In the middle of my ballet class last week I was struck with a sudden memory that almost made me topple out of a pirouette. (At least, that’s what I’d prefer to attribute it to, and not to mere laziness over finding my center before attempting said pirouette.) For whatever reason, my brain chose that inopportune moment to summon a recollection that was nearly twenty years old.
I was nineteen (I said nearly twenty years, mind you) and I was attending the teachers’ intensive put on by Ballet Magnificat in Jackson, Mississippi. (Y’all do know about Ballet Magnificat, right?) For three weeks I had been taking master classes from some of the best teachers in the country and scribbling frantic notes on lectures ranging from anatomy to choreography to grant writing. (Okay, I confess, I kind of checked out during the grant writing session.) Every day I got to attend morning chapel with a roomful of dancers who were head over heels in love with Jesus Christ, and every night I fell into bed wholesomely exhausted from an impossibly rigorous schedule. It was an amazing time that left a permanent mark on me, and I loved every minute of it. Almost. You see, there was one item on the schedule that made me a little uneasy.
I heard alumni talking about it in reverential tones almost from my very arrival on the Belhaven Campus. It sounded interesting, so long as it didn’t turn out to be a bunch of people dancing around extemporaneously all at the same time. That just seemed a tad—I don’t know, unrefined—to my meticulous little sensibilities. I worried, and gathered clues from my fellow dancers (I seemed to be the only one that was squeamish about it) and, long story short, that’s exactly what it proved to be. On one of the final nights of the intensive the whole company was to gather in the gym, prepared to worship God with all of our strength, as creatively as we knew how. We had had classes in improv—nothing about Ballet Mag is desultory. But making things up in front of a room of one’s peers just seemed like a whole different ballgame than—a bunch of people dancing around extemporaneously all at the same time.
I talked to my teacher about it (you may remember her—she is amazing), sitting in the car one night after a long day of classes. She heard me out, listened patiently to my litany of very religious reasons why I was uncomfortable with the idea. Then she pursed her lips and drew her breath in that way she had that always alerted me she was about to say something important. You know, one of those things I would remember all my life, or something.
“Lanier, when my sister was little—probably about four years old—she saw all of us giving presents to our dad for Father’s Day. She didn’t have a gift, so she went through the house and picked out pretty things she thought he would like, and wrapped them up and gave them to him. It never entered her mind that those wouldn’t be considered ‘real’ gifts.” My teacher looked me right in the eyes with that piercing blue gaze of hers. “And do you think that her presents were any less precious to my dad than the ones we bought at the store and wrapped up with beautiful ribbons?”
I swallowed in the darkness and admitted that I supposed they were at least as precious. If not more. That father knew the heart of his little girl, and he cherished the offerings of her heart, no matter how humble. (Or, in this case, repurposed.) I appreciated the vignette and the prayers she whispered over me in the half-light of the car, and I thought about her words a lot over the days that followed. She had so much wisdom—it had chiseled away at my assumptions plenty of times before this—but I still felt uneasy. It wasn’t my self-consciousness that was on the table, I insisted, so much as my principles. And my principles had just never considered doing anything quite this weird.
I went to the Creative Worship session. I found a girl who was almost as uncomfortable as I was and we sat down on the floor together. Someone opened with prayer and someone else turned on the music—a gentle, rippling stream of melody that I can still hear the ghost of to this day. And then, nearly as a body, the company rose and began moving around the room in an elliptical of orderly individuality. A censer was lit and gently passed from hand to hand amid the revolving throng, and the aroma filled the gym with a spice-laden haze. I remember one dancer in particular, a girl from New York I had met at the airport and one of the most gifted ballerinas I have ever seen: every movement was poetry and the look on her face was nothing short of beatific. She danced like there was not another soul in the room—or in all the world—but Jesus.
At length my friend got up and joined the quiet circle of worship. I know you’re thinking that the moral to this story is that I did, too—that I conquered my self-consciousness (or was at least too self-conscious to sit there all by myself!) and smashed my silly ‘principles’ to smithereens in the act. With all my soul, I wish I could say that was what I did. I think it would have been an experience of genuine abandonment to God, which can only and ever be a good thing. To my shame, however, I sat there, watching, longing for I scarce knew what.
And that was the memory that assailed me the other day as I was cringing at my reflection in the mirror in ballet class, hoping everyone else was too occupied with their own pirouettes to notice how badly mine had just turned out. It all came back in a rush, and I felt my cheeks grow warm, twenty years after the fact. If I could go back, I would yank my nineteen-year-old self off of her derrière and shove her out on the floor with the others. (Lovingly, of course, but, heavens, that girl could use a bit of roughing up. She thought she knew everything.) I think it’s sad that I missed such an opportunity of corporate worship, simply because I had learned to mask my fear with a set of cozy convictions. I have so much respect for the souls who are able to worship God with all of their might—wielding pens, pointe shoes, paintbrushes, cellos, what-have-you—without being restrained in the least by what others think. God knows it’s difficult—almost super-human, you might say. But it’s the joy of our souls, and the fuel to more formal pursuits in His name.
I know that Jesus is tender towards that nineteen-year-old me with all her answers and insecurities. He doesn’t despise my weakness the way I do. Twenty years from now I will doubtless have plenty of other missed opportunities to chafe at. But today, burning from an old shame yet standing in grace, I offer myself anew, re-purposing these gifts (that are not my own anyway) to my Father’s good pleasure.
Because, in the end, isn’t it all Creative Worship?
Lanier Ivester is a “Southern Lady” in the best and most classical sense and a gifted writer in the most articulate and literal sense. She hand-binds books and lives on a farm with peacocks, bees, sheep, and the governor of Ohio’s leg. She loves old books and sells them from her website, LaniersBooks.com, and she’s currently putting the final touches on her first novel, as well as studying literature at Oxford.