Time, according to the Lee Ann Womack crossover hit “I Hope You Dance,” is a wheel in constant motion always rolling us along.
When songwriter Mark D. Sanders looks back on the 15 years that have transpired since its release, he has seen “Hope” roll through numerous people’s life stories. He’s sung it at funerals and at weddings. He’s met siblings who embedded the song on their mother’s gravestone. He’s met another man who was inspired by the song to end a lifeless marriage.
“Hope” takes another turn on Thanksgiving when Hallmark Movies & Mysteries premieres I Hope You Dance: The Power and Spirit of Song. The 95-minute special, produced by Spencer Proffer (Gods & Monsters) and directed by John Scheinfeld (The U.S. vs. John Lennon), brings together four stories of rejuvenation linked directly to the song, demonstrating the difference music can make in the world.
“The song and its spirit touched so many people for all the right reasons,” says Proffer, who spent time in the music business before becoming a film producer, producing Quiet Riot, Eddie Money and Allan Clarke, former lead singer for The Hollies. “We wanted to take it to the next level.”
I Hope You Dance includes a couple who was convinced to get married after seeing a bride and her father dance to the song at a wedding reception, and it recounts the story of a paralyzed woman who used “Hope” as personal inspiration to walk again. There’s another segment on a program that helped homeless people get back on their feet by teaching them ballroom dancing. And the final chapter shows how a college student who loved the song was able to change multiple lives as an organ donor.
“I haven’t had any other songs that affected people like this,” says Sanders, a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member who also has authored “Blue Clear Sky” and “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” among other titles. “I had no idea what it was going to do. But I guess people are looking for a positive message in their lives.”
Womack has seen the effect of “I Hope You Dance” firsthand for years. Co-written by Sanders with Tia Sillers (“There’s Your Trouble,” “That’d Be Alright”), it was named single of the year by the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association, and earned country song honors from the ACM, the CMA and the Grammys. It spent five weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in 2000 and 11 weeks atop the Adult Contemporary list in 2001.
But the song was a challenge for a time when Womack inadvertently became an informal psychotherapist. Fans invariably shared with her how “I Hope You Dance” had helped them overcome gripping tragedies, and hearing those emotionally charged tales was difficult.
“It doesn’t have a story, so every listener is able to put their own story into it,” she notes. “I think that’s one of the reasons that the song has touched so many people.”
Its power started with intention. Sillers developed the idea after experiencing the grandeur of nature on two back-to-back trips: a visit to an ocean beach and a songwriting excursion in the Rocky Mountains. She was inspired by the possibility that those sights represent.
Sanders brought some balance to the song. He had experienced some horrific chapters in his early life, including a senior year in high school where he periodically went to bed hungry and the loss of his best friend, who was murdered at age 22. He changed the song’s second line to keep it from being flippant about hunger. And he added the counter-melody that casts time as a wheel in motion to bring some urgency and context.
“When Tia and I write, I usually have to provide some shading. Otherwise it gets so crazily positive that it sort of hurts me,” he says. “I always throw in some negative shading of some sort, and I think that’s what that little section is, because all of a sudden you’re talking about how you’re going to die some day and you don’t want to do nothing with your life. It makes it more than a Hallmark card.”
It took more than a dozen years for the movie to find its way from a sketchy idea to TV. Universal Music Publishing asked Proffer around 2002 if he had any thoughts about how to turn the song’s message into a meaningful visual property. It was only within the last three or four years that the film got financial backing and its final direction, with Scheinfeld sifting through hundreds of stories about the song’s impact to find the handful that made the film.
“I Hope You Dance” celebrates hope, faith, love and diligence, and the movie’s arrival at Thanksgiving is appropriate. The holiday was born after the Pilgrims made a bold, uncertain journey from England to America. The song is similarly about taking risks.
“I believe courage is the most important of all the virtues,” late poet Maya Angelou says in the film, “because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”
Proffer is taking a risk with the project, which includes not only the TV special, but a subsequent DVD release and a book that features expanded transcripts from some of the movie’s interview subjects, including Womack, the writers, Brian Wilson, Vince Gill and Graham Nash.
Proffer, in his own way, chose to dance by following through on the project. And the stories in the movie reinforce for Sanders the power and potential of music.
“They are,” he says, “like brand-new tattoos on my soul.”