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Mummers go Hollywood, Bollywood

The South Philly Vikings brought the spectacle of Mummery to Hollywood this year, appearing on national television whirling amid a set design featuring alien-like costumes, pyrotechnics, and a robot in their vision of Apocalypse 2010.

Jaws dropped.

But one critical judge on America's Got Talent, Piers Morgan, was puzzled. "It's just overgrown school children in robot costumes, that's all it is ... I don't get it at all."


But the South Philly Vikings remain far from bitter, having made it through the Hollywood round.

"It was a great experience, one of the greatest of my life, says Vince 'Boo' Buono, business agent for the club, a Fancy Brigade. "If they would have taken the time to understand us, things might have been different."

The mummers, recruited by a show producer, knew they're act really didn't fit in with the show, and that few outside of Philadelphia would understand the context, history and New Year tradition in Philadelphia.  It was their goal to bring mummery to a wider-audience.  And, they impressed judges Howie Mandel and Sharon Osbourne, who apologized on camera to the club for Morgan's harshness.

Forget Hollywood.

Bring on Bollywood.

On a November morning, the South Philly Vikings gathered in the schoolyard of Neumann-Goretti High School on South Tenth Street in South Philadelphia where their clubhouse overlooks the schoolyard.  Club members straggled in, a bit slow after a late night affair at the club.  But Captain Pete D'Amato quickly whipped the group of electricians, plumbers, carpenters and other blue-collar workers into line, ready to dance.

"1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8," D'Amato counted off, as the men tried to keep in time - no easy feat when trying to emulate light-of-feet, Bollywood-style dancing.

The South Philly Vikings have become known for embracing detailed choreography which sidelines the mummer's strut in favor of something more. They took top prize for the Fancy Division in 2010. On New Year's Day 2011, the club will bring Bollywood to Broad Street.

Andrea Hendri, 25, is charged with motivating some big-boned men to dance lithely, and in time.  She started with the parade 13 years ago, but it's her first year as choreographer.  A former 76ers dancer, she has spent hours researching Bollywood routines, trying to capture the flavor.

"It's very hard, but a lot of them can really kick it out," Hendri said, as the 80 men, women, boys and girls in the club were beginning to fall in sync. "They are used to dancing more flat-footed. For this, they have to be on the balls of their feet, and some of them are big guys."

Adding the complexity, a group of men have to keep time to the music with 'saps' - wooden clappers that fold and expand accordion-like. Some of the girls, barely teens, similarly must deal with the trying to syncopate the flow of waving colorful scarves. Hendri must bring the routine to just under four minutes and thirty seconds or face point deductions during judging at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

The past few years have been tough on Mummers' clubs, even as they seek a broader audience with the introduction of new clubs and so cial networking. The clubs have to pick up a lot more of the parade tab with city budget cuts.  Not only must they help pay for security and other parade expenses, but the have to pay for their own costumes or 'suits', floats and, transportation. So they've been holding more fund-raisers and increasing membership fees.

"You have to look for a team player," Buono says. "Right now is a tough times for a lot of members."

Indeed, dues is not cheap.  Members 13 to 18 years old must pay $1,750 each year.  Adults pay $2,250.  The club increased dues after the economy fell into recession in 2008 and the city began making noise about not being able to pay for extra police and sanitation, although the financial picture appears much brighter this year.  The youngest member of the club is 14. The oldest is 55.

Then, there's the time commitment. The club pulls on the skills of its members. A carpenter builds the sets. Buono, who owns a trucking company, transports the sets. He sees it less as a commitment and more of keeping a tradition unique to Philadelphia alive.

As he spoke, one of the female dancers was carefully following the choreography.  She was wearing a knee brace.  She injured her knee in last years performance and was determined not to miss out this year.

"We love to push the envelope," Buono says. "As long as we hear that crowd go crazy, that's our real prize."