Ballet at Briarwood: Barbara Barker and the Ballet Exaltation

Airplane pilot, Bible teacher, and minister's wife are all terms that can describe Mrs. Barbara Barker. In the Presbyterian Church in America, she is perhaps best known today for her role as leader of a ballet ministry that performs in public worship--a controversial practice that has drawn the attention of various people who disapprove of it, as well as of others who applaud it.
"I was a dancer before I was a Christian," says Barbara Barker. A lead in the Alabama Ballet, she attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., on a ballet scholarship. While in the Chicago area, she purchased an Air Coupe and learned to fly the small aircraft.
Religiously, "I was an Episcopalian, and 'very good,'" depending on her own righteousness. A mutual romantic interest between her and a fighter pilot returned from the Korean War by the name of Frank Barker eventually enabled him to lead her to faith in Christ alone for salvation.
But several more years would lapse before the romance would blossom into marriage. At one point, Frank "decided to get rid of everything in his life that'd take away from his commitment to Christ"; and that asceticism led him to terminate the romantic relationship with Barbara. She was devastated; and, in her own search for meaningful service in the kingdom, thought that she would become a missionary. She accordingly applied to several Bible colleges, but "no one was interested in me because I was a dancer. I knew I was a Christian and my dancing wasn't a violation of any spiritual principles."
Marriage came in 1961, the year after her now-famous husband founded Briarwood Presbyterian Church. The couple was blessed with two daughters and a son; and Mrs. Barker was beside her husband in supporting his ministry. But, she was not totally satisfied with her contribution to the kingdom. "Several things were on my heart," she reveals. "I really longed to talk to somebody about Jesus. In my heart, I wanted to dance my praises."
That desire to dance her praises and to use her ballet skills evangelistically was rekindled when she happened to run into the director of the company for which she used to dance in Birmingham. That lady asked her to help train other girls. Mrs. Barker responded, "Oh, no, preacher's wives don't dance." But as she returned home, she thought to herself, "Why couldn't you? Where does God say that isn't appropriate?" She got up her courage and asked Frank about this; he prayed about it, and asked the Session. According to Mrs. Barker, "Many of the Session were Christians only five or six years and didn't have any traditions; they took things at face value." The elders did not have any problems with this new career for their preacher's wife, and so she returned to the dance floor. That was twenty-five years ago.
The minister's wife felt fully vindicated in her decision when the headmistress of the school, within a few weeks, "prayed to receive Christ right there in the studio."
After several years with that school, she was approached by RE Tom Leopard, church administrator at Briarwood, if she "would come and teach ballet, for a feminine alternative to the athletics" being offered at the church. The impetus behind this development was a professed commitment to a Christian world-and-life view, and a desire to give a practical answer to the question, "What does it mean to glorify God in the arts?"
Mrs. Barker states, "God blessed the school and people started to come from everywhere. We just had an outreach." The teachers had to be not only qualified artistically, "but also in terms of spiritual things." The school has been in existence for sixteen years now. Currently there are sixteen on staff, with about four hundred students.
She continues, "Our year-end performances were always allegorized story ballets." The first was from C. S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe; and subsequent ones were written by Barbara Barker herself. Always with an evangelistic message, the recitals, offered on a Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, feature dancing to "praise," classical, and contemporary music.
But it is only the last five or six years that the particularly controversial aspect of this ministry has become manifest, when the Session asked the Ballet Exaltation dancers to participate in public worship. Sparking that request was the appearance of the group in the Christmas concert. Since that time, the dancers have been part of worship services at Briarwood on various occasions, including Thanksgiving time, and Sunday mornings for Easter and Christmas. Churches in the Birmingham area, such as Baptist churches, have sought their performance as well. They have also performed in worship services in overseas PCA mission churches, including in Kazakhstan and Spain; and in St. Petersburg, Russia.
In Mrs. Barker's eyes, "God gave all things for beauty and for glory. The arts were a great gift for the church, but they all got turned over to the enemy."
She recalls a denominational music conference which Briarwood was hosting several years ago, at which Prof. John Frame had made the point that the Reformed church had turned the arts out of the church. However, in his opinion: "'But ballet, never--it's a rehearsed art form.'" According to Mrs. Barker, Frame said that spontaneous "dancing in the aisles, led by the minister, would be acceptable." (Mrs. Barker, with a laugh, noted that she's not sure if she's ready for her husband to do that.) The seminary professor did not know, when he made the remarks on a Friday evening, that Briarwood had a ballet program. Upon hearing the controversy that Frame's comments had stirred, Mrs. Barker invited him the next day to come to the ballet group's rehearsal. "We'd just done a big piece for the PCA women's conference," says Barbara Barker. "He sat there with tears in his eyes, [and said,] 'I never saw anything like this, but this is most worshipful.'" She asked the professor, "Isn't a choir a rehearsed art form?" She recounts that "he just laughed and said, 'Inconsistent, wasn't I?"
According to this ballet instructor, "There are things that are not forbidden but can be used in the worship service." She admits that the use of dance "has not become a traditional thing--is that because it was wrong? On what grounds should it be kept out?"
When she was in the Episcopal Church, she was a member of the Junior Daughters of the King, which group worked very hard to assist with liturgical details in the church service. "But I didn't know Jesus. My pride was really wrapped up in getting the details right--but I didn't know the Lord. Then I found out about my sin, independence, self-righteousness, self-centered lifestyle. What mattered was your heart before God. It's the heart God is looking at and not the form all these people had followed."
Seeking to justify her practice of ballet in public worship, Mrs. Barker asks rhetorically, "Isn't the Reformed mandate that we're to bring all these things to the Lord? Dancing is an art form. . . that can be a real tool."
She credits instruction from Dr. Norman Harper with helping her to appreciate a Christian world-and-life view. "All math is just a demonstration of God's glory in order. We're to study [all things] for the glory of Him. That's like shining the spotlight on [God]."
She acknowledges that "it's hard when you're dancing to keep your mind on Him." The "flesh can get in the way," and "a lot of prayer" therefore goes into the group's performances. Her goal is to "divorce people from the actual performers. You can't get that perfectly. At the end of an offering of worship, it should evoke praise to God." She says that they have experienced the opposite, "when hearts have not been right"; and adds, "After we have participated, I can very quickly tell the difference."
Although she would not necessarily distinguish between worship and non-worship, Mrs. Barker does recognize that there is a "focused time of worship like you would have in a church service." She believes that ballet is properly included, just as a church anthem is often included, because of its ability to evoke "a sense of praise, of worship, of joy. It's to invoke in man a new sense of praise to God." She also appeals to Psalms 149 and 150 as giving warrant for dance in worship.
Mrs. Barker's ballet performers have "developed quite a reputation for excellence," according to Mrs. Carol Payne, the ballet program's Administrative Assistant. She enthusiastically relates the fact that "calls have come from all over the country." This has pleased Barbara Barker, who, as Mrs. Payne says, "wants to see this spread throughout the country."