Kathy Thibodeaux created a stir in the dance world at the 1982 International Ballet Competition when she insisted on dancing to a worship song: "We Shall Behold Him." It was her final performance at the competition. Her directors did not want her to offend judges—some of them from communist countries—with the song's religious lyrics.
But the music and the silver medal Thibodeaux won at that competition have become part of her testimony of worship in dance.
OPPOSITES THAT ATTRACT
Thibodeaux followed the Lord in 1979 after meeting her future husband, Keith, a Christian rocker with the band David and the Giants who starred as a child as Little Ricky on television's I Love Lucy. She became a Christian at age 25, and her growing faith changed her perception of dance: it was no longer a way to promote herself but a gift to be used for God's glory.
Four years later, Thibodeaux left Ballet Mississippi. As a principal dancer, she was just coming into her physical peak—and she left to start a Christian ballet company: Ballet Magnificat!, its name taken from Mary's song in Luke 1:46ff.
Christian and ballet are rarely found in the same sentence. But Thibodeaux and a small group of dancers fused those concepts on stage. Dancers in her former company told her it would never work. "You'll never get dancers," they said.
Some church leaders didn't understand, either. She would have to quit ballet, she was told: Christians don't dance. "Dance and faith don't go together." But audiences saw strength and grace, leaping and spinning before the Lord.
Now, says Thibodeaux, a formerly wary church population is slowly becoming more interested in dance. More and more dance ministries are starting throughout the country. "Dance is from God and was meant to worship and glorify him," she says. "He's restoring it."
When Ballet Magnificat! started, Thibodeaux knew of one other Christian dancer. That dancer knew one other dancer, and the frail network grew. Their first program was a month later, with four women and one man.
Then Bellhaven College, an independent Presbyterian school in Jackson, Mississippi, offered free studio and office space. The college has now started a dance program, working with Ballet Mag. Next year the college will offer a dance major. David Murray, Bellhaven's director of public information, thinks Ballet Magnificat! should take credit for part of the dance revival. "They get out there at churches and schools and do what it takes to make the point that dance fits into evangelical worship," he says.
DANCING TO A GOSPEL BEAT
Ballet Magnificat! puts on about 100 shows a year in churches and schools. As part of their tenth anniversary tour this year, they joined one of the world's premier mass choirs, the Mississippi Mass Choir, for a worship service of ballet, jazz, and gospel. "Dancing with them was probably one of the highlights of my life and of Ballet Magnificat!," says Thibodeaux. "The singers wanted to dance and the dancers wanted to sing." Black Christians and white Christians sang and clapped, coming together to worship—a rarity in Mississippi or any other state. The choir performed standard gospel pieces, such as "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," and the not-so-standard gospel version of "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee," modifying Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to a gospel beat.
Choreographed by African-American dancer Tobin James, the dancers swirled and leapt to the combination of ballet, jazz, and modern dance. That was difficult for the classically trained performers, because it was a different way of moving. But the presence of the Lord was so strong, Thibodeaux says, she wants to put on more joint performances. So does Tobin James, impressed by "their wonderful singing and our trying to keep up with them."
With their 10 years of experience, and a love for dance being revived in the church, do any barriers remain?
Oh yes, says Thibodeaux: You can praise God through ballet—but not wearing tights: women wear flowing dresses, men wear trousers.
Copyright © 1997 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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