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Kick off your Sunday shoes

Julianne Hough and Kenny Wormald as Ren and Ariel in a scene from the new “Footloose’’ remake, which opens in theaters this week. Below are Lori Singer and Kevin Bacon (back to camera) in the 1984 original. Julianne Hough and Kenny Wormald as Ren and Ariel in a scene from the new “Footloose’’ remake, which opens in theaters this week. Below are Lori Singer and Kevin Bacon (back to camera) in the 1984 original. (PARAMOUNT PICTURES (below); K.C. Bailey)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / October 9, 2011

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BROCKTON - “You want to look like the song sounds.’’

This is one of Kenny Wormald’s many encouraging exhortations to the crowd sweating up a storm in a dance class at the Gold School on a recent Sunday afternoon. As Justin Timberlake’s “Like I Love You’’ envelops the humid studio, the roughly 70 teens and young adults are doing their best to resemble the tune’s twitching beats and angular phrasing, following an elaborate set of steps from a guy who knows something about translating music into movement.

Wormald, a Stoughton native, has been dancing at this school since he was 6, when his father brought him in late to class in a baseball uniform. His teacher, Rennie Gold, remembers being a little aggravated that Wormald was joining the class later in the year. “At the end of the hour,’’ says Gold, “he was up in front of the class picking up the steps faster than a lot of the kids who had been there the whole time.’’

Twenty-one years and countless steps later, Wormald has moved to the front of the class again, scoring the lead movie role of Ren McCormack in the remake of the 1984 dance celebration “Footloose’’ - the endearingly ridiculous, totally ’80s, Kenny Loggins-laced saga of a small town’s fear of teens cutting loose - which opens Friday. “I don’t know where I got it,’’ says Wormald of the smooth moves that helped him inherit Kevin Bacon’s maroon blazer and yellow VW bug. At a local screening, where he was surrounded by friends and family, his grandparents affirmed that the dancing gene did not come from them. And Wormald says his mother quit ballet at 7.

Instead, sitting for an interview with “Footloose’’ costar Julianne Hough, the boyish and genial Wormald credited another Boston export with his interest in dance.

“New Kids on the Block was my outlet. And Michael Jackson. That was who I got it from, I think, watching those videos when I was a kid,’’ Wormald says, offering an impromptu “oh, oh, oh, oh, oh’’ chorus from the New Kids’ hit “(You Got it) The Right Stuff.’’ “That was my jam.’’

Although the “Footloose’’ reboot is Wormald’s highest profile job to date, he has been fortunate since he moved to Los Angeles shortly after graduating from Stoughton High School in 2002. After nabbing a gig from his very first audition - an episode of “The Drew Carey Show’’ with some “ridiculous, funny dancing’’ - Wormald booked videos and tours with such artists as Madonna, Mariah Carey, and Chris Brown, the MTV reality series “Dancelife,’’ and films such as “Center Stage: Turn It Up’’ and “You Got Served.’’ But it was a gig dancing on Timberlake’s “FutureSex/LoveShow’’ tour in 2007 that he credits as his biggest score professionally and personally.

“I remember watching his [Video Music Awards] performance and rewinding it and rewinding it and filming myself [doing the routine] in my living room,’’ he says. “And then to be doing it at the Garden with Timberlake in Boston was . . . I couldn’t have asked for a better situation.’’

“Footloose’’ director Craig Brewer (“Black Snake Moan,’’ “Hustle & Flow’’) looked long and hard for his 21st-century Ren McCormack. He needed the right actor to play the city boy who moves to a small town where dancing has been outlawed and attempts to change the rules, all while romancing Ariel, the defiant daughter of the conservative town preacher, played by “Dancing With the Stars’’ alum Hough in the role originated by Lori Singer.

“We looked in Australia and London and all across America but one kid kept on popping up in all the auditions, and it was Kenny,’’ says Brewer, on the phone from Los Angeles.

It was during those auditions that Brewer told Wormald they could easily relocate Ren’s hometown from Chicago to Boston and to let his accent flow freely. “I said be yourself because I think that’s going to be the best Ren McCormack that we would want. We were just looking for that special attitude and chemistry.’’

Chemistry was not a problem according to Hough, who read and danced with a lot of actors before Wormald. “When we danced together it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this kid’s legit,’ ’’ she says.

Although Wormald was a fan of the original film, he didn’t study it after he got the job, hoping to bring his own flair to this version. Choreographer Jamal Sims, however, did incorporate plenty of moves from the original film, including several iconic bits of choreography in the famous angry dance in the warehouse. Wormald filmed the exhaustive sequence - involving acrobatics and stunts as well as dance moves - over the last three days of shooting. He says with a laugh, “I think they did that strategically just in case I died swinging from that chain or falling off the car.’’

In Brockton, dance teacher Gold hovers with still and video cameras capturing Wormald - jubilantly sweating through a flannel shirt and Red Sox cap - working out the routine with the kids, verbally punctuating the four counts “boom, whap, zow, uh.’’

Although Gold says he never imagined something like “Footloose’’ - “You can’t imagine something like this’’ - he knew from the start that Wormald was different.

“I have always thought the possibilities for him were endless,’’ says Gold, who recalls conversations about juggling Wormald’s football and baseball schedules with rehearsal. “He always had that special spark. He’s great with people. He’s a nice kid. He remembers where he comes from.’’

Indeed, the pair remain close and Wormald recalls his excitement when he made the connection between his character’s name, Ren, and his dance mentor Rennie. “I think that’s another sign that this is where I’m supposed to be,’’ says Wormald.

He returns to teach classes like this one, and has taught around the globe, to pay the bills between gigs. “Once you’ve danced for people like Justin and Mariah and Chris Brown they want you to come teach. I’ve taught in countries I never thought I’d even go to, much less teach a dance class in: Iceland, New Zealand, all over Europe. It definitely was a cool thing for me to have so I didn’t have to wait tables or do some job I hated.’’

One of the people taking Wormald’s class today is Channing Cooke, 20, an old friend from their shared regional dance competition days. (Wormald won a number of titles including Teen Mr. Dance of America). The Haverhill native is starting to carve out her own career in LA, having finished in the top seven girls on season 6 of the Fox competition show “So You Think You Can Dance.’’

Cooke wasn’t surprised to hear that Wormald got the call for “Footloose.’’ “I expected him to get something like that,’’ she says, happily drenched at the end of class. “It’s the perfect role for him. I’m just proud of him. He can pretty much do everything he sets his mind on.’’

And Wormald’s mind is set on a career in Hollywood, which Brewer believes is possible as he sees a trend away from darkly brooding leading men back toward all-American-type heroes

“I use the word ‘earnest’ a lot,’’ says Brewer, describing Wormald. “[Kenny’s] the kind of guy that guys want to hang with but girls just eat up. I think that’s the pocket that he’s occupying but he’s occupying it by way of truth and sincerity. He’s not pretending to be that guy. He is that guy. You probably saw that when he was dancing. It’s a genuine place that he’s coming from.’’

Wormald has already booked his next gig, a film called “Someone in the Dark,’’ and is excited that the thriller contains no dancing.

“That was the goal,’’ he says. “I got an offer to do ‘Step Up 4’ as the lead role and I turned it down because I wanted to continue moving forward in my career as an actor.’’

As a dancer though, he hopes his version of “Footloose’’ will do for others what the original did for him.

“I would get made fun of for dancing and then I saw Kevin Bacon do the warehouse scene and I was like, ‘Oh, my God that’s so cool,’ ’’ he says. “Ren McCormack fights for what he believes in and hopefully someone will get inspired by it and do something with their life that maybe they wouldn’t have done before.’’

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.

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