A Local Life: Erika Thimey

Lifelong Love of Modern Dance Took Her From Germany to D.C.

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 5, 2006

When Erika Thimey was growing up in northern Germany in the early years of the previous century, her mother tried to shake her youthful devotion to dance -- at least for a little while -- by arranging for her to become what the Germans called a "house daughter" in the household of a forester.

"The idea behind becoming a 'house daughter' was that you would learn how to take care of yourself -- to learn a little about cooking and about finances," she recalled many years later. "It was sort of a custom."

For Ms. Thimey, a Hagerstown, Md., resident who died Sept. 20 of congestive heart failure at age 96, that parent-directed stint in the German forest was perhaps the last time anyone dared divert her from what became a lifelong love of modern dance. (Her name is pronounced TEE-my, "as in 'my tea,' only backwards," she liked to say.)

In Germany, she studied with the pioneering modern dancer Mary Wigman. She moved to Chicago in 1932 and later to Boston and, in 1939, to the District, where she helped introduce modern dance to the community.

In addition to dancing, she taught at a performing arts finishing school for girls and at Howard University and for many years taught Washingtonians of all ages at her own studio of modern dance. She also taught dance and staged performances for children in D.C. schools, parks and recreation centers.

"She was passionate about dance," said Dianne Hunt, a Takoma Park resident and Ms. Thimey's biographer. "Not in the sense of being temperamental, but dance was the heart of things for her. She was so completely given to her art form; she cared so much about it. She really believed that art could transform lives."

Hunt, a former dancer and choreographer, was a graduate student in dance at George Washington University when she met Ms. Thimey, who recalled coming of age as a dancer at a time of creative ferment in Germany. Her teacher, Wigman, along with Max Reinhardt in the theater, Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus in art and architecture were all searching for new approaches, new forms.

Wigman was eager to break through the strictures of classical ballet and blow away what she considered "the froth," thus restoring dance to its essential meaning. Ms. Thimey, with her dark hair, striking features and ability to execute even the most subtle movement with beauty and grace, was an eager protege.

"It would be like studying painting with the first impressionists," Hunt said last week. "Modern dance was an attempt to frame the human experience in a different light, and Erika represented that first impulse, first energy."

She came to the United States on a visitor's visa, expecting to stay a year, but found she liked it here. In Chicago, she gave a number of solo concerts and directed two huge outdoor dance pageants sponsored by the city. Intrigued by several Chicago churches that were more exuberant than churches she had known in Germany, she also began to experiment with dance as an expression of worship. In Boston, she performed with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Martha Graham was responsible for her moving to Washington. The soon-to-be-famous dancer and choreographer was teaching at the King-Smith Studio School, a finishing school on New Hampshire Avenue NW for young girls interested in the theater. But the commute from New York became too arduous, so she resigned in 1939, and Ms. Thimey succeeded her.

In 1943, Ms. Thimey opened her own studio -- on P Street NW near Dupont Circle and later in Georgetown -- where she taught children and adults, women and men, including a number of soldiers home from the war. She also continued to perform throughout the area.

She began teaching at Howard in 1944 and, over the next 11 years, helped make the school's modern dance company one of the premier college troupes in the country.

"Being at Howard taught me so much," she told Hunt. "In the beginning of my time there, the attitude that many Americans had was that a white person who surrounded herself with African Americans must be crazy, or a radical of some sort. I knew I was not crazy, and I knew I was not a radical. I knew I was having a wonderful experience."

Ms. Thimey stopped performing in 1958 but continued teaching, both at her Georgetown studio and in the D.C. public schools. She choreographed a number of programs for children's audiences.

"In the 1940s, she was doing things that 'Sesame Street' would be doing years later," Hunt said.

In 1979, she and her sister, Hertha Woltersdorf, bought an old Seventh-day Adventist church in Smithsburg, Md., and turned the spare, white-frame building into a performance space and living quarters. She lived in the building until 2001 and continued to teach, choreograph and work with churches to incorporate sacred dance into worship services.

"I thought of her as the anti-diva," Hunt said. "She was not interested in her own legend. She'd tell me, 'I cannot imagine that anyone would want to read about my life. I've just had opportunities.' "

© 2006 The Washington Post Company