By Bob Marovich
Once upon a time, there was an artistic expression of worship, inaugurated and performed by youth, that wasn’t accepted by all members of the church.
I’m not talking about gospel music, or Christian hip hop.
I’m talking about praise dancing.
Like its musical forebears, praise dancing was once seen as anathema to the Sunday worship service. Today it is more broadly embraced, but Vanessa Odom of St. Luke Gospel Expressions, representing St. Luke Community Christian Church in Chester, Pennsylvania, knows there’s a long way to go.
A dancer her entire life, Odom was first exposed to praise dancing around age thirteen by her teacher, Donna Johnson. “I discovered that was my gift; that was my talent,” Odom said.
She and six young women started St. Luke Gospel Expressions, the first praise dance group in Chester, Pennsylvania. They rehearsed in Odom’s home. Her mother, Shirley Odom, was the group’s overseer, and both mother and daughter taught routines. This began as an outreach ministry.
This was in 1994, right at the beginning of the praise dance movement. “That’s when dancing in the church was thought to be taboo,” Odom said. “We weren’t allowed to dance inside the church.” Eventually, they were invited to dance at outside church functions. “If there were small programs, we were able to dance there, but never in service.”
That changed when St. Luke Community Christian Church’s current pastor, Rev. Dr. George W. Anderson, arrived in 2001. He liked what he saw and invited the group to bring its praise dance ministry into the worship service.
“There were mixed emotions about us dancing in the service,” Odom recalled. “Some were very supportive and open, and others were a little more laid back, a little more hesitant to accept this form of praise. But as time went on and there was more teaching about what worship is and what praise is, the church became more accepting and loving in their reaction to the group.”
Now comprised of about 20 young dancers, St. Luke Gospel Expressions benefits from Odom’s background in ballet, tap, jazz, and lyrical dance. She mixes these styles to create new dances. The troupe also ministers in American Sign Language, which is one of Odom’s many degrees.
Most of the members of St. Luke Gospel Expressions attend the Chester-Upland School District, which Odom notes on the group’s crowdfunding page (https://www.youcaring.com/st-luke-gospel-expressions-dance-ministry-473572) is “one of the lowest performing schools in Pennsylvania. But our dancers continue to defy the odds by making great grades, graduating high school, and entering college, despite the socio-economic challenges in their community.”
The group learns about three new dances a month. Two other young ladies, Karla and Angel, also help teach choreography at times. One of the group’s distinctions is that it does not split dancers between beginners and the more advanced. Everyone works together. “You become stronger dancers when you dance with strong people,” Odom explained.
As far as song choices for the dances, Odom laughs. “I don’t pick the songs. The Lord lays them on me! They just come to me. I could be listening to the radio, and it’s hard to explain, but I have a feeling about [a song], I can see it in my brain, I can visualize it, I can feel it in my spirit, and that’s how I’m able to choose songs. Sometimes people have requests, so I do have to listen to the music and then pray about it, and ask God to give me direction on which way to go.”
Since Odom masters her own music mixes, the group tends to blend gospel songs into one routine. Among its most popular dances are “Blocked It and the Presence,” which mixes “The Presence of the Lord is Here” and “God Blocked It.” Another routine, “Thank You,” brings together Benita Washington’s “Still I Say Thank You” and Richard Smallwood’s “Thank You.”
Now well ensconced in its church, St. Luke Gospel Expressions travels to other churches and venues, mostly in the Tri-State area of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. The troupe has appeared on BET’s Bobby Jones Gospel, on the Word Network, Life and Spirit Online, at New York’s famed Apollo Theater, the Bob Carpenter Center halftime events, and in June appeared at the Rhythm of Gospel Awards Media Awards event in Memphis, Tennessee.
The group is always looking for new opportunities, including secular and community events. “There is no cap on how far we’ll go,” Odom said. “We’ll go wherever the Lord leads. He’s led us to many massive events and great opportunities for ministry.”
Despite the popularity of praise dancing, and although private groups sponsor praise dance events or workshops in their home churches or community centers, there is no national praise dance conference or convention, nothing like the Gospel Music Workshop of America or the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses for praise dance—“at least not that I know of,” added Odom.
Notwithstanding the lack of national organizations dedicated to the genre, Odom said that praise dancing “is becoming a great outlet not only for young people but for people in general. It is growing in its use in services. I hope larger entities will recognize this and take it in as its own division. And under praise dancing there are different styles – not all styles are the same. It just needs to be recognized as a whole as worship and praise.”
Odom adds that, most importantly, praise dancing is a lifestyle.
“Because worship is a lifestyle,” she explained. “It’s not something you pick up on the fly. You have to be able to take your life experience and translate that into music and deliver it to the people. It’s about your relationship with Christ, not just your relationship with music. It starts off as, ‘Oh, I like the music,’ but then it becomes your recognition of the music, then it becomes your relationship to Christ. The purpose of a praise dancer is to declare God’s word among the nations and live the life that you dance about.”
As to the next major event Odom would like to see St. Luke Gospel Expressions participate: “We’ve already done the Rhythm of Gospel Awards,” Odom said. “I guess it would be the Stellar Awards!”
For more information on St. Luke Gospel Expressions, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call