Footloose is a classic from the 1980s that still influences generations. A quick entry on Tik Tok and soon we come across the “Footloose challenge”, which is something so impactful that it is mentioned both in the Marvel universe and has a spectacular scene in The Umbrella Academy. But here’s some trivia for movie lovers: the story of an American city that banned dancing is not fiction. You can read it again. Footloose is inspired by a true story.
Let’s travel back in time to understand. Even before he won the Oscar for Fame, in 1980, composer Dean Pitchford realized he had the potential for a musical when he read a news story about a small town in Elmore City, Oklahoma, where for 82 years young people were banned from dancing. He couldn’t believe what he was reading. Nor us, in 2022.
The city, which is primarily agricultural and oil and lies between Oklahoma City and the Texas state border, established the ban in 1898. 82 years later, it was still in effect. Until 17 and 18-year-olds, looking forward to a high school graduation party, decided to make a formal request to overturn the local law. As in the film, the Pastor’s daughter, who was against dance, was part of the initiative. For the religious, dancing would make young people want to drink and have sex, therefore they would sin.
The final decision was tight, with the votes of the 5 members of the school council reaching a tie at 2 to 2. It was up to the president of the council to change history: “Let them dance”, he would have said.
Unsurprisingly, the event ended up in the news, from the New York Times to People Magazine (where Dean discovered the story). He immediately thought of the plot of a young man who fights the system, writing the script and lyrics for the songs. Your hero would be a big-city teenager reluctantly transplanted to a small town that had banned music and dancing, gaining a new purpose to fight for. The name of the movie? Cheek to Cheek. (He revised further)
Even with a prestigious Oscar and a good script, Dean went through the long process of getting the ok from some studios. He knew he had a hit on his hands, although he still didn’t believe he was creating a classic. It took four years, passing through the hands of directors like Ron Howard and Michael Cimino, but Footloose – the new name – took shape when former dancer and director Herbert Ross, of classics such as The Turning Point, took the helm.
Footloose hit theaters in 1984, fueled by a catchy soundtrack whose clips ran all day on MTV. One of the details that gave the story credibility was because Dean spent time in Elmore City, talking to people who led the movement, like Rex Kennedy and Leonard Coffee, whose initials Dean used to create the name Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon).
Madonna, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, and Sarah Jessica Parker: Who’s in the Cast and Who’s Not
Once approved, the process of finding the main roles began. Both Tom Cruise and Rob Lowe tried to take the role that went to Kevin Bacon. Tom was the favorite because he was coming off the hit of Risky Business, but he was recording All the Right Moves and had no free schedule, forcing the production to delay. Rob Lowe failed the dance test.
Madonna, the most famous woman at the time, auditioned for the role of the pastor’s daughter, Ariel, later played by Lori Singer. Others considered: Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan, Jodie Foster, and Daryl Hannah, who was chosen but preferred to do Splash instead. Elizabeth McGovern, now known for Downton Abbey, was invited next, but at the time preferred to work on Once Upon a Time in America. Even Sarah Jessica Parker auditioned for the role but ended up with Ariel’s best friend Trusty. That’s right, does anyone remember her in the movie?
The Duel: Tik Tok Fever, quoted in Avengers and featured in The Umbrella Academy
Being familiar with dance, Herbert Ross himself choreographed the entire film, including the movements of the “Footloose Duel”, a pop phenomenon that is still imitated today, whether on social media, movies, or series. The Umbrella Academy was the last work to reconstitute the steps used in the final party. The director saw the dance as “a metaphor for freedom and personal freedom”, he described in 1984.
Footloose is now a musical on Broadway, was remade in 2011 (without the same success as the original), and is fever on Tik Tok. A box office phenomenon (the original cost 8 million and made 80 in the US alone), the prom “duel” scene is listed as one of the most iconic in musical History as well as in Hollywood.
Oh, and Elmore City? Well, the tradition is now different. For over 40 years, it has celebrated the decision with an annual street dance festival, the Footloose Festival.
As Kevin Bacon commands in the movie: Let’s dance!