Kicking Off My Sunday Shoes: Footloose and the Church’s Dancing History

Sometime Pop Theology contributor and dancer extraordinaire, the Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber, gives us her thoughts on the new Footloose remake and a brief history of dancing in the church. Check it out after the jump.

After the classic focus-on-the-dancing-feet montage reminiscent of the 1984 version of Footloose, the film opens with a close-up on the preacher’s grief-stricken face.  Rev. Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid) stands behind the pulpit of his South Georgia church and proclaims, “God is testing us…there is a lesson we can learn from this tragedy.”  As in the 1984 classic, five teenagers from Bomont High are tragically killed while driving home from a dance.  Rev. Moore’s son, Bobby, is one of the five teens who dies.  As a response, the city council banns loud music and unsupervised public dancing by minors.  With no one to blame, dancing becomes the scapegoat of tragedy.  Ren MacCormack (Kenny Wormald) moves to Bomont from Boston after the death of his mother.  He challenges the city’s antiquated law and wins the heart of the preacher’s daughter, Ariel (Julianne Hough).

Ren (Kenny Wormald) and Ariel (Julianne Hough) get a little bit closer in this version of "Footloose."


I’ll admit my own hesitation in watching a remake of a movie that defined my adolescence as a Gen-Xer.  I entered the theatre wondering if Kenny Wormald could compete with his predecessor, the beloved Kevin Bacon.  Would his solo dancing in the abandoned warehouse compare with the classic 80s moves of Bacon?  Would I want to show the clip of his impassioned speech at town council when teaching about the intersections of dance and religion?  Could he be so cheesy, yet so effective?

While it seemed that the dialogue was copied almost word-for-word from the 1984 version and the dancing was simply updated to include more booty dance and krumping, I was surprised at some of my own visceral reactions to the new rendition of my beloved classic.  Interestingly, a large part of this meaningful reaction stems from my own experience introducing dance in a South Georgia Baptist church.  Apparently, Ren MacCormack and I share more than an affinity for vintage knock-off Ray-Ban sunglasses.

At the age of 18 I was hired by a Baptist church in South Georgia to serve as their youth minister.  I was also a professional dancer at the time.  It was the beginning of my time fusing together these seemingly disparate professions: dancer and minister.  Like MacCormack, I’ve given many impassioned speeches about the role of dance in scripture to wary audiences.

Miriam, Jephthah’s daughter, David, the Psalmist, the Shulamite, Judith, Salome, and even Jesus in the Apocryphal Acts of John were all dancers found in scripture.  In the same way that Rev. Moore neglected and ignored these dancers that fill the bible, so too, do most preachers and scholars of religion forget our dancing tradition.  Would the county-seat church in Bomont have banned dancing if these dancing stories from scripture were preached from the pulpit on a regular basis?  Would these Southern Christians decry dancing if they’d learned that there are eleven Hebrew verbs for our one English word “dance” found in the Hebrew bible and that every Hebrew and Greek word for “worship” and “praise” is embodied?  If the folks in the pews knew that the word for “worship” literally means to “prostrate and bow down,” that the words translated as “praise” literally means “to kneel, bless,” or “to confess with outstretched hands,” would they be so skeptical and fearful of dance and embodiment?  If the church acknowledged that the Apocryphal Acts of John 94-95 records Jesus as saying, “Grace dances, so dance ye all…those who dance not, know not what is to come,” then we may not detest dancing and the body quite so much.  The scriptural and historical reasons could continue.

For example a myriad of early church fathers wrote about the importance of dance in the Christian church.  Lucian of Samosata (125-180) stated, “Dance is not merely a pleasure; it is an act good for the soul.”[1]  Clement of Alexandria (150-216) in his Address to the Heathens, said, “This is the mountain beloved of God…and there revel on it…daughters of God, the fair lambs, who celebrate the holy rites of the Word, raising a sober choral dance.”[2]  Furthermore, Ambrose (338-397) requested that persons about to be baptized approach the font dancing.[3]  And even Augustine (354-430), a theologian responsible for shaping much of Christianity, spoke of the relationship between dance and faith, writing, “He [sic] who dances obeys…In our case dancing means changing the manner of our life…when God called the tune, he [sic] hearkened and began to dance.”[4] For more reflections on dance from early church fathers, see the quotes at the end of the article.

Rev. Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid) represents a certain type of Christianity that ignores a significant pro-dance history.

Not only did the early church support dance as worship, but it continued into the Early Medieval period.  Archbishop Isidore of Seville composed sacred choreography and incorporated it into the Mozarabic Rite that is still celebrated three times per year in the Cathedral of Seville.[5]  Another example is that Pope Gregory IV (827-844) inaugurated the Children’s Festival in honor of Pope Gregory the Great where children danced in worship.[6] Continuing into the Late Medieval Period (1100-1400), the most prominent form of dance was the Dance of Death, “danse macabre,” where death dances forth to claim the lives of those stricken with the Bubonic Plague.[7]  Also during the Late Medieval Period, cloistered nuns danced on the Feasts of Holy Innocents, priests danced on the Feast of St. Nicholas, Pope Urban IV (1264) created the Corpus Christi procession dance to celebrate the Eucharist, and labyrinth dances were popular in church yards.[8]  A dance step that has continued until today, the oldest liturgical dance step, stems from the work of John Beleth, the University of Paris rector, who inaugurated the tripudia.[9]  And it is during this period that Dante describes dancing as “the occupation of those in paradise.”[10]

We move from the Late Medieval Period into the Renaissance (1400-1700) where processionals, moral ballets, and dance as hymn and psalm interpretation are prevalent in worship.  Cardinal Ximenes (1436-1517) choreographed “seises” dances to be performed seven time per year and Pope Eugenius IV saw these seises and issued a papal bull authorizing their dances.[11]  Beginning the Protestant tradition, Martin Luther, admonishes dance in his 1525 carol “On Heaven High” in addition to writing about it in a letter to his little son, Hans, describing heaven as a place of happy dancing. (See another Luther quote on dance below). Additionally, Cardinal Borromeo, commissioned a dance for the canonization of Ignatius of Loyola in 1610.[12]  And as the Renaissance draws to a close, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) condemned dance, even though it ended with a lavish ball.[13]

During the Post Renaissance, the Jesuits stylized the famous five positions of ballet under the leadership of Charles Beauchamp, and the Jesuit’s college ballets could be compared to the court ballets of their day.  In fact, King Louis XIV said, “there is no one like the Jesuits for doing pirouettes.”[14]  On the whole there was a decline in liturgical dancing due to the shift toward word oriented liturgy, as the Roman Catholic Church became more centrally authoritative, and Puritans condemned the lust of the flesh; however, John Cotton, a New England Puritan, stated, “Dancing I would not simply condemn, for I see two sorts of dancing in use with God’s people in the OT.”[15]  Cotton Mather, another Puritan, wrote “An Arrow Against Profane and Promiscuous Dancing,” and condemned only dancing that aroused the passions.[16]  Furthermore, the Shakers, founded 1747, were known for their unique, shaking dances in worship.[17]  There were circle dances in camp meetings of Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians during the Second Great Awakening.

I share these glimpses into the dancing history of Christianity simply to say that Ren MacCormack is not alone in quoting from Ecclesiastes, reminding the people of Bomont that there is a time weep and a time to dance.  “There was a time for those laws, but not anymore,” Ren claims, “this is our time to live, our time to dance.”  Ren experienced resistance from a small town in South Georgia and so did I, but ultimately, we both danced.  And I am convinced that our dancing made those small towns better places.

Was the new Footloose fantastically cheesy?  Yes.  Does it compare with the iconic performances from 1984?  Maybe.  Do more small towns and more churches need to acknowledge the vast witness of dance in our histories?  Absolutely.  As a scholar of dance and religion and a pastor of a Baptist church, I see Footloose as a gateway into discussions about the importance of dance in our lives, our worship, and our history.  So, kick off your Sunday shoes…and dance!

Footloose (113 mins.) is rated PG-13 for some teen drug and alcohol use, sexual content, violence, and language and is currently playing in theaters everywhere.

If you’re interested, here are some further reflections on dance and the church:

  • Hippolytus’s (170-236) Easter hymn of praise sings, “O thou leader of the mystic round dance” when referring to God. [18]
  • Eusebius of Caesarea (264-339) speaks of dance as worship when he says, “With dances and hymns, in city and country, they glorified first of all God the universal King.” [19]
  • Jerome (340-407), who is known for disdaining the body, stated, “In the Church the joy of the spirit finds expression in bodily gestures and her children shall say with David as they dance the solemn step: ‘I will dance and play before the face of the Lord.’” [20]
  • Basil the Great (344-407) described dance in the church beautifully when he writes, “We remember those who now, together with the Angels, dance the dance of the Angels around God, just as in the heavenly dance…Could there be anything more blessed than to imitate on earth the ring-dance of the angels and at dawn to raise our voices in prayer and by hymns and song glorify the rising Creator.” [21]
  • In Gregory of Nyssa’s Homily on the Psalms he writes, “Once there was a time when the whole of rational creation formed a single dancing chorus looking upwards to the one leader of this dance. And the harmony of that motion which was imparted to them by reason of his [sic] law found its way into their dancing.” [22]
  • Luther writes about dance in a sermon for Epiphany II: “…because it is the custom of the country, just like inviting guests, dressing up, eating, drinking, and making merry, I can’t bring myself to condemn it, unless it gets out of hand, and so causes immoralities or excess.  And even though sin has taken place in this way, it’s not the fault of dancing alone.  Provided they don’t jump on tables dancing in the church…But so long as it’s done decently, I respect the rights and customs of weddings—and I dance, anyway!” [23]

[1] Ronald Gagne, Thomas Kane, and Robert VerEecke, Introducing Dance in Christian Worship (Portland: Pastoral Press, 1999), 30.

[2] Roberts, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, as quoted in Gagne, Kane, and VerEecke, 30.

[3] Ambrose, “On Repentance,” as quoted in Gagne, Kane, and VerEecke, 31.

[4] Gagne, Kane, and VerEcke, 41.

[5] Taylor, 19.

[6] Gagne, Kane, and VerEcke, 43.

[7] Taylor, 23.

[8] Gagne, Kane, and VerEcke, 46.

[9] The tripudia is traditionally used in processionals and involves stepping forward with the right foot, then stepping forward with the left foot, then shifting the weight back onto the right foot and repeating the steps over and over.

[10] Canto VII lines 7-9 in Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, trans. John Ciardi (New York: New American Library, 1997), 62.

[11] Gagne, Kane, and VerEcke, 49.

[12] Taylor, 28.

[13] Gagne, Kane, and VerEcke, 49.

[14] Judith Rock, Terpsichore at Louis-le-Grand: Baroque Dance on the Jesuit Stage in Paris (Saint Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996), 39.

[15] Taylor, 29.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, 30.

[18] Hippolytus, Homily in Pascha as quoted in Gagne, Kane, and VerEecke, 31.

[19] Gagne, Kane, and VerEecke, 37.

[20] Gagne, Kane, and VerEecke, 39.

[21] Iris Stewart, Sacred Woman Sacred Dance (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2000), 64.

[22] Gagne, Kane, and VerEecke, 41.

[23] This sermon appeared in a pamphlet entitled, “The Difference Between True and False Worship,” Martin Luther, 1522 and was accessed online on December 1, 2008 via [].