Religion takes center stage with Mississippi ballet company

Instead of heading off to college after

high school graduation, Elizabeth Kraft left her northern Virginia

home for a small dance studio in Mississippi.

After participating in secular dance programs, Kraft said she

found the competitive world of dance to be "cutthroat." She even

considered giving up dance altogether.

"The Lord showed me that without dance in my life, it would be

kind of empty," the 19-year-old said.

Kraft, like many other students from across the world, was drawn

to dancing for Ballet Magnificat!, a non-denominational Christian

ballet company.

Kraft is a member of the Jackson-based company's trainee

program, a one- to four-year program with a mission and ministry

focus. Dancers participate in ministry opportunities and are

schooled in classical ballet.

A fellow trainee, Hanna Nagel, 22, traveled from Germany to join

the program after dancing in secular companies in her native

country. Nagel said she found her religious beliefs interfered with

some of the provocative subject matter portrayed on stage. She knew

there had to be a place where her spiritual side could exist with

her passion for dancing. An Internet search led her to Ballet


Sitting next to a dog grooming business, Ballet Magnificat!'s

building is unassuming from the outside with some front windows

giving a view of trainee classes.

With four dance studios and a school of arts that teaches about

400, the narrow winding hallways are abuzz with activity. Music

echoes through the sweltering studios during class hours. The warm

temperatures suit the dancer's need for warm muscles.

The company was founded in 1986 by Kathy Thibodeaux, a silver

medalist at the II USA International Ballet Competition, which is

in Jackson every fourth year. In Thibodeaux's third round

contemporary performance, she expressed her Christian beliefs in a

dance to Sandi Patty's "We Shall Behold Him."

"That (performance) was sort of the seed that started out as

Ballet Magnificat!," said Keith Thibodeaux, Kathy's husband and

executive director of the business.

"We are unique in that we are a Christian company, we make no

bones about that," Keith Thibodeaux said.

Keith Thibodeaux is no stranger to performing. Though not

trained in ballet, he plays the drums, a talent that earned him a

gig as "Little Ricky," the TV son of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

on the "I Love Lucy" show. He later played with the band "David

and the Giants."

Kathy Thibodeaux said most of the company's performances are

stories that are biblically based and just put to dance, with

contemporary Christian and classical music.

"We use the same dance vocabulary that we were brought up in.

We just sell a different message," Kathy Thibodeaux said.

What started as a four-person ballet company has now grown to

two professional touring companies - Alpha and Omega - and 31

trainees, who attend classes five days a week, in preparation for

ministries in the touring companies as well as work with other

mission organizations.

"Our desire is that it will magnify the Lord in all that we do.

Dancing is just a gift that the Lord gave us," Kathy Thibodeaux


Members of the Alpha Company, the oldest company in the studio's

existence, spent the beginning of September on a European tour

which took them to Germany, Greece and the Czech Republic. Alpha is

performing "Ruth," a contemporary spin on the biblical story.

Omega is spending most of September in the United States, with

performances scheduled in Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma.

The group has not faced much resistance in performing their

Christian-themed productions, mainly because they are often invited

to perform.

In a Jewish synagogue theater in Salem, Mass., Keith Thibodeaux

said the company was asked not to say Jesus' name during the

performance. In Singapore, the group also had to be careful about

how they spoke about their testimony because of the country's

diverse religious population, including Muslims, Hindus and


"We really get to go where the normal crews of church pastors

or evangelists are not able to go to," Keith Thibodeaux said. He

said he believes the performances attract people who enjoy ballet

as well as people who have never been to a ballet, just because of

the fact the group is Christian.

Cynthia Newland, assistant professor of dance at Christian

liberal arts school Belhaven College also in Jackson, said

Christian dance has existed since biblical times, with a revival of

the dance in the 19th and 20th centuries in the traditional church

setting. Newland said in the 1960s during the "Jesus Movement,"

dance found a place and kept growing steadily.

"I've in particular seen much more of a growth and a resurgence

in dance in the last 12 years and that is being done in churches of

all denominations," Newland said.

Ballet Magnificat! shared a donated space at Belhaven College

before opening up the 12,000 square foot building located just off

Interstate 55 in 1989.

Walking through the building there is very little to tipping off

visitors to the company's Christian-side. Morning worship services

are held each day and then dancing commences in each studio.