SCARBOROUGH – The Columbus Day Parade in New York City is the world’s largest celebration of Italian-American culture and this year Scarborough’s own Gym Dandies will be one of the featured units in the annual event that takes place on famed Fifth Avenue.

The parade will take place on Oct. 13 and Jon Cahill, director of the Gym Dandies, said his group is “very glad to have been invited and very proud to be in this parade.”

While in New York City the Gym Dandies also plan to tour Central Park and the Central Park Zoo, Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium, Cahill said.

In all, between 40 and 50 members of the Gym Dandies will perform in the parade, depending on how many families can commit given the short notice.

“We received the invitation from the Columbus Day Parade Committee in early June, which does not give us much time to get our logistics in place,” Cahill said this week. “Most major parades invite participants a year in advance.”

According to the parade committee website, the annual event draws nearly half-million spectators and is a “fun-filled parade that gets bigger and better every year. Participants from all over the world march in our parade with pride.”

The Columbus Day Parade is also televised with the marchers going up Fifth Avenue, from 44th to 72nd streets, with red carpet performances on Fifth Avenue between 67th and 69th streets.

“The parade celebrates the spirit of exploration and courage that inspired Christopher Columbus’s 1492 expedition and the important contributions Italian-Americans have made to the United States,” the parade website states.

The Gym Dandies, founded in 1981, are used to being on a big stage, participating in the Presidential Inaugural Parade in Washington, D.C., in January of 2013, the Philadelphia Independence Day Parade in 2011 and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2005.

Even so, Cahill said the Columbus Day Parade, with a route of 1.5 miles, would represent a big physical challenge to the riders and jugglers, which is why he’ll be holding extra practice sessions throughout September.

“The children will be mounted on their unicycles, either riding or performing in place, for over an hour. This is an aerobic challenge for which we will have to prepare,” he said.

Cahill said the Gym Dandies have about a dozen set parade formations and the riders change from one formation to another as they progress along the parade route. Some performers will also juggle while riding 6-foot-tall unicycles called Giraffes.

The Columbus Day performance will also include three, 36-inch wheel unicycles that will circle the entire formation and ride up and down the rows, three performers that will ride 7-foot, three-wheel unicycles and a dozen younger performers who will ride smaller, 3-foot unicycles.

The cost per member to attend the parade is $320, which Cahill said would cover the cost of transportation by motor coach, two nights at a hotel and the various tours the Gym Dandies are planning.

While Cahill appreciates the opportunity for the Gym Dandies to be in the national spotlight, he said, “Actually, our most important events are those we appear in locally, especially our community performances held each year right here in Scarborough.”

But he also acknowledged that, “Returning to New York City for a big parade event, not to mention the educational experiences available there, is a terrific reward to those Gym Dandies who have worked very hard over many years to hone their skills.”

Cahill added, “Being invited to events like the Presidential Inaugural Parade, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the National Independence Day Parade is an important validation of the Gym Dandies Circus Arts Program.”

Overall, getting to participate in a big parade event shows that “patience, persistence and hard work pay off,” he said.

When he started the Gym Dandies more than 30 years ago, Cahill said, “I had no idea we would get such exposure. I started Gym Dandies simply to give children a fun option to be physically active, improve their coordination and experience success. We started with 10 kids and a bucket full of tennis balls and expanded from there.”

Peter Vachon, whose son, Thomas, participates in Gym Dandies, said what he most likes about the program is that it’s a “fun, non-competitive physical activity where the kids learn skills they will never forget. They (also) learn to stick with something until they master it, and they learn to work together.”

Thomas, who will be a freshman at Scarborough High School this fall, is Vachon’s third child to participate in Gym Dandies. Thomas started in third grade and now rides a Giraffe unicycle while juggling.

Vachon also appreciates that through Gym Dandies his children have had the opportunity to shine on the national stage.

“Participating in the Presidential Inauguration Parade is something very few people get to do. How many other school activities have put the kids on a national stage like the Gym Dandies?” he said.

Shepherding three children through the Gym Dandies has given Vachon a true appreciation for what the activity offers, but he worries that since “the Gym Dandies have been around so long now it is easy to take them for granted.”

“I don’t think community support is quite as strong as it has been in the past, but I hope that performances such as the Columbus Day Parade can help energize the community,” Vachon added.

This fall, the Gym Dandies of Scarborough will participate in the Columbus Day Parade in New York City. Here they show off their skills during the annual Yarmouth Clam Festival Parade last week.  

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