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ROCK'n Rockefeller Center

Dancing in the footsteps of the Founder.

Cadets Daniel and Vanessa Muller use bell and timbrel to accompany their dancing on Fifth Avenue.

The hustle and bustle of the Christmas season is no more evident than in the crowded streets of Manhattan. Street vendors compete with giants such as Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue while Radio City Music Hall features its annual Christmas Extravaganza. The towering and spectacular Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is an island amid the river of people that surround and pass by. Taxis and buses reinforce the need for pedestrians to stay on the sidewalk until the crossing signal flashes. It would seem there could be nothing more squeezedinto the scene but there they are—the dancing cadets.

Salvation Army kettles are nothing new on New York City streets, having been a constant Christmas sight since the late nineteenth century. But a few years ago, in addition to the kettle, the bell and the occasional brass quartet, highly energetic Salvation Army cadets were ready to try something novel. 

Cadet Travis Payne uses a double bell approach to enthusiastically draw attention to the kette.

In 2011, Cadets Christopher Hinzman and David Kelly were experiencing success with their fundraising efforts but felt they could do more. They recalled that earlier cadets had broken into a spontaneous rendition of “Do the Hokey Pokey” that gathered such crowds that Fifth Avenue was shut down. So, they decided to try dancing to recorded Christmas music and Hinzman’s guitar. With Mariah Carey’s new Christmas classic “All I Want for Christmas” as accompaniment, the cadets improvised moves using previously unseen dance steps. With their bell and a surplus of youthful energy, they were an immediate success. Donations soared while passersby smiled, laughed, took selfies, videos and pictures and some joined in dancing. At one point, they decided to do the Macarena, with 40-50 visiting school kids joining in. 

Word of the phenomenon spread, grabbing the attention of the New York Post, which featured the dancing cadets in a story and online video on December 20, 2011 (http://bit.ly/RocknRock). This was followed immediately by a request for them to be guests on NBC’s Today Show.

There was some backlash from within The Salvation Army by those who were concerned about their use of secular music, the spectacle they were making of themselves and the Army, and just the thought of cadets dancing. But the administration at the School for Officers Training and the Greater New York Division were supportive. The proof was in their kettle, now overflowing with donations. 

One of the rewarding aspects of this effort were the regulars who, having passed by the kettles many times, now stopped to talk, allowing the cadets to pray with some of them. At other times, some of the homeless shared their stories and then a meal at McDonald’s, treated by the cadets.

One member of the management team at Rockefeller Center shared later that since cadets started dancing the whole atmosphere had changed to a more family friendly and festive feeling. And with that success, the team of Hinzman & Kelly were joined by other dancing cadets. It has now become a Christmas tradition in downtown Manhattan. 

Cadet Kelly is now a captain stationed in Philadelphia. Does dancing at the kettle work in Philly? “No, not at all,” he recalls, “It is something unique to New York.” When I asked him how he justified what many saw as outlandish behavior, he replied, “The founder of The Salvation Army, William Booth, never let dignity get in the way of mission.” The cadets are simply dancing in his footsteps. 

Lt. Colonel Allen Satterlee is Editor in Chief and National Literary Secretary.

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