A sea of pink shirts and pink swim caps crowds the grass beside the bunkers at Southern Maine Community College, waiting for the first leg of the 2012 Tri for a Cure triathlon to begin. Suddenly, Olivia Newton John’s “Let’s Get Physical” begins pulsing from the loudspeakers. This upbeat tune seems simply to be an energizing anthem for the hundreds waiting to brave the cold waters of Casco Bay for the one-third-mile swim. But slowly, it dawns on members of the crowd that something special is unfolding.
Dance instructor Maria McInnis, who is also competing in the race, emerges from the crowd, climbs up on a box facing the swimmers and begins stretching to the music. She is joined by two more dancer/stretchers, and by the time Olivia Newton John has given way to Abba (“Mama Mia”) and then to the Bee Gees (“You Should be Dancing”), several waves of dancers have joined the mob, dancing, swaying, hooting, hollering and clapping furiously.
“People stared at us at first, wondering what was going on,” recalls McInnis, an instructor at Dance Studio of Maine in Gorham. “When the first wave came in, they started to get that this was a flash mob. It was awesome. I’m so glad we did it.”
Last year’s Tri for A Cure was the fifth annual triathlon sponsored by the Maine Cancer Foundation. But it was the first time competitors were greeted by a flash mob. This year, race organizers are planning another crowd-pleasing dance to kick things off. Though it won’t be a surprise this time, volunteers are excited about performing it.
“It will be more like an opening ceremony,” says Trish Moulton, the organizer of last year’s flash mob, who is training this year’s dancers. “It will get everyone really excited.”
According to Moulton, who has run the Dance Studio of Maine in Gorham for 12 years, the idea for the flash mob bubbled up during the Maine Cancer Foundation luncheon several months before the race. Moulton and a few of her fellow instructors performed a dance routine at the luncheon, which lifted the mood and got people smiling.
Race director Julie Marchese and Moulton had a mutual friend who’d seen the effect of a flash mob in a pre-race situation. They decided dancing was the perfect way to loosen up competitors before the Tri.
“Athletes tend to be nervous or anxious before a race,” says Moulton. “This gets rid of that for them.”
Moulton and Marchese quickly marshaled their forces. Mouton called upon McInnis and other instructors from Dance Studio of Maine to put together a routine to start things off. In the meantime, Marchese posted a notice on her She Jams triathlon training website calling for volunteers who might be willing to participate in a flash mob at the Tri for a Cure.
Theresa Brackett of Westbrook was one of the women who volunteered. Brackett is definitely a dance enthusiast. She has started a dance team at Idexx, where she works. She has a daughter who has been taking lessons with Moulton since she was 3. Brackett, who did the cycling leg of the Tri in 2011 as part of a team, embraced the idea of the flash mob.
“(The opening ceremony) is very somber,” she says. “You are listening to people speak about survival and loss. So this was an upbeat surprise.”
Brackett and about 80 other volunteers met in a parking lot in Portland eight weeks before the Tri. They learned some dance moves, worked on the choreography, and encouraged each other not to worry about flubbing up.
“Because it’s a crowd, you’re not on a stage,” says Brackett. “A lot of it is upper arm movement, and you can hide in the middle of the pack if you want to.”
The day of the event, many children and even some fathers, husbands, and boyfriends joined the mob. McInnis remembers being perched on the box, looking out at the crowd and the waves of dancers that flooded the area behind her. She says it took her breath away.
“I had no idea how many people Trish was training,” she says. “It’s still emotional to think about all these women charged and ready to go.”
McInnis has an emotional connection to the Tri. She and her sister Katrina formed a team last year to complete the Tri. They competed to honor their mother, who twice beat breast cancer in the mid-1990s. Their grandmother had died from the disease, and because of their genetic predisposition, Katrina and Maria started having mammograms when they were 30. Maria sees a breast care specialist every six months.
McInnis says she didn’t tell her sister, who would be doing the biking leg, about the flash mob last year. She wanted her to be surprised along with the rest of the participants.
“She kept saying, ‘Put on your wet suit’” recalls McInnis. “When I got up on the box to dance, I looked up at my whole family on the hill above the bunker. They were really into it.”
For this year’s dance, Moulton began training a volunteer dance group in the parking lot behind Beacon Fitness on Marginal Way in mid-June. While it won’t be a total shock, Moulton says there are some surprises in store for spectators. Rumor has it the Sea Dogs dance team will make an appearance. Survivors will also have solo parts in the dance.
“We still want there to be some surprises,” says McInnis. She and her sister are both entered in the Tri as individual participants this year. McInnis, though, is adding dancing to her training regimen once again.
“There will be four legs to the race for me,” she says with a laugh. “Who doesn’t like to get down and dance?”