Emma Lewis Thomas was a mother and grandmother, a dance artist, an educator, a writer, and a true champion of dance in Los Angeles. For this article she will be referred to as Lew because that is what she insisted I call her, as did the many of her friends, students and colleagues. It is possible that Lew knew everyone connected to dance in Los Angeles, New York City and Berlin, and if at an event she did not know you, Lew made certain that that was immediately rectified.
On September 16, 2021, the world lost an important dance professional but we also grieve the loss of a mentor and cherished friend. She was passionate about her work, loved by many and she will be missed. But this is not an obituary, it is a remembrance of a woman who was looked up to and adored by so many, and who impacted the lives and careers of numerous dance professionals. You will hear directly from a few of them.
Lew was born August 4, 1932 in Charleston, West Virginia located at the convergence of the Elk and Kanawha rivers. According to her family she loved the outdoors, “spending the years of her youth hunting, fishing and camping,” and later climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. She graduated from Dana Hall School, received degrees from Duke University, the Sorbonne as a Fulbright scholar in Paris, Indiana University, and studied at the Free University of Berlin, where she was a member of the Mary Wigman Dance Company (1954-58). She also created her own company, Balliamo, which toured Europe and the U.S. Wigman, considered one of the most distinguished figures in the history of modern dance, was a German dancer, choreographer and pioneer of expressive dance and dance therapy.
Joan Woodbury is Co-founder, Co-Artistic Director and choreographer of the Salt Lake City based Ririe Woodbury Dance Company. In 1955, Woodbury received a Fulbright grant to study dance in Berlin with Mary Wigman and soon met Lew. While I was corresponding with Woodbury, she mentioned that because Lew was the newest dancer there, everyone called her “Junior.”
In an article for Arts Meme by Debra Levine, Woodbury explained that she gave birth to her son while in Germany and had to delay her studies with Wigman. “That first day, as I was struggling to keep up and accustom myself to a new language, I saw very quickly, a gorgeous dancer just sailing across the floor with grace, elan and chutzpah,” Woodbury wrote. “During the course of the morning, with technique and improvisation classes, she introduced herself to me. “Hi, “she said.” My name is Junior Thomas” And we immediately became close friends for the rest of my year of Study with Mary. and actually for the rest of my life. Emmy was a real celebrity there, She was always used as an example in classes, and was adored and highly respected by all of Mary’s students, from both east and west Berlin.”
Lew taught at Sweet Briar College, Augsburg College, Holy Cross College, and in 1971 was appointed professor at University of California, Los Angeles in the Department of Dance, now known as World Arts and Cultures/Dance (WACD). The UCLA Department of Dance was established in 1962 under the leadership of Alma Hawkins. There Lew focused on the study of French, German, Danish and Italian dance sources and various forms of notation from the 15th to the 19th century. Lew translated her findings into movement and used them for her own productions and spent over 35 years at WACD and was a mentor to numerous students there, while continuing her work as a dance artist in Los Angeles and Berlin.
“Lew’s work at UCLA was extremely important to her, as was her connection to her students whose work she followed and promoted for decades,” said WACD’s Interim Chair Angelia Leung.
Victor (Ani) Coelho, Professor of Music at Boston University first met Lew in the mid-1980s at UCLA. He was introduced to her by his PhD advisor, Fred Hammond, a harpsichordist and musicologist who played for Lew’s dance classes. “Emma Lew Thomas was a dance historian and choreographer married to a funny and likeable astronomer, fluent in German and German literature, kind of a hippie, and a person who attracted people into her world,” Coelho said. “As Lew began reconstructing 16th-century Italian dance – she was working on Fabritio Caroso’s Il Ballerino – of 1581 – and I was a lutenist, Fred made the introduction, and I began playing for her historical dance classes. After a few weeks I started looking forward to these rehearsals, and she, more than anyone else, taught me that scholarship and performance are one thing and inseparable. That notion has been the guiding light of my career.”
“In 1985, she reconstructed late 15th-century dances from treatises by Domenico da Piacenza and others and assembled a fantastic (and beautiful) group of modern and historical dancers to tour Europe. She carefully plotted our shows in towns and streets, as well as in opulent palaces and villas in Germany and Tuscany. This experience was influential on all of the careers for both dancers and musicians, and for me it coincided with the early music revival that has been the main focus of my life. Lew had an old soul and a modern attitude.” Coelho concluded, “I strive for that combination!”
As a visiting professor for dance history at Justus-Liebig-Universität in Gießen, a town located in central Germany and in the winter semester of 2013/14, Lew held the Valeska-Gert-Guest-Professorship of Freie Universität (Free University) Berlin. Following her “retirement,” Lew continued to be active in the field of dance, featuring in numerous performances, such as Shakespeare’s “All’s Well that Ends Well” (2000), “Reflections on Kreutzberg” (2005) or a recreation of Wigman’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” (2013).
An ardent educator, Lew was a frequent artist-in-residence at several international institutions and an active member of the International Brecht Society, the Modern Language Association, the American Association of Teachers of German and the American Dance Guild. She published numerous articles including one in the Bearnstow Journal in 2015 titled My Mary: Personal Reminiscences of Learning from Wigman 1954-1959 and beyond. The article contains wonderful, historical information as well as amazing photos of Wigman performing and teaching.
Throughout her professional career, Lew collaborated with some of the most influential dancers and theatre directors of her time. She most recently served as Immediate Past President for the Los Angeles based Lula Washington Dance Theatre, established in 1980 by the renown dance artist Lula Washington and her husband Erwin Washington, Executive Director of Lula Washington Dance Theater.
Included in the Arts Meme article, founder Erwin Washington wrote “We are all extremely saddened by the loss of Dr. Emma Lewis Thomas. We will miss her dearly. She was a true champion of our dance company and of our Board. She served as Board president for many years. We trusted her and looked up to her. She was always present at our shows and events, and she kept on pushing for us to secure major donors for our creative work, as well as our work with kids and the community.”
Lew was uncompromising in her devotion to education and the arts, community service, and her family, whom she loved, supported and encouraged to strive for excellence at all times. In the official obituary submitted by Lew’s family it stated that she “died after a brief battle with lymphoma at her home in Livingston, Montana. She was surrounded by her six grandchildren – Keegan Nashan, Cole Nashan, Emersyn Nashan, Andrew Arnold, Eolyne Arnold, and Roselyn Arnold – as well as her son Jeffrey P. Nashan (Kieran Nashan) and daughter Erica L. Nashan (James K. Arnold). Her siblings Andrew Stephen Thomas III and Marnie Thomas Wood join us in celebrating her life.”
Here are excerpts from a message sent by Lew’s daughter Erica Lewis Nashan. She is referring to two photos of a young Lew seen in this article.
“One is of Mother’s first dance recital at Caroline Petty’s Dance School in Charleston, West Virginia. The story goes that Mom had a very hard time being convinced to leave the wings and go out onto the stage. However, once there she just kept tapping and tapping through many repeat-endings of the music, until the accompanist signaled someone to “get the hook” and she was gracefully beckoned back into the wings, and the bug never left her.” Erica wrote. “The second photo is of Mother as a young modern dancer.”
In the same email Erica related a few events and thoughts about her mother. With her permission, I have shared a few. Memories of Lew by other dance artist will follow her statements.
“Keegan, Cole and Andrew harvested the apples outside Mother’s bedroom and she directed the apple pie baking from the sofa. She was exacting about the recipe, the oven setting, the timing, all of it, and the grandchildren obeyed her every word. What they didn’t know but I kept thinking about,” Erica wrote, “was that the first dance I ever performed with Mother in was called, “Motherhood and Apple Pie”. She was studying for her PhD at Indiana University and the years we were there were 1966-69. This time it was her last apple pie and she knew it. Rosie, Eolyne and her fiancé Beau arrived afterwards and we needed all of them to help cook, clean, and take turns caring for “Baba” as they called her. Her new granddaughter Emersyn always gave her big smiles.”
“Mother showed us all what dignity is, what self-determination is, and we banded together as a family like never before. That speaks volumes for her, for the force of her character, and for the ways she inspired our devotion.”
“Mother did it all” Erica wrote, “She used her scholarly skills to support us growing up, to secure her future for our sake, and her work as a professor has continued to help many students whose companies she supported, many social justice campaigns she engaged in since the 1950’s. And at the same time she never stopped loving to perform, to choreograph, to direct. She held onto her passions and taught us by example to do the same.”
Dancer, choreographer and creative thinker Laurie Sefton was a student in Lew’s dance history class at UCLA’s Dance Department when she met Lew. It was during that time when Sefton performed in Lew’s Renaissance dance group Balliamo at UCLA and when it toured Germany and Italy.
“Lew was my mentor and friend,” Sefton said. “She was my first Board member when I started my company Clairobscur Dance immediately after graduating from the UCLA dance department. She supported my work from the beginning and over more than 30 years. Coming to rehearsals, providing input, and financially supporting my work. She became a close friend to myself, and my family. She shared so much of her work, expertise and her joy and interest in dance. She was a giving and honest person and a great lady.”
Sefton remembered Lew dancing with her company members at one of her their fundraisers in 2017. Lew was in her 80’s at the time. “She was great at parties and always able to connect with everyone regardless of their age and background,” She said.
Referring to Lew’s influence on the Los Angeles dance scene, Sefton stated. “Lew knew everyone in LA and loved to meet new people. Everyone respected and valued her input and opinion. She had such deep knowledge not just of dance and historical dance and movement, but of the birth of modern dance. She was a great writer, editor and critic. She was an extremely generous person. She was opinionated and never shy to let you know her thoughts, that being said, she was always up for a discussion about anything and everything. She gave of her knowledge, her time, her expertise, so freely. She shared her experiences and love and interest in her family and so many people she knew. She was an extremely sharp women with a wicked wit. Anytime I asked for assistance or advice she was ready with a recommendation or connection to someone or something. She always said yes. She went to every show she could and helped guide and provide opportunities for countless choreographers and artists. She was a true lover of art, people and quality and understood the value of these things. I think one of the best things about Lew was that she didn’t care about the politics of the dance scene. She was able to rise above it, which is no small feat in Los Angeles.”
“I miss her already. She was a treasure, a gift and a truly special person.” Sefton concluded.
Dancer, choreographer and educator Lynn Dally (Artistic Director of Lynn Dally & Dancers and Jazz Tap Ensemble) noted that Lew was on the Dance Faculty at UCLA when she was first hired by then chair, Professor Allegra Fuller Snyder, to teach modern dance.
“She was a vivacious colleague, teaching dance history in the Dance Dept as envisioned by founder Alma Hawkins,” Dally said. “There were four main sections then…modern dance (technique, composition, improvisation, repertory); ethnic dance which at that time included a stellar faculty teaching Israeli /Yemenite, Japanese court dance, Ghanaian, Mexican Folkloric, Bharata Natyam, Croatian, Javanese; dance history (western and world); and dance therapy (quite a new field at that time).”
Dally also recalled Lew reconstructing a Mary Wigman solo for another colleague (long term Los Angeles resident, dancer, choreographer, educator, director, and entrepreneur Bonnie Oda Homsey to perform in American Dance Repertory concerts. . “She was a friend and she paid close attention to all kinds of dance in LA.”
“Lew was a tireless advocate, philanthropist, and supporter of many SoCal dance companies. In 1995 I viewed Allegra Fuller Snyder’s film on Mary Wigman and decided to rebuild Wigman’s “Hexentanz” solo for an American Repertory Dance Company concert,” stated Homsey. “Allegra, herself an iconic SoCal dancer/choreographer and filmmaker who passed this summer, promptly introduced me to Emma Lew Thomas. Lew performed with Wigman’s company, and became an indispensable, passionate resource for ARDC’s recreation of “Witch Dance” performed at American Dance Festival, and later our reconstruction of a Harald Kreutzberg solo performed at The Getty. Her book collection on German dance makers was extraordinary and she loved bringing recognition to their contributions.”
A voice of Los Angeles dance for decades, and a wonderful performer of both modern and tap, Fred Strickler, became acquainted with Lew as a colleague around 1969 or 1970 when Strickler was teaching in the Department of Dance at UCLA. At the time he was not yet Assistant Professor at UC Riverside and a member of the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company.
“My impression was that she was very confident and enthusiastic about her work,” Strickler said. “I was more intrigued, however, by her experience of German Modern Dance, especially her insights about Mary Wigman. I also was interested in her connection to the work of Martha Graham.” Marnie Thomas Wood, Lew’s sister was a Graham dancer, and married to David Wood who had been a principal dancer in the Graham company during the ‘60’s. Together they later relocated to UC Berkeley to establish a dance curriculum there. “I had studied Graham technique with David in the summer of 1963 at the American Dance Festival, which was then at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. All of which is to say that when Lew and I met we established an instant connection.”
One of the founders of a dance company and studio in Los Angeles, Strickler added. ”She was an ardent supporter of Eyes Wide Open Dance Theatre from the summer of 1974, when our group gathered at UCLA to experiment together, before we actually became a company. She was a kind of champion. Her professional relationships were much stronger with Gary Bates, Kathy Copperman, Melanie Snyder and Karen Goodman, who were all closely associated with UCLA. Our relationship began through Eyes Wide Open and developed over several decades.”
Strickler created the website, Dance History Project of Southern California, which is still a great resource for educators. Lew was one of the first to serve on the Board of Advisors. “I very much appreciated her astute comments on our work, her occasional financial support, and especially her continual, articulate, support of who we were as a company of young, ambitious, and talented artists building dance theatre in LA. When we created Pacific Motion as a (brief, but influential) dance center in Venice, Lew was always among our most vocal supporters,” he added.
Strickler remembers Lew’s gregariousness, her perpetual enthusiasm for dance of all sorts, and her love of the field. “She was deeply fond of her daughter, Erica, and devoted much of her life demonstrating her support and admiration, giving her opportunities to dance and sing. And anything else Erica, who was genuinely a talented person, needed to develop as a young artist,” he said. “She was a great mom.”
Lew was well known for her directness and for speaking her mind. “I loved her strong opinions and her very strong observations of dance in our city and the artists who were active in it. She didn’t play favorites and she recognized peoples strengths,” Strickler said. “And she acknowledged people for the work they did. In all, she was magnanimous. I am very glad to have known and worked with her.”
It was following a performance of my company, Jeff Slayton & Dancers, that I first met Lew. It had to have been 1978 or ’79. She came backstage to tell me how much she had enjoyed my dancing and my work. On that night I had no idea who Lew Thomas was but she quickly filled me in. My company only lasted for six years, but Lew never missed a single performance. She was my biggest fan and over the years became a dear friend. Once I retired as a dancer and choreographer, it was Lew who encouraged me to continue writing about dance. I and so many dance artists around the world have lost a dear friend, but Emma Lewis Thomas left the profession an everlasting legacy of dance treasures.
Thanks go out to Lew’s daughter Erica Lewis Nashan and Lew’s son Jeffrey P. Nashan for providing family information and photographs, and to those artists who contributed to this remembrance of Lew. They were Jim Van Abbema (Bearnstow Journal), Victor (Ani) Coelho, Lynn Dally (Jazz Tap Ensemble), Bonnie Oda Homsey (Glorya Kaufman School of Dance), Angelia Leung (UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance), Debra Levine (Arts Meme), John Pennington (Pennington Dance), Laurie Sefton (Laurie Sefton Creates), Fred Strickler, Erwin and Lula Washington (Lula Washington Dance Theater), and Joan Woodbury (Ririe Woodbury Dance Company).
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More articles about the passing of Emma Lew Thomas.
Article by Joan Woodbury http://bearnstowjournal.org/wigman-woodbury-emma.htm
Article in Arts Meme by Debra Levine https://artsmeme.com/2021/09/19/in-loving-memory-of-emma-lewis-thomas-a-champion-of-los-angeles-dance/
Article for UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture https://arts.ucla.edu/single/in-memoriam-professor-emerita-emma-lewis-thomas-1932-2021/
Article at Dance Resource Center Los Angeles https://www.danceresourcecenter.org/trending-topics/emma-lewis-thomas-obituary/
Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Lew Thomas in rehearsal for Harald Kreutzberg works – Photo courtesy of the family.