St. Francis Xavier dance group going strong at 20 years

When members of the St. Francis Xavier Sacred Dance Ministry gathered recently for a 20th anniversary celebration, the laughter and memories filled the conference center where they met.

A lot has happened in the two decades since one of the first — if not the first — sacred dance group started in Baton Rouge.

And the ensemble is still going strong under the leadership of Bridgette Richard-Jamison, who has been there since the beginning.

Sacred, or liturgical, dancing is a serious form of worship, Richard-Jamison explains. Movements are modest yet elegant and reflect the song to which they are performed.

“We always keep in mind that we are praising God,” says Richard-Jamison. “This is a ministry.”

It’s a ministry whose outreach quickly grew.

“The group always had a performance every weekend for months, especially, in the first five years,” Richard-Jamison recalls at the reunion festivities. “I would constantly receive calls about having the girls perform for different events. I never expected it to take off the way it did. However, I was very proud of our dance ministry.”

And she knows all of the stories of the past 20 years.

There was the time the troupe was returning from a performance in Houma. Cellphones had yet to hit the mainstream, and there were no land lines available. So, everyone had to rely on Father Norvel.

That’s the Rev. William Norvel, then-pastor of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, whose idea it was to start the dance ministry. And he was driving the van carrying the ensemble to and from Houma that night.

“We were following another group,” recalls Richard-Jamison. “They said, ‘Don’t go back to Baton Rouge through New Orleans, follow us.’ And we got lost.”

Remembers Bernadette Wilkinson: “We told all the parents that we’d back to the church by 10. But it was midnight.”

Wilkinson was one of Jamison’s parent helpers in the beginning, and she’s was helping again as past and present dancers reunited Jan. 4 at the LABI Conference Center.

That “lost” adventure of long ago still elicits smiles.

“We were so lost,” Wilkinson says, joined in laughter by Richard-Jamison.

But the group’s reputation had grown in a short time, enough to earn an invitation to perform in Houma. And Father Norvel made sure they made it there — and back — safely.

Former and current members showed they’ve still got the moves when they joined for a performance Jan. 5 at St. Xavier’s 11 a.m. Mass. Even Norvel attended, making the trip from his home in Washington, D.C., where he serves as the 13th superior general of the Josephite Priests and Brothers.

It was Norvel who asked Richard-Jamison, a former member of Southern University’s Dancing Dolls, to start the group. And, 20 years later, she’s still leading dance rehearsals on Saturday mornings.

“We started out with 12 girls,” Richard-Jamison says. “There have been about 140 girls who have been in this program in 20 years.”

Members range from ages 5 to 17.

“And it’s so funny, because when we became older, we asked Bridgette, ‘Why do we have to dance with these little girls?’” ensemble alumnus Orlean Wilkinson recalls at the reunion. “We wanted to form a different group, and Bridgette said, ‘You’re going to do what I want. When you get older, you can form your own group and do what you want.’”

And, well, they did.

“Now a couple of the girls are heading their own groups,” Orlean Wilkinson continues. “And they’ve had to tell the older girls in their groups the same thing.”

Also taking part in the reunion fun were alums Felicia Bennett, 26, who joined at age 6, and 34-year-old Angel Turner, who was an original member at 14.

“I’d taken dance since I was a little girl, but this was my ministry,” Turner says. “It was a great experience to be a part of this and to be able to praise God.”

“My parents made sure I joined,” adds Tresa Augustine, 31, who was 11 when she started.

“I was involved in dance outside the church, but this was a chance to dance in a ministry for the church,” she says. “I stayed in it until I graduated high school.”

Most of the girls did.

“I was so young when I started out,” Bennett adds. “I remember dancing with the older girls and traveling to all kinds of places.”

Places like Houma. It was an adventure then. Now it’s part of the ministry’s history.