Debby Thomas

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I met Debby Thomas last summer through my voice instructor, Brian Schultz. During a lesson, he mentioned a concert in which he was accompanying a vocalist who was in her 90s. I was intrigued and asked if he could connect us. To my delight, Debby consented to have lunch with me at Capitol Lakes, where she lives.  

Born in 1928 in Winona, Minnesota to loving, open-minded, sophisticated parents, Debby is the youngest of four children. Her father managed a family business, H. Choate & Co., and both parents were crazy about theater, performing in local productions and around the state. Debby attended high school at Chatham Hall in Virginia and Sarah Lawrence for undergrad. It was at Sarah Lawrence that she discovered dance.

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“I thought I’d major in Economics because I thought that’s what made the world go ‘round,” she said.  “I took a dance class to avoid taking gym and that was it for me.”

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She attended Mills College for graduate school, going on to have a full career in dance. She studied with Martha Graham, taught dance at UCLA, performed musical comedy, danced in the Josephine Baker Show in Paris, and taught “here and there.” In the mid-1950s she became a dance therapist, teaching at UW-Madison and eventually founding the Hancock Center for Dance/Movement Therapy in the early 1980s. 

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“Discovering dance therapy was a movement forward,” she said. “What we were doing in dance therapy had the same meaningful quality as anything that Graham had choreographed. Dance therapy was moving into the same realm that a great choreographer had moved into.  It was awesome stuff.”

It takes about 3 minutes of conversation to understand that Debby is not only incredibly intelligent, but has devoted her life to learning, art and using those skills to be of service. At the age of 69 she took a PhD in clinical psychology and then spent nearly a decade studying Jungian analysis.

Debby is a thoughtful, articulate person whose level of engagement in life is deeply inspiring. I hope you enjoy her interview as much as I did.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?  I don’t think there is such a thing. I like imperfect happiness fine.

What is your greatest fear?  I’m just too old to have great fears anymore.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?  I can tell you what it used to be: a wimpish, wanting-to-please-other-people-smile, not having enough guts and belief in myself. 

I was in a dance therapy conference once where the instructor asked us to select our most disliked quality and then to move that way. I started trying to move in a way that expressed this disgusting quality of mine and this big-breasted, grey-haired woman was storming around the room, and we met.  She was being her worst thing and I was being my worst thing. Her worst thing was to dominate and my worst thing was to be the opposite. So we did this duet together and everyone roared with laughter. We had fun; it was wonderful.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?  My father was vulnerable to thinking that if an expert told him something and particularly if the expert backed him up on something he wanted to do, the expertise made it valid. I didn’t think he was a bad person; I thought that was a horrible trait. It was destructive.

Which living person do you most admire?  Joan Trodero, who wrote a wonderful book collecting Carl Jung’s writings on active imagination. Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Cher.

So many of the people I admire have passed away.  The kind of person that has meant the most to me has again and again been a woman teacher. The first one taught Latin, the second one taught dance, and the third one taught dance therapy.  

What is your greatest extravagance?  I like to spend money on CDs.

What is your current state of mind?  Happily discombobulated.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?  I’m not around people who are in search of virtue very much.

On what occasion do you lie?  My general experience with lying is that it doesn’t work.

What do you most dislike about your looks?  That they’ve passed away.

Which living person do you most despise?  Trump.  I know he can be pitied, but it’s just such an effort to get to a place where you can be objective.

What is the quality you most like in a man?  I love charm.

What is the quality you most like in a woman?  Openness and humor.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?  I was scolded because I called everything “handsome.” That was a long time ago. Now I don’t have a very patterned life so it’s hard to pick up something.

What or who is the greatest love of your life?  Dance.

When and where were you happiest?  Probably in the womb.  From my earliest memory, there were certain pieces of music that I thought were the most wonderful, adorable, desirable melodies and I suspect they were songs my parents sang or were on a record they played before I was born.

Which talent would you most like to have?  Kindness. 

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?  I have been trying for most of my life to have a simple, honest belief in myself. It comes and goes.  When I found I could sing without being self-critical, that was a big day for me.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? Struggling to become a decent parent when it seemed impossible.

If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?  A strand of silk.  Any color would be fine, but maybe red.

Where would you most like to live?  Aside from where I am right now – this is such a fortunate place to be, it’s incredible — anywhere I could be with people I loved and who loved me.

What is your most treasured possession?  My hearing.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? That’s a really hard designation. Thinking about an experience ahead of time, I would have said I could never survive that. And then of course “that” happened and I survived it. The worst thing would be to fail someone you loved.

What is your favorite occupation?  Thinking.

What is your most marked characteristic?  I like it when I feel like I’ve gotten perspective on something, when I feel like I “catch on.” When I feel I’m not trying to control things for my own pleasure, when I can feel OK being on the planet. Then I love to think I’m on the planet with another person and we’re both there, we’re both aware that we’re there.  I like that.

What do you most value in your friends?  I like all kinds of friendliness and friendships. There’s a kind of friendship that you can only have with someone that started when you were really little. You can just look at one another and understand each other.

Who are your favorite writers?  Camus. I admire T. S. Eliot enormously.  Rumi, but I haven’t read enough of him.

Who is your hero of fiction?  I love Pierre in War and Peace. He was so cute.

Which historical figure do you most identify with? Jane Austen.

Who are your heroes in real life?  My sister who passed away last year.

What is it that you most dislike?  Meanness and giving up.

What is your greatest regret? At one point in my life a wonderful young man had fallen in love with me and if I had fallen in love with him I think I would have been very happy. But you didn’t fall in love with him?  I loved him. But I didn’t fall in love with him.

How would you like to die?  I would like to be able to say goodbye to those in my family who are still around. I would be very happy not to suffer a lot when I die.  I’ve been with two beloved people when they died and it was tough on them.

What is your motto?  Be ready to be kind.

portraitsBobbie Harte