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At 70, South Philly man makes street dancing an ageless art

Matt Hopkins has reinvented himself six times. Almost once for every decade.

Matt Hopkins, 70, is a street performer who classifies himself as the oldest hip hop dancer. He raps and says he's the original "OG" not original gangsta but original gentleman, November 4, 2015.
Matt Hopkins, 70, is a street performer who classifies himself as the oldest hip hop dancer. He raps and says he's the original "OG" not original gangsta but original gentleman, November 4, 2015.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

Matt Hopkins has reinvented himself six times. Almost once for every decade.

There's Matt Hopkins, Scrabble master. Jazz musician. Playwright. Actor. Classical musician. Now, there's Matt Hopkins, hip-hop dancer and rapper.

At age 70, he pops, locks, and occasionally drops on 15th Street near City Hall, and also in the corridors leading to Suburban Station. Recently, he's been performing at Christmas Village in LOVE Park. He dances to tracks by Fetty Wap, Drake, and Chris Brown.

Hopkins is 6-foot-2, with a slender frame that could be the envy of men half his age. But don't let the graying beard fool you; he can move.

"New Flame" by Chris Brown plays from his speakers as Hopkins stretches. He's dressed in his favorite colors: black and red. His lean frame is decked in skinny-fit sweatpants, red sneakers, and a blazer. He could easily be a model for "athleisure" fashions.

People begin to gather around, some who know him and others who are seeing him for the first time. Their cameras are ready.

"They see the gray beard, they see the body and the movements, and it's not something they've seen before," Hopkins says.

His rap name is O.G. Mister Matt. The O.G., he says, stands not for "Original Gangster" but for "Original Gentleman."

Hopkins can't say he always backs the messages in rap or hip-hop music. But he speaks avidly about Nicki Minaj's growth as an artist, and says he "loves Drake and Future's synergy." He says, "Modern hip-hop has become symphonic."

"Yo, nobody messing with him!" a passerby yells.

"Get it, old head!" another says.

Hopkins moves his waist and spins.

Rashida Moff, 26, stands with her jaw almost on the floor. Without taking her eyes off Hopkins, she says, "I hope I can move like that when I'm his age."

Whether they're laughing at him or with him, "it's all good," Hopkins says. He's been at it for seven months and already has cemented himself in the street performance scene, befriending Philly Jesus and students at the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts who also busk. Hopkins was inspired by friend Anthony Riley, a street vocalist and former Voice contestant, who died this spring. Sometimes, Hopkins says, "I do it in memory of him; he was an encouraging force."

The father of one and grandfather of four uses the money he makes busking for living expenses and to save up for college tuition so his 4-year-old great-granddaughter can, he hopes, have an Ivy League education.

Through meditation, Hopkins says, he's learned to put himself in the zone. His daily routine consists of morning yoga and classical stretching exercises, because, he says, muscles in the body are like violin strings that constantly need to be tuned.

"When I wake up, I feel 70," he says. "The yoga knocks 20 years off."

His sense of style probably knocks off another 20. "I know what works for me. Style is an evolution of an expression of self," he says.

And don't be surprised if you catch him at nightclubs like Vango and Voyeur - those are places he sees some of the best dancers. "I love to watch and see what they do," he says, "and incorporate it in my performances."

But his dance style is his own. The Southwest Philadelphia resident was born and raised in South Philly. Hopkins always had a passion for dance, but his father, who could play anything by ear, insisted he learn how to read music. As a student at Settlement Music School, Hopkins began playing piano at 6 and percussion at 9. In the early '60s, when music unions were segregated, his instructor insisted he be an extra in the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Longtime local civic leader Samuel L. Evans, founder of the American Foundation for Negro Affairs, was his mentor. Hopkins says that men like Evans - who died in 2008 at the age of 105 - showed him the way. At age 15, Hopkins graduated from Central High School, but "my family didn't have two nickels to rub together to pay for my education." Evans helped pay for Hopkins to study music at Temple University. He later received a Rockefeller grant to be an artist in residence at the University of Pennsylvania. He went on to teach percussion and African drumming at Settlement in the late 1960s, at a time when many black students didn't embrace their African heritage.

As Hopkins digs into a bag of homemade trail mix and a bag of grapes, he says: "I tell my friends to stay active. If you don't move it, you're going to lose it." Hopkins, who is a health advocate and pescatarian, remembers friends who told him to sit down and act his age.

"I sat at their funerals," Hopkins says. "That's when I sat down."

He says that when people, especially seniors, connect to their passion, it has a youthening effect.

You can see it. There's a youthful optimism, almost a naïveté, in his eyes when he talks, and especially when he dances.

He's a man who prides himself on building bridges, whether through dance, music, or conversation. "I rarely meet a person and have nothing to talk about," he says. Hopkins can talk for hours on a variety of topics, with a lifetime supply of milestones and anecdotes.

He's traveled the world, from Jamaica to Germany; he ran in the first 10 Broad Street runs, and organized adult Scrabble tournaments; he's written plays and acted in a film. At 14, he met Malcolm X.

To anyone who says he's too old, he responds: "I'll never be a second younger than I am now."

And he's a firm believer that swag has no age.

"When I think of all the things I've been blessed to do, it awes me," Hopkins says. "I feel that my greatest contributions are ahead of me."