Old Womack Hit, New Inspiration

The popular 2000 song, now a film and a book, spurs strength in millions

On May 16, a feature-length documentary film, “I Hope You Dance: The Power and Spirit of Song,” hits 400 screens nationwide for a one-night event, which will then be repeated May 23. Producer Spencer Proffer, along with his wife, Judith, spent four-and-a-half years bringing the project to the screen.

The song has become a universal message of hope and empowerment — a joy to millions.

“The power of music to make a difference in people’s hearts, souls, and lives, is something that I have had in my DNA for my entire career,” said Proffer, who has supervised and produced music for some 140 films. He’s also produced gold and platinum records for numerous music artists, ranging from Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, and B.B. King to Quiet Riot and the Little River Band.

“When there is a song that permeates one’s spirit and gives rise to hope, faith, and inspiration about life and overcoming obstacles,” he added, “I had to make a film about it.”

Directed by John Scheinfeld (“The U.S. vs. John Lennon”), the film, an enhanced version of the special of the same name (which ran on the Hallmark Channel on Thanksgiving in 2015), explores the tremendous influence of music, spotlighting “I Hope You Dance.” It’s an intensely intimate, life-affirming ballad, which singer Lee Ann Womack recorded in 2000.

The song, which comforts and connects, soared to number one on the country and adult contemporary charts, selling more than three million copies and winning a Grammy.

One reason “I Hope You Dance” touches so many is that the lyrics are purposely open-ended. Each listener is able to fit his or her own story to it — whether it’s a mother’s teaching to a child, an ex-lover’s wish for a former partner, or a loved one’s final instructions for a well-lived life. Above all, it is an offering of wisdom, told by someone old enough to have experienced it.

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The song has become a universal message of hope and empowerment — a joy to millions. People have adopted it as an anthem for high school graduations, weddings, and other important milestones.

Today, 16 years after its release, “I Hope You Dance,” written by Mark D. Sanders and Tia Sillers, continues to motivate people to change their lives, chase their dreams, and persist in the face of extreme adversity. The film examines the song’s impact and offers real-life stories of people who drew strength to transform their lives.

Among them: a homeless woman who literally learned to dance and take control of her life; a quadriplegic who relied on her faith to help her walk again; and a bereaved father who donated his daughter’s organs after her suicide.

The film also features commentary from a range of people, including televangelist Joel Osteen, rock musicians Graham Nash (Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young) and Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), and country star Vince Gill, as well as Womack herself.

“I wanted to help spread that message of hope and light,” Graham Nash said in an interview about his participation. “Music is magic to me. I have seen it bring people to tears, I’ve seen it bring people to screaming laughter, and I’ve seen it to bring people to absolute anger. I’ve also seen it heal countless times in my life work. Music is a very, very powerful medium for getting across ideas, and ideas are the most powerful medium.”

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For Womack herself, the song was both a blessing and a curse, she told this reporter in 2008 — since people crave the connection the song celebrates. “The song itself is so healing and therapeutic for people. And I wouldn’t give anything in the world for it now. But there have been some times when it was real hard on me. I would be in meet-and-greet before a show, and people would tell me some of the saddest and most tragic stories I had ever heard. Then I’d have to walk right on stage and give a 90-minute show. Or I would be shopping at the grocery store, or dropping my kid off at school, and it would happen again.”

“It was a hundred times a day,” she continued, “every single day of my life for years. It made me withdraw some, because I felt like people expected something of me that I wasn’t able to give them. I do think our music can help heal people, but not to the extent of my being a spiritual healer. That’s just not what I was put on this earth to do.”

Yet another woman in the film, Suzette Faith Foster, was born to be just that. A holistic wellness facilitator, Foster, then 47, was mountain biking in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2006 when she rode up a five-foot-tall teeter-totter, lost control, and flew over the handle bars. She landed on her head, and though she was wearing a helmet, the accident totally severed her C2 neck vertebra. Foster was instantly paralyzed. She couldn’t move, talk, or breathe. It was 17 minutes before emergency teams could get to her.

“I believe that divine grace was with me. I believe I’m here to help people remember we’re so much more than we’ve ever been taught,” said one woman.

Instead of panicking, Foster told herself she had everything she needed within her. “I had my mind, and I had my oneness with God,” she said in an interview with LifeZette. “To me, God is spirit and infinite consciousness, and I had no fear of dying. I didn’t feel it was my time. My faith was just shining through me.”

Foster had previously memorized a mantra to get her through life’s challenges: “I refuse to accept this limitation. God is my source.” She began saying it in her head, and suddenly, she felt a lightning bolt of energy rush through her body.

The second time she said it, her arm pitched and flopped. Moments later, she began to breathe. Her doctor at Duke University later told her she should have been dead at the scene. Instead, she was soon in the emergency room telling friends and family, “This is just temporary. Visualize me dancing.”

While in recovery, a friend gave Foster a copy of “I Hope You Dance.” She’d always liked the song, but she focused on dancing, something she had previously loved to do. “I played it every day. And then I was dancing to it.”

Today, Foster has full function and mobility. “I believe that divine grace was with me, and I do believe I’m here to help people remember that we’re so much more than we’ve ever been taught.”

After a viewing of the film, Kathie Lee Gifford will moderate a panel of luminaries who will talk about how and why songs can make such an astonishing difference in people’s lives. “The Voice” season nine winner, Jordan Smith, will sing the song.

A companion book, “I Hope You Dance: The Power and Spirit of Song,” expands on the stories told in the film, and contains a chapter from music therapist Alexandra Feld. Co-producer Judith Proffer wrote the book, with additional contributions from Womack, Nash, Osteen, Wilson, and Gill.

Alanna Nash is the author of seven books, including four on Elvis Presley.