Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Call it God, Jehovah, Allah, or the Universe. By any name, It works in mysterious ways. After graduating from the Mary Wigman School in Weimar Germany, dancer/choreographer Erika Thimey was supposed to stay in Chicago for only six months. She stayed for six years and in the process pioneered a new dance form.

“When you come to a new country, everything that’s different touches you more,” she says. Accustomed to seeing only Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish services in her native country, Thimey found the religious diversity of the U.S. inspiring. “On Sunday, I would walk by [the different houses of worship]. Back [in the 1930s], there was no air conditioning, so all of the churches kept their windows open and you could hear what was happening.”

“The music was familiar, but the people had so much energy. I thought it was fantastic, but then I thought, ‘Why don’t they make it more artistic? Instead of just walking, why don’t they move and add a step?’”

A friend introduced her to local ministers who could speak German. One of her first liturgical dance works was for the First Unitarian Church in South Chicago.

Thimey came to D.C. in 1939, at the invitation of a former teacher, Hanya Holm, and eventually opened her own studio and taught part-time at Howard University, where she worked for 11 years.

In 1979, she retired to Smithburg, Md., but as soon as people realized who she was, choreography requests poured in. “I’ve made dances for the Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, United Church of God, for the synagogue, and for the Catholic Church,” she says. “They did not ask me what I believed, but only what I was going to do.”

“I’m 87 now. That’s why I’m calming down,” says Thimey, whose arthritis makes it difficult for her to get around. “It’s nice to have a group that still keeps my choreography going in Washington. Some of my former dancers will perform the candle dance [this Sunday]. I think that is fantastic. They are not in their 20s anymore, and that will be a surprise for me to see them all again.”—Holly Bass

The Erika Thimey Dance and Theater Company stages “Dances of the Spirit” Sunday, Nov. 16, at 3 p.m. at St. Mark’s Church, 3rd and A Streets SE.