Dancers Get Groovy With God

Dance instructor Xan Walker walked away from the array of students standing in the Whitneyville Cultural Commons (WCC) ballroom. She picked up her lime green thermos from the raised edge of the curtained stage, and surveyed the group.

Friday night, Walker was leading the second session of Gospel Line Dancing at the WCC. Her routines were specially choreographed for gospel music, as part of a mixer sponsored by Bridgeport’s Cathedral of the Holy Spirit. The church uses the WCC as a northern campus.

“This is all review—you know this,” she announced into her microphone headset, opening the carafe for a drink. “Five, six, seven, eight!”

She took a sip, expecting the crowd to break into motion at the start of Mary Mary’s “Shackles (Praise You).” Nothing happened. Walker glanced up to see the group frozen mid-step, rocking hesitantly and tentatively. She smiled and laughed good-naturedly, returned her water to the stage, and strode back out onto the dance floor.

“That was mean of me,” Walker said. She took it from the top, this time together, reminding people that this song was the one that called for all those little steps.

Gospel Line Dancing substitutes the typical country-western, disco, or pop accompaniments to line dancing with Christian devotional music. At Friday's lesson, attendees danced in an open phalanx five across and four deep, all facing the same direction.  When music got fast, dancers joined in unison with their neighbors.

Walker gave hugs to all the parishioners and strangers who had gathered to practice before she opened with a few warmups. She then led participants in patterned, repeatable steps for songs like “In The Middle” by Isaac Carree or “Nothing Without You” by Karen Clark-Sheard and Faith Evans. A gospel remix of the “Cupid Shuffle”—all souped-up with extra ‘alleluias’—came as a fun, easy inter-lesson interlude.

“Up, middle, back, together,” called out Walker, guiding the group through the stalled steps to “Shackles.” In time with the beat, dancers moved their right foot forward, brought the foot back, stepped an equal distance once backwards, then returned again to center position.

Walker weaved through the columns of dancers, making sure her demonstrations were visible from a variety of angles. Her voice cut in against the amplified music, directing the group to move right, move left, and execute several of sweeping, diagonal passes backwards and then forwards. Her voice faded away gradually as the crowd regained its confidence and its competence.

She introduced the group to a few 'four-wall' dances: choreography that rotates the dancer 360 degrees to take in each corner of the ballroom. For the Beyoncé and Walter Williams duet “He Still Loves Me” dancers slid first right, then left. They waited a moment, listening for the correct point in the song to start two trios of heel kicks.

“Right, left, and right,” marked Walker. She patiently paused for the next beat. “Left, right, and left! Quick turn!”

The students suddenly glided to face another side of the room. They used the momentum from the turn to immediately launch a springy left step that then rocked into an seamless, swinging right step, and another left step—ending in a decisive clap. As the dancers repeated the “wall,” or set of steps, Walker’s voice resolved as an unbroken stream of cadences.

“Step right! Step forward! Kick: Right, left, and right! To the left! Left, right, and left! Quick turn! To the left, to the right, to the left—with a clap! From the top, now—”

These rhythmic commands were the defining feature of the mixer’s tutorial, adding a second chorus line, or new bars of lyrics to every song: “To the right—two, three! Left—two, three! Right—two, three! Left—two, three! Right up, right back. Turn around! Four, three, two: start it over!”

Although her shirt proclaimed her a “Line Dancer of Christ,” Walker also teaches R&B, jazz, and country. She brought her wide-ranging experience to bear on what initially sounds like an intricate and intimidating genre—with all its ball changes, slides and shuffles, taps and claps.

Walker chose short, manageable line dances to share. She only had to model the moves for a few seconds at a time. Each number was seemingly over before it really got started. She had students begin dancing to music after just a couple dry runs, for fear of over-teaching the routine.

After the evening’s lesson, she explained her preference for compact, uncomplicated dances. “It encourages people to do more, it inspires them,” said Walker. “I want them to stay on the floor longer!”

She said she felt excited that Gospel Line Dancing might become a recurring, monthly event at the WCC. If demand is high enough Walker and WCC director, Robert Sheiman, plan to program it twice a month.

She concluded with some words of support for Hamden’s aspiring line dancers. “Stay encouraged, keep coming—and you’ll get it!”