“Footloose Bruce” - Beyond the Weaver Street Market Lawn

By Tony Kim

He’s a fairly lean gentleman, with long hair braided into locks. Nothing about the way he dresses really makes him stand out amid the people sitting at the tables at Weaver Street Market. But when this man starts dancing, the whole town buzzes in controversy.
Bruce Thomas shows Amelia and Henry Roeth his moves. Photos by Kristan Haitz

Patrons of Weaver Street Market and citizens of Carrboro know Bruce Thomas better as “Dancing Bruce” or “Footloose Bruce” for his three-month standoff with the management of Carr Mill Mall.

In late July, the mall’s security guard asked Bruce to stop dancing on the lawn in front of the co-operative and leave, he said. Ever since, patrons of Carr Mill Mall, town residents and even members of the Board of Aldermen came together in support of Thomas and to ask Nathan Milian, the mall’s manager, to reconsider.

After Paul Greenberg, the mall owner, met with Mayor Mark Chilton and Alderman Dan Coleman, a new open space policy for Carr Mill Mall was introduced Oct. 9 that allows Thomas to dance on the Weaver Street lawn once more.

Although the majority of the protesters were happy with the mall’s decision, “Footloose Bruce” says the issues he has had to face with on the Weaver Street Lawn were some of many struggles with which he’s endured during his life. For Thomas, the issues stem back 25 years, three states and a long journey of self-discovery.
Thomas, 45, is not a native of Carrboro or North Carolina. His tumultuous journey began in Newark, N.J.

It was there that Thomas, his brother and their cousin joined a gang. Thomas says that the gang asked them to do violent acts – such as beating up random people on the street to become an initiated member. After a couple of years, it sent Thomas down to Florida to “set up camp,” he said. His job was to stake out banks in the area for the organization to rob.
Little did he know, he said, that God would start talking to him right before the robbery was about to happen.

“I heard a voice saying, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it,’ as I was getting in the car,” he said.

But Thomas ignored the voice and performed the task. After passing on the money, Thomas was arrested by police and sent to the Duval County Jail in Jacksonville, Fla., where he spent two years before going to the Union Correctional Institution prison in Raeford, Fla., where he says he was sentenced to for 90 years. He was charged with three counts of robbery with a deadly weapon, according to Florida Department of Corrections records.

While in prison, Thomas started exploring the repercussions of his actions. It took him four years to get out of the gang that led him to prison. He began to pray and listen to the voice that had warned him the day of the bank robbery. He also began to study everything he could get his hands on, from religious texts from Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, to other spiritual books on astral projection, theology, meditation and life after death.

Now, he calls himself a follower of many different religious leaders – Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammad, among many others.

“For me, religion is like a tree with many branches and roots and leaves, but it comes from one source and it reaches to heaven,” he said.

He quotes some of the great thinkers he studied in prison, such as civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Don’t judge a man by the color of his skin,” Thomas said, paraphrasing King’s speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, “but the content of his character.”
Thomas also took advantage of other programs they offered in prison. He learned practical skills such as bread baking as well as yoga meditation techniques from an instructor who taught twice a month at the prison. He also worked outside of the prison in a dental clinic as a custodian and later as a technician.

After serving 17 years in prison, Thomas’ life started to turn around. Because of his good behavior for almost two decades he spent incarcerated, he received early parole.

“I got into prison by thinking negative,” he said. “I got out by thinking the opposite… the grace of God and my self-effort.”

Although he was paroled, he had nowhere to go. Thomas originally asked that he be paroled back to his home in Newark, N.J., but the state denied his request. Distraught and unsure, he turned to the one person he trusted during his time of incarceration – the yoga instructor.

The instructor suggested that Thomas consider going to the Human Kindness Foundation, a non-profit organization in Mebane headed by Bo Lozoff who, among other goals, aims to rehabilitate prisoners through spiritual teaching.
Thomas stayed in Mebane for eight months under the tutelage of Lozoff before he decided it was time to restart his life using the skills he learned in prison and at the Human Kindness Foundation.

“I wanted to go out to the world and face my fears,” he said. “I wanted to work as a bread baker.”

This time, he asked Lozoff to help him find a job and a new place to call home. Lozoff contacted his friends at Weaver Street Market and asked what positions were available. It just so happened that a bread baker position had just opened and available for Thomas.

For three years, Thomas built his life in Carrboro as a bread baker for the town co-op. On Thursdays, he would attend the Carr Mill Mall “After Hours” events that featured music events on the open lawn space. It was here that Thomas started hearing the same voice from the day of robbery talking to him again. But this time, it was telling him to dance.

“When I hear that same voice, I listen, and I obey,” he said.

Although he didn’t know how to dance, Thomas started incorporating the yoga and martial arts he had learned in prison with a little bit of creative movements to do what he calls “Dancing for the Glory of God” or “Dancing with Chi.”

“I was sitting at the table and, in my mind, I was saying I want to dance with the kids,” he said. “And the Lord was saying, ‘Then go dance with the kids.’”

He’s been dancing ever since.
After he left his bread baking job at the co-op, Thomas worked at the Orange United Methodist Church for two years and then back to the Human Kindness Foundation for a year. He now works at Chestnut Ridge in Efland, a summer camp and retreat center where he teaches bread baking, mediation and – of course – dance and creative movement.

And although the Carr Mill Mall dancing controversy is finally over, Thomas still feels hurt at what he says was discrimination of his dancing by the owners of the property.

“I told God I will not dance here any more unless he tells me to,” he said. “We see others who are happy and we want to be happy, so we get offended enough to try to put an end to the person’s joy. That’s basically what happened. Anything we don’t approve of, we try to put an end to.

“Walking is dancing. All life is a dance. To tell me, somebody, a human being, not to dance – not to speak – is to tell them not to exist.”

But he says that he does not wish any ill will to Milian, the security guard or any of the owners who disapproved of his dancing on the lawn.

“I looked at him and said, ‘No problem,’” Thomas said of the initial incident. “I told him to tell Nathan ‘Thank you. God bless you. God bless him, and God bless us all.’ And I said, ‘Merry Christmas.’

“We have to always love no matter what people say to us or do to us. Like the Buddha and Dali (Lama) say, ‘Love and kindness.’”

5 Comments so far

  1. jock December 4th, 2006 9:57 pm

    Just goes to show you how in diversity we can celebrate each other. JL

  2. nic December 6th, 2006 6:39 pm

    thanks for the back story on bruce. very informative. love the new site, lookng forward to coming back often.

  3. BrianR December 11th, 2006 7:35 am

    Great story Tony.

  4. Public Realm » Blog Archive January 21st, 2008 12:14 am

    […] Remember “Footloose Bruce”? He was a spirit-filled, braided dancer who galvanized a community to fight for its right to dance on the lawn of their favorite co-op. Bruce may want to pass some good vibes out west. A similar battle is kicking up dust in Pinal County Arizona. Reason.TV has the story: […]

  5. It’s Carr-boro! « Tar Heel Walk August 6th, 2008 3:46 pm

    […] Or that dude who dances all the time? […]

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.