In loving memory of Emma Lewis Thomas, a champion of Los Angeles dance 6


ed. note: Emma Lewis Thomas, a beloved dance professional, a university professor, and woman of humor and true grit, died last Thursday at her home in Montana. A few words of loving memory of Lew here. Please feel free to add comments to the post. Please drop me a line if you would like to add to the story’s main body. All are welcomed.

Emma Lewis Thomas, PhD was born and raised in Charleston, WV and died after a brief illness from lymphoma at her home in Livingston, MT.

Lew, as her friends and students called her, 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. She taught at Sweet Briar College, Augsburg College, Holy Cross College, and spent over 35 years teaching in the World Arts and Cultures/Dance Department at UCLA. Her fields of expertise included German Literature, Modern Dance, Italian Renaissance Dance, and her dance company, Balliamo toured Europe and the US. She was a frequent artist-in-residence at several international institutions, and was 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 most recently served as Immediate Past President for the Lula Washington Dance Theatre. Emma Lewis 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. She was surrounded by family at her passing away. It was Lew’s pride and joy that her sister, Marnie Thomas Wood and brother-in-law, David Wood, danced with the Martha Graham Dance Company.

From the choreographer Laurie Sefton, artistic director of Clairobscur Dance:

Lew was an amazing woman, friend, scholar and supporter of dancers and choreographers. A demanding a specific director, a kind and devoted friend. She made a great impact on my life from being the first person to sit on my Board of Directors when I started my company right out of college, too attending many rehearsals and performances of my work over the years. She always supported and pushed me. She was funny and smart, a brilliant writer and teacher. She provided guidance and encouragement to many students and professionals alike. I will be forever grateful for the gifts she gave me.

From Erwin Washington, Executive Director of Lula Washington Dance Theater:

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.

Lula, Tamica, and I all loved Emma Lew, as did our entire Board.  Emma Lew believed in us and supported us, and she lifted us up even when we were down. Right up until the end, she was working to get our dance company to Montana to perform near her ranch in Livingston. She kept telling us that the people there would love us.

Emma Lew had the honor of teaching dance at UCLA to Lula Washington and also to Tamica Washington-Miller, mother and daughter, decades apart. Emma Lew told me she immediately admired and supported Lula’s choreography. She joined our board and became its president. As a Board member, she opened her home to us for meetings, and she later arranged for our meetings to happen over dinner at the UCLA Faculty Club, where she was a member. She always urged us to build up the Board and to get it more involved in fundraising. She made a huge difference for us with her wisdom, her fierce love of dance, and her devotion to the work we are doing. 

One of her last acts for us was engineering the admission of her good friend, Jane Dawson, onto our Board. We are grateful to her for that and for so much more. She supported everything we set out to do. And, we could not have been as successful as we have been without her support.

Erwin Washington, Lula Washington, Emma Lewis Thomas, Glorya Kaufman, LWDT former board president Todd Reznik.

From artsmeme publisher, Debra Levine: Lew was one of those people I cannot remember how, or where, I met. She became an instant mentor to me in my research on Jack Cole, whom she knew personally when they were fellow instructors at UCLA. She delighted in telling the story of how much Cole disliked Mary Wigman’s work, and how much he enjoyed telling her so. She found that amusing. We had many, many discussions about Cole, and she coached me as a scholar, reading drafts critically. We had an epic meeting one time, for hours, at the Caffe Latte restaurant in mid-Wilshire. I also went to dance concerts with her. She attended my speaking events, on one occasion during a Q&A, she stood in the audience speaking in her bell-clear voice and fascinating no less than Mitzi Gaynor. Lew was a pistol! My best way of honoring her is by quoting her in my manuscript—and that is already done. She actually said one of the smartest things about Cole’s cinematographic skill that I encountered from any writer, or in any interview I conducted. She was of a generation to carry off being extremely worldly and knowledgeable while being down to earth. She told it like it was. I’m so honored she found me worthy of her time and friendship. Thank you, Lew.

6 thoughts on “In loving memory of Emma Lewis Thomas, a champion of Los Angeles dance

  1. davidglennbriggs Oct 10,2021 11:40 am

    how can i contact the family of professor emma lewis thomas who lived in livingston motana and died on 16 september 2021

  2. Joan J Woodbury Sep 24,2021 1:50 pm

    I met Emma Lou (Jr. we called her then) when I received a Fulbright to study dance in Berlin with Mary Wigman in 1955. My husband Charlie and I took a ship to Germany together when I was 8 and a half months pregnant. Go figure my idiocy! My new son was born September 25th and after two weeks, I received a knock on my door, and there stood Mary Wigman herself with Nora her assistant to welcome me to her studio. What a great surprise and honor. After one more week I enrolled in the Wigman Schule and began a year of glorious work with Mary and her faculty. 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. 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. During the summer festivals she danced as a soloist in Mannheim for the major works Mary created, among them Carmina Burana and Carmina Catuli. Dancing along side the very famous German soloist Dora Hoyer. Emma Lou, Charlie and I also did really crazy things together, like going through Checkpoint Charlie to get to Leipzig, Germany (in the Russian zone) where Mary had once had her studio. We purchased lots of great stuff, cameras and skirts, which she and I wore over our clothing and in our pockets, to outwit the Deutsche Polizzi when we went back through Checkpoint Charlie. When both of us came back to the US, our friendship never wavered, She came to Salt Lake several times and out friendship just became stronger and stronger over the years. She was very proud of all of her work at UCLA in the department, and with Lulu Washington’s Company and with her constant invitations to go to Germany to teach and lecture. And I know she and Marni were dear dear sister friends. I can really not believe that she is gone…and in reality she is not, because she is forever stamped in my memory. Auf Weidersehen dear friend.

  3. Lonny Joseph Gordon Sep 23,2021 4:53 pm

    My delight was to meet “Emma Lew” through the kindness of, and with, Rosalind De Mille with whom I had worked as invited guest artist for Smith College. Somehow she had heard of my first experience at the Martha Graham Dance School in NYC when I was 17.She also knew of my studies with Shirlee Dodge who also performed and studied with Mary Wigman.

    We only met that time with Rosalind and shared about 2 hours over a meal.

    She made an indelible impression with her knowledge of culture and dance, her exactness of insight, and a vibrant humor and positive good will. I was offered a graduate full fellowship to UCLA and U of Wisconsin and went to UW to study with Louise Kloepper also a student with Wigman and a dancer with Hanya Holm. All this changed my life from the Ranching roots of TEXAS.

    I am touched that a great era of dance educators is passing – it is leaving a historic disconnect behind. We have a tremendous responsibility to keep the standards impeccable as there are now so many dance degree programs across USA. Much of this growth sprang from UWMADISON & UCLA.

    Keep the torch passing! LEW DID THIS EVERY DAY WITH PASSION.

  4. debra levine Sep 21,2021 1:31 pm

    Thank you, Charmaine and Stella, for your comments. Debra

  5. Charmaine Jefferson Sep 21,2021 12:13 pm

    What a supportive and stimulating spirit Emma Lew Thomas brought to everyone who loved, watched or was willing to explore dance. It was an honor to be taught by her when I was at UCLA, but I most admired the way she put her heart and soul into supporting the Lula Washington Dance Theatre company and school. She helped to keep such an important artistic institution in our community…for her leadership and friendship we will always be grateful. Deep sympathies to her family and many friends. Thank you too Debra for providing this space to give Emma Lew Thomas the shout out that she so well deserves.

  6. Stella Matsuda Sep 21,2021 10:21 am

    I am shocked to learn of Emma Lew’s passing. She was always so vital. She added much with her presence in the So CA Dance History project. I will miss her and all her contributions.

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