Dancer and Prancer better watch their backs because 71-year-old busker Matt Hopkins has the holiday dance moves — and spirit — to put those flying quadrupeds to shame.
During the holiday season, Hopkins can be found outside City Hall, unabashedly dancing to Christmas music, dressed in holiday colors and jingle bells from his Santa-hat-tipped head to his red-sneaker-tipped toes. Pay no mind that his red-hooded sweatshirt bears the SEPTA logo. Even elves take public transportation sometimes.
For most of the year Hopkins, a slender 6-foot-2, is known as the “Hip-Hop Grandpop” or “O.G. Mister Matt.” He kicks, prances, squats and generally busts moves busking at City Hall and South Street in flashy outfits.
But when the holiday season rolls around, Hopkins dresses head-to-toe in red and green, covers his wrists in jingle-bell bracelets and transforms into “a right jolly ol’ elf — a tall one at that!”
“The fact that I’m rather slender it’s kind of hard for me to be the traditional Santa Claus so I say I’m the dancing elf or the dancing fit Santa,” he said.
Born in South Philadelphia, Hopkins — who has a son, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren — attended Central High and considered becoming a priest but instead majored in music at Temple University. He taught for a time at the Settlement Music School and said he later worked for Milton Bradley, organizing competitive adult Scrabble games across the country. He still teaches Scrabble to latchkey kids after school.
Hopkins, who now lives in Southwest Philly, started busk dancing — with no formal training — a few years ago. He said it was sheer “chutzpah” that got him over the fear of doing it.
But he wasn’t always so brave.
“I was shy as a child, then I realized I was coming out on the wrong end of the line. I was always in the back,” he said. “Being positive and assertive is more fun in life. Then you live without regrets. Sometimes you may step on your own toes, but overall, we have the opportunity to choose joy in life.”
This is Hopkins’ third year spreading yuletide joy by dancing to Christmas music that he blasts from a small speaker connected to his iPhone.
“The nice thing about Christmas music is that you hear it when you’re a babe in arms and for the rest of your life you get to hear that wonderful music and it fires synapses in your brain that bring on joy and happiness,” he said. “It unites you through all these marvelous happy experiences that you’ve had in your life.
“It’s a wonderful time of year,” he said. “The most wonderful time of the year!”
After seven decades, Hopkins isn’t without his aches. He deals with his arthritis by doing stretches and yoga. And his dancing, he believes, is what keeps him young.
“When you’re over 65, it’s healthier to shake your booty than sit on it for 10 hours a day,” he said.
For someone who dances in public like nobody is watching when, in actuality, everybody is, Hopkins is keenly aware of what others think. He knows some are smiling with him and some are laughing at him, but he doesn’t care, just as long as people are smiling.
Perhaps that’s how he embodies the Christmas spirit most of all.
“What makes me so happy doing what I do is to see the smiles on these little kids’ faces and to see the smiles on these adults faces,” he said. “To think that I’m bringing others joy, well there’s nothing that makes me happier than that.”
“I’ve had a love affair with this city going back to the first house I lived in. I remember as a child, I always loved maps. Back when I was a kid SEPTA was not around. It was called PTC (Philadelphia Transportation Company). I loved the buses, I loved all of those things. I would travel around the city. I just find this a fascinating city. I love Philadelphia.”
What’s been a classic Philly moment for you?
“One of the classic Philly moments every year for me is Councilwoman Blackwell’s Christmas party that she has in the [Convention Center]. She gets the whole [Convention Center]. Gives out all these marvelous toys to children that are from quote unquote underprivileged homes and the unbridled joy of that moment is a classic Philly moment. It’s a Philly thing, just sharing and giving.”
If you had a wish for the city what would it be?
“My wish for the city is as the city is moving so rapidly forward with building everywhere you look that we will not forget to educate our young people….I grew up in South Philly and there were times people would say that I grew up in a house which was on the low end of the scale. I never knew that I was poor because I had such a rich sense of self and the love that surrounded me. You know what? The minds that have the ability to cure cancer and do these things are right here in the city but you have to educate them, you have to give them that opportunity.”
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Want more We the People?
- Last week’s profile: People pay $1 just to take a photo of Anthony Smith and his dogs, Noodles and Diva. Smith takes his well-dressed dogs to events around the city in his bicycle basket.
- From Nov. 29: Danie Ocean is a musician with a rare eye disease that’s left her legally blind, is one of the founders of a co-op music studio that requires its members to do community service.
- From Nov. 22: Nearly every day for 17 years, oil painter Mark Campana has hauled his easel from his home in South Philadelphia to Rittenhouse Square to paint scenes in and around the park.
- From Nov. 15: Haircuts 4 Homeless barber Brennon Jones continues to serve people who are homeless at his new barbershop, which was given to him by a stranger who was inspired by his mission.
- From Nov. 8: Street performers Eli Capella and Seraiah Nicole create music in real time that’s inspired by the people who pass them on the streets of Philadelphia.
- From Nov. 1: John Sebastian, the maintenance director at Reading Terminal Market, was a steel drummer who toured with a Caribbean orchestra and jammed with Jimmy Buffett.