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VerEecke’s first ballet lesson: ‘For me it was an epiphany’


People somestimes say, “Boys don’t dance. It’s sissy.” If it’s a problem for boys today, it was an even bigger one for 5-year-old Bobbie VerEecke in the 1950s. “It just wasn’t appropriate for boys to study dance at that time,” he said. “It wasn’t ‘manly’ enough.”

VerEecke danced and choreographed alone on Long Island, where he lived. He made up dances, even at Regis, the Jesuit high school he attended in Manhattan. But he settled publicly for theater. That led to a Faustian bargain.

“I knew I was entering the Jesuits,” said VerEecke, “so I told God that if I got the lead role [in ‘Oedipus Rex’], then I’d never ask ever to do theater again.” It was 1966. He was a high school senior.

VerEecke got the part. The irony was that two months after he joined the Jesuits they asked him to direct Jesuit novices in their plays. Four years later the Society of Jesus held its first summer-long Jesuit Artists Institute, said VerEecke, primarily to do theater.

In 1971, VerEecke attended the institute at the University of Santa Clara, Calif., a gathering that brought in sculptors, painters, musicians, writers, playwrights, players and others from around the Jesuit world.

A dance teacher on the Santa Clara faculty, Diana Welch, offered a ballet class for attending Jesuits. “There were probably 12 to 15 of us,” said VerEecke, “all sizes, shapes and backgrounds. For me it was an epiphany. It was just like, ‘How is it I am 22 years old and I have finally found myself?’ I never knew anything could be this beautiful.”

Welch was essentially choreographing dance, religious in nature, using works such as Stravinsky’s Symphony of the Psalms. “Not only was it my first exposure,” said VerEecke, “it tapped into the religious formation I was going through.”

VerEecke was hooked. Back in New York, he started a theater program, but he really wanted to dance. On a lark, he ascended to the provincial’s study and asked for permission to study dance at Santa Clara for a semester.

“I just assumed he’d say no,” commented VerEecke. “It was not the ordinary thing to do.” But the provincial said yes. Maybe boys didn’t dance, but Jesuits could.

After dance at Santa Clara in the early 1970s, VerEecke returned to New York, taught at Regis and studied ballet at various studios. Later, in Boston studying theology, he studied ballet for a further decade, well into his 30s, with Margot Parsons. He did his master of divinity degree at Weston and got a master’s in sacred and liturgical dance in an independent study program at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass.

In 1980 he gave his thesis to Fr. Virgil Funk, who combined it into a book with works by Paulist Fr. Thomas Kane and Missionary of Our Lady of LaSalette Fr. Ronald Gagneas. The book, Introducing Dance in Christian Worship, was recently revised and re-released.

In that period, the idea of a Christmas work began forming. Though VerEecke had never had any formal training as a choreographer -- “it was something that was just intuitive,” he said -- he did have a strict teacher hovering over it: his ballet teacher, Margot Parsons. She danced in the initial presentation. VerEecke’s father sang in it.

VerEecke’s parents were both opera singers, though they did not sing professionally. In the earlier years of “A Dancer’s Christmas,” it was his father’s voice on tape that opened the third act with, “O Holy Night.” It was a bittersweet moment, for by that time VerEecke’s father was living in a nursing home.

“O Holy Night” is a milestone in VerEecke’s life in another way. It was his first choreographed piece. He was a fifth grader in charge of the Christmas singing, a lad much taken with the line in “O Holy Night” that ordered, “Fall on your knees.” When the class reached that line in performance, on VerEecke’s instruction, down they all went onto their knees.

Ordained in 1978, VerEecke by 1989 was pastor of Boston College’s parish church, St. Ignatius. “It’s a very dynamic parish, lots of outreach, spirituality programs, education, arts programs.” And liturgical dance.

Each semester at Boston College, VerEecke teaches “Dance, an Invitation to the Sacred.” He also teaches it during the college’s summer Institute of Religious and Pastoral Ministry.

Boston College has a Liturgical Dance Ensemble program that sends out touring troupes. One touring piece, “For the Greater Glory of God,” is dance theater based on the Ignatian spiritual exercises.

VerEecke tours with it. Last year, in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a reviewer said, “VerEecke’s inspirational performance was a tough act to follow.”

Not bad for a Jesuit in his 50s.

National Catholic Reporter, December 22, 2000