By Sherry Lucas
Kathy Thibodeaux’s Timeless Legacy
Swimming was Kathy Thibodeaux’s love, growing up—slicing through the water with second-nature athleticism and grace. Those qualities defined her dancing, too—gliding across the stage and flying through the air, propelled by the conviction of her faith.
She turns 61 this November, and the string of milestones that came around in 2016—reaching 60m celebrating Ballet Magnificat!’s 30th year and her 40th anniversary with husband, Keith—seemed the right time to take a step back from dancing and touring and into semi-retirement.
“I’ve been blessed,” she says of a career that’s dodged injury, embraced her beloved art form, and seen a fledgling company grow into an international presence and a trailblazer for Christian dance. “The Lord has truly blessed me.
“I’ve danced forever, toured forever. I thought, oh, it’s been a major thing. But, I think it’s been great.” Don’t count her completely off the stage. “You might see me pop up at Christmas time.”
She points out Ballet Magnificat!’s crop of “wonderful young dancers.” She wants, too, to spend time with daughter Tara and grandson Bryson. She and Keith just returned from a month and a half in Brazil, where a training school outpost puts them back in pioneering mode.
She started ballet in childhood, and at one point wanted to quit and concentrate on swimming. Her mom, Mary Denton, talked her out of it, “Oh, what can you do with swimming?”
Kathy Thibodeaux did plenty with ballet. She praises training by “amazing teachers” Albia Kavan and her husband Rex Cooper (formerly with American Ballet Theatre) at Jackson Ballet and later, Thalia Mara.
When she came to know the Lord at age 23 in 1979, “My life was really changed.” She’d met Keith Thibodeaux, a musician with the Christian rock band David and the Giants, who led her to the Lord. Her Christian faith and her dancing would become entwined to praise and serve God and spread the gospel.
“Back then, there wasn’t really anyone dancing for the Lord, or dancing for Jesus. I had people telling me—and they were well-meaning Christians—saying, ‘Well, now that you’re a Christian, you have to quit dancing.’” She prayed with Keith, seeking direction.
“I came to realize that, in God’s Word, he tells us to praise his name with dancing.” With patience and prayer, a vision began to emerge, for a company like Ballet Magnificat!
“Of course, we didn’t know how in the world it was going to happen. Never heard of such a thing.” But in 1986, Kathy had a real peace, knowing she wasn’t supposed to return to Ballet Mississippi, she says. In a newspaper interview, she talked of starting a Christian ballet company and sharing the gospel through dance.
Many told them it wouldn’t work, that they’d never get dancers, never get support. But, the day after, then-Belhaven College president Newton Wilson called to offer help with office and studio space. Businesses followed suit, offering assistance. It was God’s confirmation, she says. Belhaven was instrumental in the beginning; they later helped start Belhaven’s dance program.
Finding dancers was tough at first, but the company grew one by one, by word of mouth. Greg Smith, who’d choreographed Kathy’s contemporary piece in the 1982 USA International Ballet Competition, “We Shall Behold Him,” (she won a silver medal and pegs that solo as the beginning of Ballet Magnificat!), moved back to Jackson and played a key role.
“We started out very small—four dancers and Greg Smith.” She remembers time in that little office at Belhaven, “before computers, before cell phones,” going through the Yellow Pages and hand-addressing envelopes to different churches, “saying, ‘We started this little company. If you’re interested in having us come…’”
They toured in their minivan, took a home stereo system along, divvied offerings according to who had a bill and “We just trusted the Lord,” she says.
Little by little, dancers started coming. Most Ballet Magnificat! performances are out of town, but an annual Christmas concert reaches the home audience in Jackson.
The nonprofit Christian ballet company reaches audiences worldwide. Their reputation as a company of trained, gifted, passionate artists has grown through touring, media, and more, and spread through dancers who’ve gone on to start companies and dance ministries. “It’s been an amazing journey,” Kathy says.
Ballet Magnificat! now has two professional companies—Alpha and Omega—with about 15 dancers each that travel nationally and internationally (South Africa and Europe this year) as well as two trainee levels with about 20 dancers apiece. The Trainee II group last spring traveled to China, South Korea, and Guam.
Keith counts tours to more than 49 countries. That started in 1999 with a first trip abroad to Belgium and the Czech Republic, homeland of Ballet Magnificat! choreographer Jiri Sebastian Voborsky. “His heart was to go back to his country and to dance for them, to dance his faith because he had been raised in a communist environment,” Keith says.
Demand is such that they now play big theaters, not churches, in Europe. “They go to the old, beautiful theaters, and it sells out,” Kathy says.
The Ballet Magnificat! Brasil trainee program in Curitiba, in the state of Paraná, is now in its first year. “We felt like Brazil could be a good environment, for us to begin to plant something there,” says Keith. “We were getting in on the ground floor” in a culture that embraces dance but doesn’t have a ton of classical ballet.
The program has 15 dancers, two of them core members of a company to come, “the first step in faith,” Keith says.
At their recent outdoor performance in Curitiba, confirmation came again. A man in his 30s had tears streaming down his face as he watched the young dancers. Afterward, they found out he was a Christian, wrestling with a decision of mission work or staying in his business. “He said that the Lord just talked to him, right there,” Kathy says, confirming his mission path.
That’s been their desire all along, “that God would use us to touch people’s hearts and lives.”