The fourth Sunday of each month is youth Sunday at Ebenezer UMC in Jacksonville. It’s also Praise Dance Sunday, thanks to a dedicated team of 10 young women led by a talented church member. It’s a way of worshipping that’s kept the dancers involved in the life of the church.
Rev. Willie Bailey, church pastor, brought his vision for the team when he came to the church in 2012. His idea became a reality months after his arrival because he found exactly who could help make it happen. The name Debra Davis popped up in conversations with girls in the choir where he started looking for potential dancers. Davis was, and is, an experienced choreographer, dancer and church member who had been active in the church’s praise team of many years ago.
“Debra Davis taught dance and is a dancer herself,” Rev. Bailey said. “I suggested we have a dance group…and they now are a tremendous asset spiritually. They dance for the worship service on the fourth Sunday of each month that is youth Sunday. I let the youth plan their own service. The dancers perform then and they also perform for special programs like on Easter or for baptisms. They are always performing. We want to keep them involved,” Bailey said.
The church had a praise dance group many years ago and Davis was a part of it then.
“When I had my dance group years and years ago in Ebenezer Church, I danced many years…then it just happened that my group and the other children stopped dancing,” Davis said. “It had been years and years and years until Rev. Bailey came and had that vision and wanted to start a dance ministry. The older church members looked to me so that is how it got started.”
Davis had been teaching a dance group different moves at the local school where she is employed, so she asked girls from that group to come to Ebenezer to help her establish the praise group on the fourth Sundays. They agreed.
At times, there have been as many as 20 dancers, some as young as five, seven, and eight years old, as well as some from middle and high schools. “I had two groups for a while,” Davis said. “Periodically now I still use the small kids on a special occasion in a dance routine, but use the youth mostly and the young adults.”
In addition to performing praise dances once a month, the Praise Dance Team performs for special services including Easter, Christmas Sunday service, a Black History month presentation and special Homecoming Sunday services. The Praise Dance Team also has been invited to other churches to perform as the group has become known in the area.
Learning the choreography only takes about two weeks and two rehearsals, starting out a month in advance of the program, Davis said.
“People in the church come and ask for a special dance, and we may only have two rehearsals from (learning) the dance to performance,” Davis said. “Most of the dances are new, and I don’t like to repeat them. I like new movements. It is my calling and my ministry,” she said.
Davis encourages the dancers to be creative and use their ministry in dance. “I want to see them be creative and I want them to see a dance they came up with. That way I know my work has not been in vain.” She also hopes that one day one of her dancers will become the group’s leader.
Costumes consist of white leotards and flowing skirts that can be dressed up or down depending on the dance theme or the season—red and gold for Christmas or African attire for a Black History celebration.
Dance music varies as Davis is always searching for something interesting that will fit in for her dancers. She said she listens to gospel radio stations and her personal library of “tons and tons of music.”
“I just pick music randomly to put a dance together,” Davis said. “I tell them (the dancers) they have to listen to the music, not just do the movement. I encourage them to listen to the music to get the beat.”
As far as doing performances, Davis has an easy working relationship with her dancers. “I go with the flow and respect their time and their space,” Davis said.
The time and effort they bring every youth Sunday and special occasions has been a true blessing at Ebenezer. “I am proud of them and they do a great job,” Rev. Bailey said.