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Happy Birthday, M.J. 

At the Dunbar Cultural Center's first Michael Jackson birthday celebration in 2009, Barbea Williams saw people from all walks of life. Young, old, black, white, Latino. She even met someone from France.

"It was a global community that came out," said Williams, who started the event with her dance company.

That's the magic of Michael Jackson, she said: He could bring anybody together.

In that spirit, the Barbea Williams Performing Company will celebrate Jackson's birthday this week with dance performances, sing-alongs, contests, trivia and a photo gallery.

Dancers will perform to Jackson hits, including "Smooth Criminal," "Wanna Be Startin' Something," "Remember the Time" and "Thriller." The audience can take pictures with a Michael Jackson lookalike and pop their heads into cutouts of Egyptian figures inspired by Jackson's "Remember the Time" video.

Attendees can also strut their stuff in a soul train line, sing along to some of the King of Pop's best-loved music videos and compete for prizes in several contests for wannabe Michaels.

Audience applause will determine the winners of each of the four contests, the first of which is best Michael Jackson style.

"You know: the hat, the glove, the suit, the white shoes," Williams explained.

Then there's the Michael Jackson lookalike contest and the movement contest, in which participants show off the moves the cultural icon made famous.

"There's so many people and children that dance like Michael," Williams said.

One of these moves deserves its own category. That move is, of course, the moonwalk.

The event allows people to memorialize what made Jackson so special to them, Williams said.

"It's kind of a way of keeping that legacy alive," she said. "People want their children to know the King of Pop."

With great beats and catchy, inoffensive lyrics, songs like "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" still captivate people of all ages, Williams said.

"It has that intergenerational appeal," she said.

Correspondingly, the event's dance performances mix students and professionals. Performing groups include the UA Afrikana Dance Ensemble, the Dunbar Dance and Art Academy, the Human Project, the Barbea Williams Performing Company and a group from Pima Community College's dance program.

The event is a little different every year, Williams said, in the same way Jackson's personality had many different facets, from sexy, "crotch-grabbing" M.J. to the solemn performer of "Man in the Mirror."

Williams said one new element of this summer's celebration will be the inclusion of some Jackson 5 hits.

"We want to go a little bit into his childhood this year," she said.

Williams said she learns something new every year about the performer, who would have turned 53 this month.

"Michael Jackson has a lot of depth," Williams said. "People always left (the event) with that feeling of, 'Oh, what I learned about Michael.'"

Williams' dance company started the annual celebration after Jackson died on June 25, 2009. On that day, the company was working with the Tucson Urban League. In rehearsal, a girl announced, "Michael Jackson is in the hospital." Williams said she didn't think much of it until 15 or 20 minutes later, when the girl announced Jackson had died.

"Even the guys were a little watery-eyed," Williams said.

The following days and weeks were full of anguish, she said.

"Most of the world, we were in shock; we were in mourning," Williams said. Everywhere she went, people were reflecting on Jackson's music, his outfits and his impact on the world.

"It was just something you couldn't stay away from," she said.

The birthday celebration allows people to keep thinking about lessons Jackson's life taught them.

"He let us know that even when you have trouble in your life, you can still be successful," Williams said.

He was also an advocate for social consciousness. Through his philanthropic work and songs like "They Don't Care About Us," "Earth Song" and especially "We Are the World," Jackson raised awareness and unified people.

To carry on Jackson's commitment to social issues, the event will include a dance to "Move Your Body," the Beyoncé song written for First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign to fight childhood obesity.

"We think he'd love it," Williams said.

The event carries on the memory of a man who was a genius not only in the music world, but in the "social and economic scheme of things," she said.

"We still miss him," she added. "I can tell by the audience, by the people that come out."

The event, she said, is a way for Tucsonans to say, "We love you, Michael. Thank you for all the happy times you gave us."

More by Celia Ampel

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