By Sarah Kaufman
JACKSON, MISS. -- The performance is over, but the dancers aren't finished. Now they want to come up the aisles and pray with you.
"This is why we dance," announces Erin Beaver, one of Ballet Magnificat's tour directors, speaking into a microphone while she paces the stage at the Jackson Academy's Performing Arts Center. Beaver, an energetic woman with a powerful smile, has the upbeat, insistent delivery of a televangelist, but she's not ministering alone. As she urges the audience to come to Jesus, slender young women with perfect posture and turned-out feet file into the audience, still in their knee-length costumes. They wait in the aisles for the kind of standing ovation they cherish: audience members so moved by the dancing that they want to leave their seats and worship with the cast.
"Let me get something straight," Beaver tells the crowd of nearly 500. "There's nothing magical about praying with a sweaty dancer." The audience laughs.
"But this is real," she continues. "You're real.
"Let's go to a real God."
It wasn't always this easy to find God at the ballet. Back in 1986, when Kathy Thibodeaux started Ballet Magnificat, the nation's first Christian ballet company, people told her it was a big mistake.
Fellow dancers warned the former Jackson Ballet dancer that it's hard enough to keep a mainstream troupe afloat, let alone one with such a specialized focus. Her church friends told her that dance and Christian ministry don't mix -- ballet is immodest, too flashy, too sensual.
In the company's early years, the dancers would get letters telling them that what they were doing was wrong, that the Devil uses dancing to provoke licentiousness and immorality.
They would console themselves with Psalms 149 and 150, which urge the faithful to praise the Lord with dancing. This, they felt, was a scriptural commission.
Two professional touring companies, a school and a growing international reputation later, the naysayers are forgiven. After all, most of the criticism arose a quarter-century ago, Thibodeaux explains: "Nobody was dancing for Jesus back then."
Yet not even she believed the idea would take off as it has, launching Ballet Mag, as its followers call it, on tours across the country and around the world. In recent weeks, dancers have traveled to Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic; in addition to Europe, in previous years they've performed in Canada and Colombia. In 2008, one of the companies toured Israel with a Holocaust-themed ballet, "Hiding Place," about Corrie ten Boom, a devout Christian who hid Jews in her home during the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands."We're not dancing fairytales or portraying swans," says Thibodeaux, a tall, willowy brunette who, with her girlishly upturned nose and flawless skin, looks younger than her 53 years. (Not to mention the fact that she still dances ably alongside the 20-somethings.)