Originally published December 7, 2011 at 2:34 p.m., updated March 7, 2013 at 11:48 a.m.
photos by Camille Moenkhaus
As a professional ballerina, Kathy Thibodeaux began to pray about her career and her future when she became a Christian in 1979. "Should I keep dancing? Do I give up dancing?" She wondered. At that point, she says, no one in the country was really dancing for Jesus. Her Christian friends were skeptical that dancing was something a nice Christian girl should do.
"Give it up," they told her. "You can't be a Christian and dance."
She was Ballet Mississippi's principal ballerina. The new arts company brought professional dance to the state, and Thalia Mara, who founded Ballet Mississippi in 1975, brought the world to Jackson in 1979 with the first USA International Ballet Competition. Kathy Thibodeaux was Mara's student and prodigy. She also was a Jackson celebrity.
Kathy Denton started dancing at age 6 with the Jackson Ballet Guild, which later grew to become Ballet Mississippi. Some of her first teachers included Rex Cooper of the American Ballet Theatre and Thalia Mara.
She met Keith Thibodeaux in 1976, and they got married the same year. Keith, 60, is a Lafayette, La., native who lived in California for a while and worked as a child actor, playing Little Ricky, on the "I Love Lucy Show." He attended the University of Louisiana at Lafayette for a few years before leaving to perform with David and the Giants, a rock group from Laurel.
Three years later, Kathy had a life-altering religious experience. She kept dancing. But Kathy was conflicted. As a Christian, she took the criticism seriously that good girls don't dance. As a ballerina, she didn't completely believe it.
"I really feel like God is the giver of our gifts and talents, and he gives them to us for a reason," Kathy says. "When I realized that he was the giver of my talent of dance, I didn't want to bury that talent. So I kept dancing."
In 1982, she competed in the USA International Ballet Competition. For her last piece in the third round, where she could do a classical or more contemporary dance, Kathy chose to use "We Shall Behold Him," a Christian song by Sandi Patty that had been recently released.
"I wanted to do a piece where I could share my faith," she says. "I met with lots of opposition there."
"This is not the time or place to do a Christian song," people said to her at the competition. Her timing, as it turns out, wasn't wrong. She ended up with a silver medal, not an easy task in a contest of the best ballet dancers in the world.
After that, Kathy began to seriously consider what she should do.
"We began praying about a company of dancers who shared the same vision—to use our gift of dance for God's glory—and prayed about it for a while," she says. "In 1986 we felt like it was time for me to leave Ballet Mississippi."
Four Dancers and a Minivan
People thought Kathy was giving up her career. She had nowhere to go, not even a studio. No one thought she would get support and actually make her dream come true.
"We just had a peace in our hearts knowing that this is what God was telling us to do," she says. They still didn't know what would happen.
The couple started out with four dancers, a minivan and a home stereo system. The dancers hand-addressed envelopes to churches asking if they could come perform, and their first trip was to Florida.
In 1989, they started the Ballet Magnificat! School.
Belhaven University's former president, Newton Wilson, reached out to the hopeful entrepreneurs, and offered studio and office space on campus although they did not yet have a dance program. Later, they started a dance minor program at Belhaven, which has now grown into one of the best dance programs in the South. Soon after, Kathy and Keith formed Ballet Magnificat! She is the artistic director, and he is the executive director.
"It was just amazing in the beginning, how God just put it all together," Kathy says.
They started out as nothing more than a prayer. Now, Ballet Magnificat! Has a school with about 12 teachers and 300 students and touring professional companies.
"It's been the Lord all the way," she says. "We're a miracle."
Between the Alpha Company and the Omega Company, Ballet Magnificat! Has sent dancers to every state and 18 different countries. They also send dancers to foreign countries to teach, perform and do outreach with the Ballet Magnificat! GO (Global Operations) program. Two dancers, who are in Honduras for a year, have invitations from China, Macedonia, Costa Rica, Brazil and Chile. Ballet Magnificat! Is planning a workshop called "Ballet Magnificat! Europe" based in Macedonia in August.
"We're hoping to attract dancers from all over Europe and for it to be the first step in setting up a European base," Keith says.
Ballet Magnificat! Added The Omega Company in 2004 to accommodate requests from different parts of the country. It started small, but now it is just as big as the Alpha Company. Its signature dance is "The Hiding Place," the story of Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who helped many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust. In the ballet, the Nazis take both the Jews and the family to a concentration camp.
"It's a very famous Christian story that they've done in Europe and Israel in front of Russian holocaust survivors, and we take it all over the U.S.," Keith says.
The Alpha Company is currently performing the ballets "The Arrival," "Ruth" and "Deliverance."
Kathy and Keith's daughter, Tara, born in 1979, is also a dancer and choreographer. "The Arrival" is her first piece for Ballet Magnificat! The dance is about looking forward to Jesus' return and how to live in the meantime.
"The Arrival" includes modern dance elements and pop overtones that the company has not performed before, although the company dances in different styles.
"It's like 'So You Think You Can Dance' meets anointed worship," Keith, the executive director, says about the style of "The Arrival."
"It's definitely not boring," Kathy adds. "The majority of our pieces are classical-based because all of us have that classical ballet background. But we do incorporate different styles, so it's not just ballet. We incorporate jazz and modern—a little bit of everything."
The company will perform "The Arrival" at Crossgates Baptist Church in Brandon in the spring as a fundraiser for the Alpha Company to go to the Philippines, China, India, Cambodia, and Korea to do a series of performances and workshops. The company also had a recent weekend reunion where dancers from all over the country flew back to visit.
"We're local, yet we're national and international in our scope of what we do and where we go, what our purpose is and what our style is," Keith says.
He describes that style as powerful, energetic and athletic. It also is theatrical because ballets are stories.
"The Snow Queen" is the most recent example. More than 150 Ballet Magnificat! Performers including company dancers, trainees and students rehearsed heavily this fall for the new ballet that premiers Dec. 16 in Jackson. The ballet, "The Snow Queen," is based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, and, like all Ballet Magnificat! Performances, it has a Christian theme.
Kathy and Ballet Magnificat's resident choreographer, Jiri Voborsky, worked on the choreography together.
The scenes include gypsies and trolls and lots of snowy winter sets. The ballet tells the story of a girl on a quest to save a boy who has fallen under the control of a queen who personifies lust and pride.
The girl on the quest is the hero of this story, and she prevails against all odds.
Ballet Magnificat! Performs "The Snow Queen" at Thalia Mara Hall (255 E. Pascagoula St., 601-960-1537) Dec. 16 through 18 in celebration of Ballet Magnificat's 25th anniversary. It's an original production, premiering in Jackson. Tickets are $10 to $30. For information, call 601-977-1001 or visit http://www.balletmagnificat.com.