A young Barbara Brown becomes a professional dancer. Photo courtesy of Peggy Townes.
by Carol Muse Evans
This is the story of a preacher and a ballerina, and how a church and an art form combined to create an amazing Birmingham institution. It is also a story of God’s faithfulness, and no “ordinary” ballet school.
In the early 1960s, Frank Barker started Briarwood Presbyterian Church by knocking on doors in Cahaba Heights, according to his daughter Peggy Townes, executive director of Briarwood Ballet. Soon after the church started, he married Towne’s mother, Barbara Brown Barker, a ballerina.
Frank Barker had grown up in Birmingham, graduated from Ramsey High School and had even attended seminary before becoming a Christian. He had gone to Auburn University, then enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Barbara Barker grew up studying classical ballet in Birmingham, and went to train in New York when she was just 12 years old. She became a dancer, studying theatre at Northwestern University, and going on to dance professionally. She dated Frank, and they eventually broke up just before he went to seminary.
Barbara Brown Barker spent time in Chicago and other major cities as a ballerina, led an exciting life, Towne recalls, and even dated men like Bing Crosby and Jack Valente. She says her mom still “felt empty.”
After an unsuccessful three-year marriage, she returned to Birmingham, reconnected with Frank Barker, both gave their lives to Jesus, Towne explains, and married. Frank Barker started Briarwood Presbyterian Church and eventually gained his Ph.D.
“All my mom knew was dance and performance,” Towne says. “She had three kids in 2½ years. But she wanted to do more. And God had different plans than her just being a pastor’s wife. Eventually she began teaching at the Birmingham Civic Ballet, and she loved it…She believed that music and dance were to be used as a tool for worship.”
The church agreed. At one point the church administration asked about starting a ballet at Briarwood as an activity for girls, and a new career for Barbara Brown Barker was officially born. She taught at the old church until moving to the new building in 1987. Each year the ministry grew. She found her calling, combining her love for God, her love for dance and the ministry, also supporting her pastor husband.
When the new Briarwood Presbyterian Church was built, they included five ballet studios, and for the last 20 years, have trained more than 450 students who have gone on to professional careers, Towne says. “Former 1995 Miss America Heather Whitestone (McCullum), was trained by my mama.”
Today the ballet company is asked to travel and perform all over the states and the world, having an open door where sometimes missions are not welcome. Towne explains that for years mission teams couldn’t go to places like Russia, China, Brazil, Spain or Cuba, but their ballet dancers could. What her mom had begun was actually a ministry wrapped in art. They could share about Jesus through dance concerts.
“My beautiful, faithful mama gave up everything to pursue dance, and more than 7,000 young women have come through the program, having their spirits and souls impacted by my mother,” Towne says. “And it is not the success stories that set Briarwood Ballet apart, it is that every class, from creative movement for three-year-olds to intensive workshops is in a loving environment that emphasizes dance as a means of worship and as a tool for discipleship and evangelism.”
On any given day now you may find Barbara Barker wandering through the halls of the ballet school at Briarwood, taking in an exercise class or visiting with her daughter, the executive director. These are special moments to Towne, as he mother isn’t quite herself any more.
“Five years ago we knew something wasn’t right…and she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease…that was when I took over as executive director,” Towne says.
Now 84 years old, Frank Barker is Pastor Emeritus at Briarwood, is involved in counseling, but was officially retired when he was 68. But you’d hardly know it as active as he is, and devoted to his wife. Today his main job is taking care of Barbara.
“This is my inheritance,” Towne explains of the ballet school. “I want to keep this ministry strong as a gift to her.”
For more information, visit www.briarwood.org/ballet.
Carol Muse Evans is publisher and editor of Birmingham Parent.