Amid the chaos of Rockefeller Center, Gerardo Balmori’s playlist has just switched to “Feliz Navidad.” He and his partner, each with a bell per hand, launch into a coordinated, bouncing dance routine as they half-yell and half-sing along. People stop to take photos. And, as Mariah Carey starts to take over with “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” two young women pick up extra bells and join in with their own moves.
The dancing is charming.
It also, Balmori estimates, doubles donations to his Salvation Army chapter.
Balmori and his wife, Monica, are the pastors at the Bronx Tremont Salvation Army. Though he has been ringing bells for the last 19 Christmas seasons, the performance aspect of his solicitation is relatively new. The unexpected return from adding music to his practice is just one of the surprising things you can learn as a Salvation Army bell
It started about seven years ago, when a youth group volunteered to ring bells in Columbus Circle. Somebody had brought a speaker, and they played Christmas carols. Over almost 20 years of bell ringing, Balmori had tried a lot of different strategies for grabbing passerby attention. He has tried speaking into a microphone, smiling to everybody who passes by, making eye contact. As a cadet (the Salvation Army uses military terminology) in training school, he and his fellow seminary students would challenge people standing nearby to, say, give $10 in ten minutes, and count down the minutes. He’s had the police chief and the firefighter chief set up a competition among their employees for raising the most money.
They learned that business locations seem to do the best on Fridays. Tourist locations do better on weekends. Good weather helps. But nothing had worked quite as well as the teenager’s cheery music and dance moves.
“They take off their headphones,” he says. “If they passed you by, they return. They smile to you and you create the connection. And sometimes they dance with you while they’re giving you the coin or the bill.”
Now every morning between November 10th and Christmas, when Balmori begins dropping volunteers off at about 10 kettle locations throughout Manhattan, he also drops off a speaker and a soundtrack of Christmas songs. He leaves the dance moves up to them. The strategy has worked so well that it has spread. A block away from Balmori’s Kettle, there’s a woman in a santa hat doing her own rendition of “Feliz Navidad.” She is ringing bells for the same Salvation Army to which one of Balmori’s former volunteers moved; the soundtrack moved with him.
Though the songs are light-hearted, the extra money they help raise is important. The local chapter gets to keep the money it raises and for Balmori, those donations usually make up between 30% and 35% of his annual budget for programs offered at his parish, which include evangelical Christian worship services, food for the hungry, job search help, child care, and after-school programs like basketball.
Coordinating volunteers, ringing bells for six hours a day, and counting the money at night typically keeps him busy from 8 a.m. to midnight six days a week (on Sunday, he’s giving sermons). This season, he’s already lost about 15 pounds by dancing all day.
But it also keeps him warm, in more ways than one.
“It’s hard to be there every day,” he says. “It’s hard to collect the money. So when you have a connection with people, it’s like you have a support system around you, you’re not by yourself anymore. The whole city, the whole community, is supporting you. Their reactions will really fill your heart.”