He's got the swivel of John Travolta, the shimmy of James Brown and the badge of the Providence Police Department. Patrol Officer Tony Lepore is back on the streets, and it's time to dance.
Lepore, in full uniform with a gun dangling in the holster on his right hip, jiggles a leg and shakes his booty. He whirls his arms like windmills and bounces on the ground from knee to knee. He twirls and pirouettes, all the while blowing his whistle in time to a secret rhythm and leaving one white-gloved hand free to direct astounded drivers and pedestrians through the four-way downtown intersection here that is, for now, his stage.
"I love him, I love him. I haven't stopped laughing since I started watching," said Elizabeth Lundy, 80, sitting on a striped lawn chair Monday at the corner of Dorrance and Westminster streets. "I wish I could do half of what he can do."
Only in New England, where jaywalking and moving violations are a source of independent Yankee pride, could Lepore, a 52-year-old retired police officer, turn directing traffic into performance art. The renowned "dancing cop," a self-described thespian trapped in a police officer's uniform, has become a holiday tradition in Providence, where he will don a Santa Claus cap and pass out candy canes today before flicking on the traffic signals at the climax of his annual two-week performance.
"It's quite odd what I do," said Lepore, a father of two who bears an uncanny resemblance to Charlie Chaplin. "It's all in my head--the people, the cars--we relate together. I know what I want to do, but then something happens, and I have to go into something else. It's all one production."
Lepore always wanted to be a performer, directing family plays and singing in the choir. But fate and the conservative expectations of the 1950s led him to Vietnam, marriage, and then in 1971 to the security of the police force, where he received several commendations for valor. More than a decade later, he was conducting traffic when something inside of him snapped.
"At first, I just did little spins and hand movements, nothing really, really progressive," Lepore said. "The department didn't know anything about it. Every time I did traffic, I'd be watching out for superiors' cars, and if I could see one coming down the road, I'd go back to the regular way. When they passed by, I'd go back to dancing."
A local newspaper spilled the beans in a front-page spread headlined "Traffic With a Flair." He has since performed at schools and charity events nationwide and danced on everything from "Rosie O'Donnell" to "Dateline NBC." The acclaim has not lagged: A radio commercial currently has him joking that his wife can't keep up with him on the dance floor. He also has a part in an upcoming movie and an as-yet unpublished autobiography titled "Jammin.' "
Called out of retirement by the mayor after a three-year hiatus, Lepore has danced every holiday season since 1991. He does not write tickets and has never caused an accident, but the job is not without its hazards: He once spun into a bus.
"A lot of times there are moves that I can't do while directing. It's not all dancing," he said. To those who dare defy him, he playfully yells, "I can't direct people and traffic at the same time. I'm not that good."
Fans beg to differ. After warming up on a recent afternoon, Lepore asks some youngsters what they are waiting for. Erupting into giggles, a little boy wearing orange fleece mittens shouts, "For you to dance!" A fit of uncontrollable laughter bursts from the group as Lepore bends his right knee, jiggles his foot, and teases oncoming cars with a sexy sashay. He whistles and yells, "Come on in, the water is warm," to eager pedestrians.
"Do it again!" shout the children, oblivious to a cranky shopper muscling her way through, muttering, "Excuse me, I'm not here for the show. I need to cross the street."
High school students assigned to a school project on Lepore applaud his routine, even if his moves seem 1980s. "Pretty nice," said 16-year-old Carlos David. "But he needs to watch some more MTV."