, even Jackson’s estate took notice, with his official Twitter account posting to its 1.4 million followers about Nichols’ performance, saying: “CONGRATULATIONS TO BRETT NICHOLS FROM @PITMANPRIDE ON HIS MOONWALK TO THE TALENT SHOW WIN!”

But if being at the center of a viral hurricane is fazing Nichols, the teenager isn’t letting on. Since the video caught fire, he has calmly fielded interviews from local news stations and national outlets, pausing only to brush his shock of red hair out of his eyes. Pitman is in the last two weeks of the school year, so administrators have allowed him to skip classes and leave early to accommodate media requests.

“I’m just in shock, really,” said Nichols, who is also a member of the school’s water polo team and its aquatics program. “I am taking things one thing at a time and answering as calmly as I can. (Dancing) is something I’ve kept largely to myself. And then the one time I share it, it goes wild.”

Indeed, Nichols hasn’t shared his self-taught talents often. He did a full Michael Jackson routine at a Walnut Elementary School talent show back in the sixth grade. And since then, he would sometimes bust out a few moves in the quad at school when music was playing. But it took an invitation from the talent show coordinator to coax him into competing in front of a larger audience.

Pitman High activities director Jennifer Olesen said students had mentioned Nichols as a possible contestant for the school’s fourth annual talent rally. So she approached him about performing. He was one of 10 acts selected to take part.

“People said, ‘This kid dances like MJ,’ and then when I saw him, I thought this would be a pretty big deal – at the rally,” Olesen said. “I didn’t think it would get over 3 million views in a day. But he’s a cool kid and I’m excited for him.”

Nichols said he learned the dances from watching YouTube videos of Jackson over and over again, as well as DVDs of Jackson’s most famous performances. He said he became a fan of the iconic entertainer after watching his 30th anniversary special in 2000.

“I’ve always been a fan of superheroes,” said Nichols, while wearing a Superman shirt, “and Michael Jackson is kind of a real-life one.”

That the song Nichols danced to is some 15 years older than the teen is a testament to Jackson’s continued appeal even after his death. Still, all of this talk of his resemblance to the legendary performer leaves Nichols humbled.

“These comparisons between me and Michael Jackson, with people saying it looks spot-on and saying I’m better than the hologram, are amazing,” he said. “But I’d never say I’m better. Ever.”

Pitman Principal Rod Hollars said the whirlwind around Nichols’ dance has been “absolutely crazy.” His staff has been fielding nonstop calls from media across the country. “We have found out how it feels to go incredibly viral,” he said. “For a guy like me who doesn’t even have a cellphone, it’s something.”

Hollars said while Nichols “crushed” his routine, what probably made it the most-watched YouTube video of the week is an elusive and lucky confluence of pop culture circumstance. Jackson has been back in the news lately because of the posthumous release of a new album, “Xscape,” earlier this month. Then a much-buzzed-about hologram of the pop icon performed a new single at the Billboard Music Awards on Sunday night.

“You can’t plan something like this,” Hollars said. “But really it couldn’t have happened to a greater kid. He’s a quiet and unassuming kid. He is just blossoming in the spotlight. The kid has just handled it really well.”

The routine also has earned him a shout-out from Turlock’s other favorite son, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The NFL star paid homage to his alma mater and Nichols with a Twitter “#salute” Wednesday evening.

For his part, Nichols said he knows fame could be fleeting. The nature of viral videos is that they’re viral until the next big one comes along. Interestingly, an earlier video posted on the day of the talent show featuring just Nichols dancing has failed to generate the same frenzy, logging some 37,000 views to date. But the teen said he hopes to capitalize on Pitman’s and Turlock’s moment in the limelight by shooting another dance video soon, this time in places around the city.

“I want to keep this thing going,” he said. “I hope at least I get my sneaker in the door. My big goal is film, I want to direct. But I’m willing to be in front of the camera if I have to. But I’m just blown away with the fact that my face was all over the world.”

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on Twitter @marijkerowland.

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