As Abbey and Ashley Helsel return to the area, in some ways their lives haven’t changed much. The two sisters live together, just as they did growing up in State College, they value their faith and they both spend hours a day practicing their ballet skills.
The difference, however, is that they’re now both professional ballet dancers — and their current home is in Jackson, Mississippi, where the sisters are part of Ballet Magnificat, a professional ballet company that focuses on the Christian faith and sharing it with others through ballet.
Dancing for hours a day is nothing new to them, however — both sisters began training at the Performing Arts School of Central Pennsylvania when they were a few years old.
Growing up, “I was always that kid in ballet who took it very seriously,” Abbey said.
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While other students would be goofing off during lessons, she enjoyed learning the discipline of the dance. Abbey estimated that she spent six days a week, and around 22 hours total practicing ballet during the week, with Sundays off.
She’d always planned on having the “expected” experience: going to college, maybe minoring in dance and then pursuing a career.
She was hesitant about going for a full-time, professional ballet career until she went to Ballet Magnificat’s intensive summer ballet camp, before her senior year at Grace Prep High School. There, she said, she saw that she could both continue to get better at ballet and additionally use her dance talents in order to glorify the Lord — a part of Ballet Magnificat which she has found fulfills her spiritually and professionally.
After she returned to State College, Abbey used her senior project at Grace Prep to bring the company to The State Theatre. “So now, to be coming back, is bringing everything very much full circle,” Abbey said.
When most 18-year-olds were packing up and moving to college, Abbey, now 24, was moving to Jackson — more than 1,000 miles away from her hometown — to join Ballet Magnificat’s training program.
As a child, Ashley wasn’t specifically focused on pursuing ballet as a career, “but I remember watching Abbey getting all of these amazing parts and really excelling,” Ashley said, “and I thought to myself, ‘I want to get that good.’”
Ashley graduated from high school early, finishing her degree online, and studied for two years at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet school, in Carlisle, before moving to Mississippi to become a trainee at Ballet Magnificat. Last year, they moved in together.
Even while in Jackson, they haven’t forgotten about State College: Ashley, 20, is a junior at Penn State, studying bio-behavioral health through the World Campus program.
Though Abbey has enjoyed getting to perform in countries around the world — recently the group traveled to Israel — “to be able to come home and know pretty much everybody in the audience and knowing that they’ve cheered me on all these years — and (cheered) Ashley on — to pursue ballet, to just give back to them is a huge blessing,” Abbey said.
Ashley remembered how inspiring it was to see professionally successful ballet dancers come and talk in her dance classes growing up, and now, the sisters will be returning to teach in Centre County before their performance on Friday, one of Ashley’s “favorite things to do” within ballet.
Debra Tack and her daughter, Lydia — who hopes to win a scholarship to go back to the dance company — were instrumental in bringing Ballet Magnificat back to Centre County. They have seen Ballet Magnificat perform twice, in 2012 and 2018. Tack said Lydia — who has taken part in the Ballet Magnificat summer dance intensive and hopes to again — has also been taught by Abbey and Ashley.
When watching the company perform, Tack was struck by their performance style, especially “their professionalism, and humility, just to love dance and want to entertain their audience, but they just do it in such a humble and graceful way,” Tack said.
Tack, like the sisters, is also looking forward to the “reunion” aspect of Abbey and Ashley coming back to Centre County.
For both of the sisters, getting to perform together is “a blessing” that they joked about as kids, but never really expected to happen.
“I’m so excited,” Ashley said. “I never thought that I would be coming back to Pennsylvania with a professional ballet company, let alone with my sister.”
Ballet Magnificat will perform “Prodigal’s Journey” at 7 p.m. Saturday at Mifflin County High School. A day before the show, the company will hold an open dance class at 1 and 2 p.m. Friday at the Dance Academy in State College.
If you go
What: Ballet Magnificat’s “Prodigal’s Journey”
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Mifflin County High School, 501 6th St., Lewistown