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Middle school teachers channel pop stars for cancer awareness

Many middle school students enjoy the pop songs of Bruno Mars, LMFAO and Justin Bieber.

Their teachers? Not so much.

Except at Casey Middle School in Amherst.

A group of Casey teachers led by Harry O'Malley under the name Teachers Beat Cancer late last month posted on their website a trio of videos in which they lip sync and dance to megahits by those artists.

The hope is that the spectacle of middle-aged middle school teachers dancing in these polished music videos will generate awareness and donations for the cancer research institutions and charities they've chosen to spotlight.

"It's not something you see every day," said O'Malley, 37, a math specialist. "It's surprising, it's entertaining. It's something different that you might be willing to share and say, 'Hey, take a look at this' and that might drive action."

The three videos premiered last week at the school's faculty talent show, but O'Malley has found internet success with previous work, including a video produced last year when longtime principal Fran McGreevy retired.

"In some sense they're just kind of a gimmick to motivate action around the website," O'Malley said. "We had generated this tradition of creating videos for different events and they were getting popular and shared nationally sometimes."

Shot entirely on an iPhone, the videos loosely re-create the premise of the original music videos, which have views on YouTube that number in the billions. For LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem," O'Malley recruited Principal Pete Dobmeier and Assistant Principal Ryan Harding to play featured roles.

"The idea is we're playing the role of the uptight administrators and there's something going on in the parking lot," said Dobmeier. "We're not sure if it's the kids or the wacky adults. We storm out of the building to address the emergency and we find that we've got all these people dancing. They overwhelm us and we join the crowd."

Recorded on a recent snowy Friday afternoon after student dismissal, the costumed teachers move to what appears to be a mix of choreographed and improvised dances outside the school.

To Dobmeier, the project is also a good example of the camaraderie that exists among faculty, staff and administrators at Casey.

"We've got a great faculty here and they're really willing to do whatever it takes to promote positivity with our staff and students," he said. "Harry's been a big part of that."

O'Malley gained some video production experience during a yearlong stint at New York Film Academy in New York City, and from time working on sets for commercials where he said his duties were not glamorous – getting coffee, carrying around extension cords and lighting.

"But at the same time I'm seeing how it gets done," he said.

The equipment he needed was "minimal," he said, and included a gimbal he purchased to stabilize the iPhone for tracking shots. "That made movement shots real smooth," he said.

Editing includes continuous quick cuts, and Jim Taylor, the school's orchestra teacher, contributed the drone footage.

For Bruno Mars' "24K Magic" filmed partially at Canalside, O'Malley also wanted a grand room like the Las Vegas casinos featured in the original video.

"We considered a casino, but thought, 'Nah, not the best messaging for middle schoolers,' " he said.

So he contacted the Hotel Lafayette and spoke to a manager.

"It was one of those funny calls where you say, 'Just hear me out. This is going to sound really weird. I'm a teacher and we want to shoot a dance video,' " O'Malley said.

The manager told O'Malley she is a Casey graduate and loves his videos. She gave the group full access to the hotel, including its opulent banquet rooms.

He purchased six massive green screens for Justin Bieber's "Sorry," which was shot in the school's auditorium under bright lights. "It's kind of gotten a little over the top," he admits, laughing.

But ingrained in all the videos on clothing or signs is the "Beat Cancer" message, which O'Malley said is the point.

"It really has resonated with a lot of people," said O'Malley, whose parents are both cancer survivors. "Obviously, cancer is so ubiquitous."

"It's really an opportunity for us to kind of embarrass ourselves and draw attention to what we think is a really worthwhile cause," Dobmeier added.

The videos have the added benefit of dispelling stereotypes of the stodgy middle school teacher and principal for their students, they said. Maybe they're not so uncool after all?

"When they see these videos, to the students they're the coolest thing that ever happened," O'Malley said. "All of a sudden they see their teachers trying to move to them and it's jarring. Not only the teachers feel like they're fish out of water, but the students are like, 'Oh my God. What are these teachers doing?'"

"I have had that song stuck in my head for about a month now," Dobmeier said of the LMFAO song. "I just have to be careful I'm not singing it when I walk down the hallway. I might get caught bopping around to it once in a while."

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