“Merry Christmas, everybody!” Sylvia Wiggins shouts as she shakes hands with some of the tens of thousands of spectators watching “her kids,” as she calls them, in the Raleigh Christmas Parade. Wiggins, a larger-than-life personality, is the personification of exuberance and joy. Dressed in a top hat, and red formal jacket complete with nearly floor-length tails, her smile is as infectious as the spirit emanating from her group of men, women and children, collectively known by almost everyone in Raleigh as the Helping Hand Mission Marching Band.
This parade, the largest of the year for the group, is the culmination of weeks of preparation, detailed choreography planning and anticipation. And the results, that 1.4-mile stretch of intricate drum beats, explosive dance moves and ear-to-ear smiles, speaks more than words ever could to Wiggins’ life’s work, the Helping Hand Mission. Today is also the day they debut their new red uniforms, which were recently donated to the group.
“When I was a little girl, there were only light skinned people in the band,” Wiggins explains, her voice boisterous and instantly inviting. “So I said, when I grow up, I’m going to have a band where people of all colors can join.” Coming to Raleigh with only $11 and a dream, Wiggins made her dream a reality in 1976 and has since become a staple in the community, receiving accolades and recognition without losing an ounce of the humbleness that drives her. You can’t help but smile around her, and you won’t have a choice at getting a hug — Wiggins has never ever encountered a stranger.
And for the masses watching the Raleigh Christmas Parade, her work speaks for itself. Ranging in ages from three years old to well past 50, the bands accepts everyone. A group of younger girls who march in front, anxiously practice poses and moves before the parade. The self-proclaimed leader of this piece of the band, age 8, giggles, “This is probably my 20th parade or so. I’m in charge of the dancing.” Asia Harrington, one of the dancers in the older group who recently moved to Virginia from Raleigh, left her home before 5 a.m. just to make it to the big event.
But marching down Hillsborough and Fayetteville streets, it’s the drummers and the drum majors who set the tone and the pace. And they don’t take their jobs lightly, practicing almost daily to perfect every beat. Maurice Carter and Keonte Gause, drum majors, lead the group down the street, with retired drum major Willie Thorpe in the rear. The three together give an electric performance, complete with splits, hair whips and nearly acrobatic moves, as the drums blast hypnotically and the dancers move in sync with hip-joint-defying swings and precision. Breaking the intensity of the performance, the comedic characters, Cowboy Hand, Super Hand and Crowd Control Hand, don elaborate costumes, fake mustaches and capes and move about to energize the crowd.
“Show ‘em how to do it! Show ‘em y’all! Y’all are the best!” The crowd gives the group the reception they want. “We’re here to get hyped. We’re here to get turnt up — that’s the phrase,” says Gause.
For Thorpe, who at 42 has been in the group for 28 years, the spirit of this event has special meaning. “These kids could be anywhere, doing anything. But they’re here. And that means they don’t have time to get in trouble,” he says. Thorpe himself knows Wiggins’ passion first hand; he graduated from Wake Tech last May at her encouragement. Wiggins’ “kids” all get that same level of affection — she pushes a “no drink, no drugs” rule and sees the band as an anti-gang, pro-education, pro-community initiative.
But that mission is all subtlety — Niyah Devine and Jamya Richardson, two cousins who dance for the group, just enjoy dancing. Devine’s mom explains, “Her dad signed her up. And she just loves it.” Turning off the route and into a parking lot at the end of the parade, you wouldn’t know the event was over if you just watched the Helping Hand Mission. They continue playing for more than 30 minutes to an ever-growing crowd in an empty lot as people leaving the parade get drawn into the excitement.
If they are exhausted, they don’t show it — for the Helping Hand Mission Marching Band, energy and hype and spirit make up the fabric of life. “Red, baby baby! Red! Don’t you love these new uniforms! Look at these kids! The fun doesn’t stop now! Let’s dance y’all!” Wiggins yells to anyone and everyone, exemplifying the very feeling you get from watching the scene — pure joy.
bonus shots from Seano