Ren McCormack, an ordinary city teenager, ends his eight-hour workday by dancing off his stresses in a Chicago nightclub (“Footloose”). He tells his friends that due to financial pressures brought on by his father’s abandonment, he and his mother Ethel are moving in with his aunt and uncle in a small town named Bomont.
A few days later, in Bomont, Ren and Ethel attend a church service led by fiery conservative minister Shaw Moore (“On Any Sunday”). After her father’s lengthy sermon on the evils of “rock & roll and the endless chant of pornography,” Shaw’s daughter Ariel runs off to a gas station to meet her delinquent boyfriend Chuck Cranston, along with his buddies Travis and Lyle. Chuck and Ariel have a purely physical relationship (“The Girl Gets Around”), and Ariel’s father arrives in time to catch Chuck and Ariel in a clinch.
The next day, Ren shows up for school and befriends Willard Hewitt, a slow-witted cowboy with a good heart. Ren tells Willard about the dancing he used to do in Chicago (“I Can’t Stand Still”). The school principal reprimands Ren for dancing, which is expressly forbidden in Bomont. Willard defends Ren, explaining that he’s new in town and doesn’t know the rules. When the principal leaves, Rusty, madly in love with Willard, admires him for defending Ren. Rusty and her friends, Wendy Jo and Urleen, tell Ren that Shaw Moore and the town council banned dancing four years ago, after a horrifying car accident killed four kids returning from a dance. The girls warn Ren to keep a low profile. Time passes, and Ren faces increasing rejection and scrutiny from his small-town neighbors (“Somebody’s Eyes”).
At the Moore house, Ariel returns home to a disgruntled Shaw, who stubbornly ignores her repeated attempts to engage in conversation. Exasperated, Ariel storms out. Vi tries to help Shaw make peace, but he shuts her down and exits. Vi, Ethel and Ariel separately lament their inability to express themselves and be heard (“Learning To Be Silent”).
After school, several of the students hang out at a restaurant called the Burger Blast, where Ren has just been hired as a waiter – on roller skates. Ariel flirts with Ren, but Willard warns Ren to be careful; Chuck Cranston will not be happy if Ren and Ariel connect. Ren asks Willard about Rusty; Willard thinks she’s good-looking but he never knows what she’s talking about. Ariel tells her friends she wants to find a decent guy (“Holding Out For A Hero”). Chuck shows up in a fury and starts yelling at Ariel. Ren and Willard come to her defense, and Betty Blast, the restaurant owner, steps in to break up the fight.
That evening, Ariel takes Ren to her secret place beneath the train tracks, where she admits how much she hates living in Bomont. Ren walks Ariel home, where Shaw and Vi have been playing bridge with a few friends. Shaw and Vi are shocked that Ariel had sneaked out of her room. Ariel tells Shaw he treats her like a prisoner. Everyone disperses, leaving Shaw alone to ponder his problematic role as both preacher and a father (“Heaven Help Me”).
At school, Ren arrives late for gym class, injured from an altercation the night before. The coach has no sympathy, and demands extra pushups. When the coach leaves. Ren complains that the citizens of Bomont are so “wound up.” Willard quips that they “oughta take the coach dancing,” and Ren realizes that a dance would be the perfect way to alleviate the teenagers’ pressures and make a statement to Shaw and the town council. Ren shares his plan with all of the students and eventually wins them over. Shaw learns about the dance and vows to do anything within his power to prevent it (“I’m Free/Heaven Help Me”).
Ren, Ariel, Willard and Rusty visit the Bar-B-Que, a country-western dance hall in a neighboring town (“Still Rockin’”). Rusty repeatedly attempts to dance with Willard, but he weasels his way out, dragging Ren off to the bar, where he confesses he doesn’t know how to dance. Rusty overhears them, as do several cowboys, who begin to mock Willard. Rusty passionately comes to his defense (“Let’s Hear It For The Boy”). During Rusty’s song, Ren teaches Willard to dance, and Willard eventually whips off a dazzling dance combination, much to Rusty’s surprise.
Chuck Cranston tells the Moores that Ariel is not where they think she is, and Vi and Shaw grow worried. When Ariel later claims she’d been at her friend’s house studying, Shaw confronts her for lying. After another argument between Shaw and Ariel, Vi urges her husband to soften (“Can You Find It In Your Heart?”).
Meanwhile, Ren, Willard and their friends rehearse the speech they plan to give to the town council (“Dancing Is Not A Crime”). When Ren grows discouraged, Willard shares some of his mother’s advice (“Mama Says [You Can’t Back Down]”). Ariel shows up with a black eye; Chuck beat her up and “ordered” her to stop seeing Ren. Ren and Ariel return to their spot under the train tracks, and Ariel reveals that her brother died in the car accident that led to the dancing ban. She gives Ren a Bible marked with various passages to use for his motion, and they both realize they’ve fallen in love (“Almost Paradise”).
At the town council meeting, Ren speaks up, quoting scripture to support his proposal. Though the crowd responds enthusiastically, the council dismisses the motion.
After the meeting, Ethel explains that Shaw had those votes locked no matter what; she then convinces Ren to talk to him face to face. Ren tells Shaw that he should not take his anguish about his son’s death out on the entire town. They argue, but when Ren points out that they’re both dealing with loss — Moore’s loss of his son, Ren’s loss of his father — they recognize a common bond. When Ren leaves, Shaw struggles with what to do (“Heaven Help Me” Reprise).
At church the next morning, Shaw tells the whole congregation that he will allow the teenagers to hold a dance. Everyone is overjoyed. Ren asks Ariel to the dance and Willard invites Rusty, telling her that he is even willing to dance with her. After the crowd leaves, Shaw tells Vi how much he loves her and confesses his regrets (“Can You Find it in Your Heart?” Reprise).
At the dance, the teenagers celebrate their win. As the music crests, Shaw and Vi suddenly appear in the doorway; everyone freezes. After a tense moment, Shaw and Vi join the dancing and the entire town rejoices (Finale: “Footloose”).