Michelle Neat could hardly believe the advertisement when she found it. The posting from Icon Studios in Dallas, which she came across early last week, asked for dancers who could put on a cheerleader outfit and shake a pair of pom-poms to the loud, satiric sounds of “Smells Like Nirvana.” The three-minute performance would take place on stage with Weird Al Yankovic at the Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie on Friday, August 21, during a stop on his Mandatory World Tour.
“I thought my chances of obtaining it were slim to none,” recalls Neat, a local model, actress and self-professed geek. This was a chance for some once-in-a-lifetime cred. “Maybe I’m just a nerd but I would have killed for the chance to dance with Weird Al.”
Neat's nerd dream came true at 10 a.m. Friday, the day of the show, when she got a callback and was told to report to the theater later that afternoon for rehearsals and costume prep for that night’s show.
It turns out she was just one of many local folks who got a call before the show to report to Verizon to perform with the prince of pop music parody that night.
Yankovic goes to great lengths to recreate his music videos, including an XXXXXXL-sized fat suit for his Michael Jackson parody "Fat," but when he seeks out backup dancers he doesn't turn to the entourage of skimpy, bathing suit-clad models who most male musicians shove onto their tour buses. He uses a pair of sullen, black-clad cheerleaders like the kind that Nirvana had in their video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for his parody, which makes fun of the fact that no one could understand what Kurt Cobain was singing.
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He also gathers together a group of Star Wars cosplayers dressed as stormtroopers, Tuskin raiders (aka Sand People) and Darth Vader to pay homage to a young Anakin Skywalker for his “American Pie” parody about Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace called “The Saga Begins.” Every show on his tour recruits the cosplayers from local chapters of a Star Wars costume enthusiast club known worldwide as the 501st Legion.
Scott Alan Wilcox, the North Texas squad leader of the 501st Legion: Vader’s Fist, Star Garrison, North Texas Squad, of Dallas (yes, that’s their full name), says Yankovic’s management has been plucking people to play stormtroopers and Sand People from the local chapters since he started performing “The Saga Begins” on stage in 1999.
“Generally, he likes to get Darth Vader and some stormtroopers up there but it’s always whoever is available, of course, and we like to rotate it so everyone gets a chance to go,” Wilcox says.
Rehearsals for the show aren’t as madcap as they might sound for the four or five hours of time that’s available before the start of the show, Neat says.
“We had to choreograph it ourselves but it’s actually a lot of fun,” she explains. “We were told to kind of mimic the choreography, not strictly from the original video but more like we were told to pay an homage to it or do it in the style of the video. And we were told no smiling whatsoever, which was so hard to do because it was such a surreal moment.”
Wilcox says the show’s organizers had to work a little more with his team since most of them don’t dance much.
“Hours before the concert started, they gave us a basic routine that they would consider to be more or less the kind of thing that we’re going to be doing in the show,” he says. “They also let us have a little fun and make up our own moves and we just practiced it two or three times before the show.”
James Roman, another member of the North Texas chapter of the 501st Legion who performed that night, said it was hard to not to have a full-on geek out moment when they stepped out on stage for a full dress rehearsal.
“The funny part was all of us trying to figure out the choreography and what to do,” Roman says. “The stage manager took us out on stage and it took about 10 minutes to get under control. We immediately started whipping out cell phones and taking pictures of the set and the stage and started taking selfies and group shots. Suddenly, the stage manager lost control of us, but eventually he got our attention and started explaining a little to us about the routine.”
Yankovic and his crew also pride themselves on running a family show and things backstage were tamer than usual for a pop star of his caliber.
“They gave us lots of freedom to wander around so we just hung out but we saw a lot of different things,” Wilcox says. “We happened to run into Jamie Lee Curtis backstage so that was kind of a nice surprise. We didn’t know she was back there.”
“He’s a family man and he had his family with him,” Neat adds. “So it was a very fun environment.”
Then when it came time to walk out on stage to a packed house at Verizon, it started to sink in for everyone that they would not only be on stage with a comedy musician they’ve admired for most of their lives but also for a crowd of fans who would kill to trade places with them.
“It was very exhilarating when the lights came up,” Neat says. “I couldn’t see a whole lot but I could see that everyone was super excited…There was an audience member who was dressed exactly like Al like was in the Nirvana video and he was pumping his fist and singing along with the song. It was very cool to see how enthusiastic and loyal his fans were to him.”
“I was excited to be up there but at the same time, I’m standing besides a famous celebrity like ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic who is right in front of me,” Roman says. “My wife said I dance pretty good for a stormtrooper so that was some good feedback on my end.”
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The moment wasn’t completely free of mistakes, but at least there were none that the audience could see. Roman said that the member of the group leading them off stage was dressed as a Tuskin raider, a costume that’s not easy to see through. A stage manager had to guide him to the exit to keep him from tripping over the equipment or falling off stage.
“Basically, you’re just looking through two pipes at the end of [the mask],” he says.
After the show, even though it was close to midnight and he had a show the next night in Denver, Yankovic made time to visit with fans, VIPs and the dancers who helped him, taking pictures and signing autographs. The dancers even received a special patch to commemorate the 501st, which had been made by Daniel Quay of the Oklahoma Squad of Star Garrison.
“He was just genuine and nice and friendly and such a positive person," Neat says. "I can’t say enough good things about the way he runs his show.”