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Harlem’s Sundae Sermon, celebrating 10 years, may take its groove to Governor’s Island

The five-hour dance-a-thon has been a much-anticipated party in Harlem since 2008.

Sundae Sermon, a five-hour dance party in tribute

Sundae Sermon, a five-hour dance party in tribute to women, brought Harlem residents to St Nicholas Park on Sunday. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

The much beloved Sundae Sermon, a free outdoor Harlem hangout, is coming back this weekend to celebrate its 10th anniversary.

Since 2008, Sundae Sermon has entertained thousands with disco, funk, soul, reggae, old school hip-hop, and Afro house remixes by producer and DJ Stormin’ Norman (Norman McHugh) and his special guests, from DJs to Broadway stars.

This Sunday, the 50-year-old Harlem resident will share the stage with DJ Cosi, DJ Sabine and “The Donna Summer Musical” percussionist Courtnee Roze on djembe drum in tribute to women.

Ahead of the five-hour dance-a-thon, we spoke with McHugh about running the most popular outdoor party in Harlem for 10 years and what’s in store for its future.

What attracts the Harlem community to Sundae Sermon?

Someone called it the “Woodstock of Harlem.” It has become this really feel-good day when parents can let their kids run while they sit on their blankets and people dance. That’s the sort of essence and feeling you get from it. Put a few thousand people together with the same feeling and it’s just enormous. It’s community-driven. It’s important to me that it’s inclusive. I pride myself that there’s black, white, gay, straight, even though it’s predominantly black, everybody comes. That’s what makes it so special.

Celebrating 10 years is a big deal. How does that feel?

I think there’s a T-shirt I’ve had for 10 years. The years have gone by so quickly and what I’m happy about is that I’m doing it for the right reasons. I’m not doing it for the money or anything else, I’m doing it for the smiles on people’s faces. Money will come if you do it for the right reasons. It’s almost like when you watch “The Price is Right” and everybody is ecstatically happy — that’s my gift. I can’t say anything more than that.

What was your goal when you started? Where did this idea come from?

I felt like all the outdoor events were in Brooklyn, downtown Manhattan or New Jersey. I wanted a sexy, musically transforming kind of thing, so I grabbed a couple DJ friends of mine to do something in the park. We wanted to play music from the time we were in school in the early 1990s. Music wasn’t as divided on the dance floor as it is now with disco, house, funk and soul. When we were going to school you could hear all of that on the same dance floor and everybody kept moving. That was kind of the premise.

How has the event changed since then and where do you see it going in the future?

It started out with 25 people and now we’re doing it with 5,000 to 6,000 people and I’ve done it in Johannesburg, Sydney and in the states, like in Miami and a few other places. St. Nicholas Park is getting way too small. The future of it is to move to Governors Island — the festival will move to a larger location and eventually be a ticketed event, but I would like to keep one portion of it free.

I can imagine the Harlem community would be pretty sad to hear that, no?

Ideally, I would like to keep a free event . . . everything has to evolve and grow. We can’t stay there at the expense of some people. When people see it in its new form, they may have to travel a bit, but they will be like “Thank you, Norman.” There will be major activations and a main stage with who knows — with Diana Ross.

Speaking of powerful women, why did you want to pay tribute to women at this summer’s event?

My mother was very important in my life — she passed away a number of years ago, but also in the climate we’re in now in terms of the division and all of the messy things happening in our society politically and personally, I think we need to support our women. I have sisters and a daughter so it just kind of fell in my lap emotionally.

Sundae Sermon runs from 1 to 6 p.m. at St. Nicholas Park on Sunday, Aug. 12. It’s free to attend and there’s no RSVP necessary.

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