PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Ah, Christmas in Rhode Island. Exquisitely decorated mansions in Newport. A red nose on the giant termite that sits atop a Providence exterminator’s building. And a traffic cop, doing disco and salsa moves in the middle of rush-hour traffic.
Tony Lepore is as much a holiday tradition as anything else in the state that issued the first jail sentence for speeding 108 years ago. Since 1984, and as a special contracted reserve officer since 1992, he has entertained drivers, pedestrians and gawkers with dance moves in downtown Providence — all while directing traffic.
“He is a Rhode Island landmark, more or less. He’s an icon, he’s like a little mini celebrity,” says Michelle Peterson, of Warwick. She’s an emergency medical technician and the mother of three boys who was introduced to the “dancing cop” years ago by her partner in their ambulance.
This year, she took her boys to see Lepore, 65, perform and got him to pose for pictures with them.
“It feels good to see him out here; it definitely brings the holiday spirit. I think people come out here just to see him and I think it brings some people to shop so they can see him.”
The routine, Lepore says, was born in the month of May of the boredom and aggravation that officers typically experience while directing rushing drivers and jaywalking pedestrians. He was inspired by classic “Candid Camera” television footage he that showed police officers directing traffic with flair.
“I didn’t know if my bosses were going to like it, so a lot of times if I saw a boss come down, I’d be doing my fancy stuff, then I’d go back and do it the old-fashioned way so I don’t get caught,” Lepore says.
His secret didn’t last long. City residents began calling the police station and raving about Lepore’s moves. A few days later, The Providence Journal, the state’s largest newspaper, came out with a story on the sensation.
The positive publicity encouraged officials to endorse the dancing cop, who continued to perform until he left the job in 1988, when he went into business with his brother with a food and vending service.
In 1992, Lepore says, he got a call from city officials asking him to rejoin the force to dance and direct traffic around Christmastime as they pushed to redefine the city’s image and bring visitors downtown.
He signed a $1,200, 10-day contract as a reserve police officer and says he has frozen the value of the contract at the 1992 rate to encourage city officials to recall his services every year.
Standing in traffic, he adjusts his cap, shakes his hip, raises and twists one leg and spins. In one of the more unusual moves, he bends his knees, leans far back and quickly alternates support for his body by keeping one hand on the ground while motioning to the traffic with the free hand.
In one move, he goes down on his knees in homage to John Travolta’s character in “Saturday Night Fever.”
He says his body takes a pounding and that he has had knee surgery, pulled some muscles and even suffered stress fractures.
“This is ridiculous! Oh, man, this guy is the best,” an incredulous Vik Jay, a medical student at Brown University, says after seeing the “Dancing Cop” in action for the first time. “I’m from San Francisco. I used to go to Castro Street, and this is far more entertaining than anything I saw there.”
Karen DeAngelis, of Pawtucket, was on a bus when she saw Lepore perform while directing traffic. She got out to watch him before continuing her journey.
“I would come down here every year to see him if I were able to,” she says. “I’m not able to, and I just so happened to be here today. He’s that good and he’s that entertaining, and he really cheers people up.”
Lepore says his dance moves are planned to send specific directions to drivers to avoid causing confusion at the intersection.
“I do it in such a way that even the people in the cars know what I mean, ‘cause every dance move means something to the driver, and I make sure that he knows or she knows what I want them to do,” Lepore says.
The dancing is not a distraction and has never caused incredulous drivers to crash, he says.
“I think it would be more of a distraction if I was in a different town and they didn’t know I was out there, but most of Providence, they even know me by the sound of my whistle,” he said. “It’s more of a spectacle where people love to just come down here and see me do it around Christmastime, and they enjoy it ... and I enjoy it.”