By SHERRY LUCAS
A Grace-Filled Journey to a New Frontier
John Vandervelde, whose lithe athleticism brought a commanding presence to Ballet Magnificat! productions for decades has once again answered God’s call. What brought him to Jackson in 1987 has now compelled him to move on, to a chapter still to be determined.
The move with wife, Karin, to Grand Junction, Colorado, in May drew to a close three decades of starring roles in the company, onstage and off.
“I miss him so much. How do you put into words 30 years of, just, friendship?” Ballet Magnificat! co-founder Kathy Thibodeaux said. “He was a wonderful leader and a wonderful example of a man of God.
“He was just a pillar here at Ballet Magnificat!.”
His story is one of faith in spiritual signposts and passion for sharing God’s word.
Vandervelde, originally from Edmonton, Canada, came to ballet relatively late, taking his first class at age 24. He’d been a mechanical engineer at first, taking lessons on the side for fun and exercise. In 1983, Alberta Ballet Company’s resident choreographer Lambros Lambrou told him he could turn Vandervelde into a ballet dancer in short order, “if you’re willing to work your butt off.” “Go for it,” his wife told him. “We’ll worry about the details later.”
He trained for a year and got a job with Spokane Ballet Company in 1985. But the financial strain on his family with three kids (they’d eventually have seven), led to other dance pursuits, including a modern dance stint at the World Expo in Vancouver, British Columbia. There, he was struck by a dance performance of the creation and fall of Adam and Eve into sin.
“I got the sense I would really like to do something for the Lord in my dancing, but I didn’t think there was anything.” When two subsequent dance opportunities fell through, all they could do was pray.
The next day, a letter from a physician friend in Spokane arrived. In it was a brochure on Ballet Magnificat!’s first Christmas production, from the doctor’s friend in Mississippi, and the message, “The Holy Spirit told me, ‘Send it to John.’”
Vandervelde, dealing with the financial shock of his career change and worried about supporting his family, had only seen doors closing. And there, on the front of Ballet Magnificat!’s brochure, was Psalm 30:11, “Thou has turned for me my mourning into dancing.” Karin was convinced, “This is it. You’re going to dance there.” Vandervelde thought: fledgling company, no money, going to be bad.
But he called and scraped together money for a plane ticket to go audition. First ballet class, he came down wrong from a double turn, heard a crack, and his ankle swelled to grapefruit size. He didn’t dance again that week. Still, from the moment he got there, “I knew immediately that’s where I would live one day.
“Kathy said, ‘We’re not actually looking for dancers right now, but we believe God’s calling you here. Come on down.” Karin, a nurse, could more easily get a visa; Vandervelde, on a dependent visa, volunteered at Ballet Magnificat! for three years before going on the payroll. It was tough, with his 200-plus days on tour, Karin’s full-time schedule and low wages plus babysitter issues. Two pay hikes for Mississippi nurses helped.
In the company, “Everybody did whatever they did best,” he said, from lighting set up to oil changes. Vandervelde was the bus mechanic, bus driver and personnel director, as well as Thibodeaux’s primary partner almost from the beginning. She’s a uniquely gifted athlete, he said, praising her consistent, rhythmic, organic movement style.
“I could always count on John to not drop Kathy,” Keith Thibodeaux said, lauding Vandervelde’s reliability, counsel, and support in Jackson and on the road, his leadership in Bible studies and more. “He was such an integral part of our fabric here.”
Bald and striking, Vandervelde was often cast in bad-guy roles, and a favorite was his recent one, Mr. Dreadsworth, chief demon in Stratagem, a ballet inspired by C.S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters. He danced as the Pharaoh in Deliver Us! and a Russian military officer in The Scarlet Cord.
In 2013, he and Karin, avid backpackers, picked Grand Junction, Colorado, to fly into for a trip to Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah. After arrival, while on the hotel shuttle, Karin asked if he sensed anything.
“Karin, I sense the presence of God like crazy right now,” he said. Both had a powerful sense they would live there. They felt it again, crossing the city limits on the trip back.
Retirement from dancing wasn’t a priority, and neither was leaving Mississippi. But their spiritual mentors and his pastor advised not to dismiss this. On a 2014 trip back to Colorado, the Lord spoke clearly to Karin’s heart, he said, that this was their new home.
His announcement at Ballet Magnficat! was met with initial resistance, but the more Vandervelde shared his own testimony, the more that softened.
He and Karin quit their Mississippi jobs. He joked about his “weird resume”—seven years as an engineer, 33 as a ballet dancer. Karin, completing her doctorate in nursing practice with an emphasis in midwifery, knows the general field she’ll be in, he said. He doesn’t, but he’s open to discovery and inspiration.
He recently finished a master’s in apologetics, a productive pastime so he could be a study buddy as his wife pursued her degree. He might teach classes or get involved in the university’s dance program there, but he feels drawn to try something new.
“It’s difficult leaving, for sure,” he said, with most of their kids and grandkids in Mississippi.
His brother’s death earlier this year shone light on another skill. “I have, I think, a real gift for working with people who are either very sick or terminal,” he said, drawn to people in those situations and able to be near without being overwhelmed.
It’s another form of grace.
Sherry Lucas is a freelance feature writer, copywriter and copy editor with 30-plus years of reporting and writing experience and a passion for sharing Mississippi’s cultural wealth. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.