Erika Thimey spent seven decades exploring expression through body movement, but now all that dances are her blue-green eyes.
And her fingers. The grand dame of Washington dance recently caught herself tapping a rhythm while she slept.
But the rest of her 89-year-old body is weary. She fought off cancer years ago, but then the arthritis set in. Last week, aided by a walker and two canes, she eased herself carefully into a chair at her home in Smithsburg, Md.
"Growing old isn't for sissies," Thimey said with a laugh.
No matter. The brand of dance that Thimey (pronounced TEE-MY) has taught and studied since she arrived in the United States from Germany in the 1930s transcends the body's shackles.
"To express life in dance, it's so fantastic. It's an expression of our time," Thimey said.
From her Washington studio and as a faculty member at Howard University, Thimey was an innovator in the worlds of modern, children's and liturgical dance.
This Saturday, the dance company that bears her name will perform at Oaklands Presbyterian Church in Laurel to celebrate the publication of a new Thimey biography, "A Life of Dance, A Dance of Life."
Few dancers can match Thimey's contributions to the Washington dance world, said Dianne Hunt, the Takoma Park author who wrote the self-published book in Thimey's voice.
"If you were a child growing up in Washington, chances are you probably saw an Erika Thimey performance in school," Hunt said. Thimey is all the more remarkable because, with her gift for movement, she could have taken a much glitzier path.
"She certainly had the talent and the presence to have any sort of career in dance that she wanted, but she chose to explore areas in dance that did not bring a lot of glamour or money. Erika had no desire for self-display. She was dancing because it was the best way to communicate with people that she found throughout her whole life."
Dance expresses ideas when words are inadequate, Thimey explained, sitting in the large living room of her home, which was once a church. She bought the former Seventh-Day Adventist Church, a white wooden building with a stone base and small steeple, 30 years ago as a weekend retreat. She retired there in 1979 and has lived there with her sister ever since.
It is strewn with wooden pews tossed with colorful pillows, and the church's original piano stands in a corner near what used to be the altar. A rainbow light radiates through stained-glass windows.
"Why do you pray? It's a need," Thimey explained. "When you [pray] with movement, you can make it even stronger. And people will very easily understand what's behind it."
Thimey, who was born in 1910 in Itzehoe, Germany, first studied with the German impressionistic dancer Mary Wigman, known for her highly emotional phrasings.
Thimey moved to Chicago from Germany to teach at the North Shore Conservatory in 1932, and brought with her the belief that movement is sublime when it is infused with the dancer's emotions. For Thimey, spirituality and religion always had been among the most obvious inspirations.
"When I would come into a cathedral, I was always so moved by the space. The cathedral is always so high, so you can't help but to look up. And if you look up, you know you're being moved."
The energy and artfulness with which Americans worship struck Thimey.
"The American people have so much energy. They can't sit quiet. Five minutes is already too long for them. So I said, 'When they do something in a church, why don't they do it more artistic? When the choir is walking, instead of walking in every beat, why not every third beat, and maybe do a bow, then look up?' "
The ministers and congregation members at the churches couldn't say why not. Consequently, Thimey became one of the founders of liturgical dance. Only in those first days, they shied away from labeling what they were doing "dance." Instead, they called it "movement" or "pageantry," "rhythmic choir" or "sacred mime," even "interpretive motion."
Whatever the name, the idea quickly caught on across the country. Many older congregations saw it as a way of attracting young people to the church, so they invited Thimey to teach them.
Thimey briefly moved to Boston and taught and performed with a male partner, Jan Veen, a prominent Austrian modern dancer. The pair toured together for seven years, continuing after Thimey moved to Washington in 1939 to teach at a girl's finishing school.
By 1944, she established her own space, the Dance Theater Studio--first in Dupont Circle, then in Georgetown--and began an intellectually stimulating 11-year association with Howard University dance students. She also did choreography for outdoor children's performances sponsored by the city.
She bought the Smithsburg church in 1968 as a weekend getaway to escape the noise and heat of the city. In 1979, she directed her final show at her Washington studio.
Since then, Thimey has continued lecturing and collecting honors--including an award from the Sacred Dance Guild for her pioneering work with liturgical dance and the Washington Mayor's Arts Award. Six years ago, the Erika Thimey Dance and Theater Co. Inc. was revived under the direction of Sally Carlson Crowell.
Thimey is tickled that people still don't understand much of what she has done. But she is grateful that a new generation of dancers and choreographers are discovering interpretations that breathe new life into her work.
"Dance is changing so much," she said. "There is kind of a hope."
The Erika Thimey Dance and Theater Co. performs "Dances of Celebration" at 3 p.m. Sunday at Oaklands Presbyterian Church, 14301 Laurel-Bowie Rd., Laurel. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 children, $35 for sponsors. Copies of "A Life of Dance, A Dance of Life" will be available. For reservations, call 202-543-2081.
CAPTION: The Erika Thimey Dance and Theater Co. performs "Dances of Celebration." The group performs at 3 p.m. Sunday at Oaklands Presbyterian Church.
CAPTION: A copy of a photograph of Thimey from the 1930s, when she arrived in the United States.
CAPTION: Erika Thimey, 89, has retired to a converted church. "Growing old isn't for sissies," she said.