Hoards of teenagers in slashed clothes and torn and bloodied prom dresses shambled onto the field at Gustafson Stadium on Tuesday as part of Northside ISD’s annual performance, “Thrill A Mill.”

The event packed the stands and pallets with food donations for the San Antonio Food Bank, as 671 students from 10 Northside ISD middle schools performed the culmination of a two-year curriculum collaboration between theater and dance.

The preteen zombies reenacted the Halloween classic “Thriller” by Michael Jackson. In their fine arts curriculum, the middle schoolers begin learning the dance routine in sixth grade. They add more elements in seventh grade. By October of their eighth and final year, the students create their own costumes, don their makeup and perform the choreographed dance routine.

“We’re teaching kids not only the arts but the art of giving back,” NISD’s assistant director of fine arts Elizabeth Lopez said. “What a better way than to help the San Antonio Food Bank?”

This two-day event is the first performance in two years, since the COVID-19 pandemic caused such large events to be canceled. Despite the two-year hiatus, the stands were packed with approximately 3,500 people in attendance.

“It feels like I have been waiting for this my whole life, even though it took five minutes,” Isaac Rupert, an eighth grader at Pease Middle School, said. He and his mom worked on his zombie makeup and faux blood-covered lab coat. “The best part of tonight was ‘Thriller’ and just seeing everyone in the stands.”

The nearly 700 students performed on the first evening of the two-day event, and the remaining 11 schools will take the field Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.

Jordan Middle School students perform their dance routine during the annual "Thrill A Mill" event at Gustafson Stadium on Tuesday.
Jordan Middle School students perform their dance routine during the annual “Thrill A Mill” event at Gustafson Stadium on Tuesday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

NISD began the event in 2009 to raise funds and gather donations for the San Antonio Food Bank. Admission was free, but non-perishable food donations are encouraged. By the time the event began, the middle schoolers had filled two large pallets of food donations.

“We have been learning this dance since the sixth grade, which was pretty hard because of Zoom and COVID, but recently when we got into the seventh grade it got much easier and it was faster,” Ashiyah James, an eighth grader at Bernal Middle School, said. “This year we learned more than we did last year and learned we can do this with confidence.”

James is on the dance team and also takes an additional two-year course to prepare for the “Thrill A Mill” event at Bernal, taught by Denisse Wallace.

“We have a fantastic group of kids,” Wallace said.“ They really like the dressing up and the performance aspect of it. Everyone does everything costumes, dance and makeup.”

Each middle school team paraded down the field in a zombie parade, and at the end, performed a several-minute group routine.

“It has been really fun and pretty difficult because some people were kind of down because they didn’t want to forget the dance and some people were very discouraged because they didn’t remember it,” James said. “But Ms. Wallace helped us a lot and gave us confidence boosters. Helping them understand that they can do anything they put their minds to it helped a lot.”

Wallace’s squad had a total of 58 members; 38 dance team members and 20 from the theater troupe.

After each team danced, a surprise was announced.

“I thought something was going to run at us,” James said, speaking to the spookiness of the evening.

Less scary than that, the district had hired a Michael Jackson impersonator who moonwalked onto the field and joined the schools in dancing to “Thriller.”

The crowd erupted, and an encore followed.

“It feels very nice to be generous, because sometimes I don’t do a lot,” James said. “But to know that I can actually help by just donating food cans and non-perishable items, I feel very good about myself when I do that.”

Erin Gallegos Reid graduated from Southern Methodist University, then a graduate program at Georgetown University. She has worked at the network level (NBC, CBS, ESPN/ABC Sports, Turner Sports), local...