Making the World a Better Place: Hilary Thomas

by Elizabeth Gracen:


I've known the lovely and incredibly talented Hilary Thomas for about ten years now. She is a constant source of inspiration for me, and one of my muses. She's been the focus of many of my films, and she inspires so many other people who are lucky enough to be in her orbit. It is a no-brainer to include her in our Making the World a Better Place series, because she is one of the only people I know who has figured out how to incorporate her passion for dance into a philanthropic endeavor for worthy causes and other non-profit organizations and for creating a home for an ever-growing roster of artists across all mediums.


Hilary is the artistic director and choreographer for the Lineage Dance Company, and owner of the Lineage Performing Arts Center in Pasadena, CA. Lineage is a non-profit with a mission to be a home for connecting through the arts of dance, music, theater, and other performing arts.


In 2009, the Lineage founded the Dance For Joy program: a series of free acting, dance, and voice classes for people with neurological challenges like Parkinson's, MS, TBI, Alzheimer's and dementia, and stroke. I was proud to make a documentary about this outstanding program a couple of years ago that you can screen below.


I'll let Hilary speak for herself and the work she is doing through Lineage.

Please meet Hilary Thomas!


EG: Can you tell me about the Lineage Dance Company and how it came to be?


HT: Well back in '99, I was fresh out of college and kind of trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I had stopped dancing because I figured if I didn't have a career as a dancer in a professional company, than that was all there was to it—I had to get a real job. But . . . I missed dancing. Around that time, I was asked to donate to a local non-profit called Young & Healthy. I thought what they were doing was really worthwhile, but I didn't have any money to give them. And then I thought, well, why don't I put on a show for them? That would be a way to give back. It felt like there was more of a purpose to dancing than just putting on a show. So, I gathered together all of these talented friends, and we did our very first—and what I thought would be maybe the only—benefit concert for a nonprofit. Shortly after that, another organization approached me and asked me to do the same thing. So we did it. And then it just kind of started to snowball from there.


As a group of young dancers, we decided that we wanted to continue to do this, and we decided that maybe we would tour the country doing it. So we reached out to nonprofits across the country and created shows that were kind of inspired by the work the nonprofits were doing. We slept on the floors of our relatives and friends. We'd drive all the way across the country doing a benefit concert, and we had the time of our lives. I think our first tour was in 2002.

EG: And how big was the company at that time?


HT: At that point we had, for our first tour, five dancers. I think it was about four weeks. And then the next summer we did an eight-week tour, which was crazy. I mean, it was just amazing to be able to have that time.


EG: Were you paid for the work you were doing?


HT: We were paying our own way. We were covering all the expenses. Everything was paid for, but nobody was getting paid to dance at that point for the tour shows. But, shortly after that, we became more established as a company and started getting paid.

Around 2004, we performed a piece called Healing Blue. Initially, it started out as just one dance about a surf champion named Rell Sun. I had seen an incredible documentary about her called Heart of the Sea. That film was the start of what I realized would be my particular affliction—which is that when I see or hear an inspiring story, I find myself compelled to create a dance about it.

The piece is about Rell Sun's life as a surfer and her breast cancer diagnosis. She ultimately died of breast cancer, but she was one of the first real champions of the breast cancer movement back in the late seventies. Nobody was talking about it back then. She was young when she was diagnosed, around thirty-two, I think. She lived with it for 14 years and was just the toughest, most incredible woman. So, we did this dance about her and took it on the road with a show that was entirely about women called "Continuum of Women," and we performed it for various women's health organizations.


EG: You told me that the women who saw this performance were blown away by it—that they saw something of their own lives in the show.


HT: I think it was the first time I had ever heard people trying to articulate what it was like to see their own experiences conveyed through dance and that it was this really powerful way to process the information and emotions. I don't think I totally realized at that point what a powerful tool I had at my fingertips.


EG: You had no idea it would make such an impact on other people?


HT: I was just performing because I loved it. I was creating dances that moved me, but I didn't realize how much they could become a healing tool for others—a processing tool to address or facilitate difficult conversations. It was an eye-opening experience for me.

And then . . . all of these women would tell me about their experiences with breast cancer, and I would be inspired and ask them if I could tell their stories through dance. I made these contacts all over the country. We're still performing these dances today about many of the women that we met along the way in the process. I would interview them, email or call them or whatever, and then create dances for them. And that is just Healing Blue!


EG: How many dances have you created for that piece?


HT: Probably twenty-five or so. There's some that we always do every year and some that are new. We continue to create new ones every year.

EG: So, the topic of breast cancer was your first foray into helping other organizations. What other organizations have you done this kind of art for?


HT: We've worked with probably a hundred different organizations in the country. In the early days, not all of our shows were so specifically tailored to the nonprofit that we were working with. They were more concert dance shows, and we'd bring in the pieces that pertained to that organization, but now we have many full length productions that are very specific. These pieces are theater and dance and live music—not just dance. I've always been into musical theater. What we do is not necessarily musical theater, but technically there's acting and singing and music and dancing happening at the same time. More of a story.


EG: What are your goals for the company at this point?


HT: Well, I mean, since we opened our space in 2010, Lineage is so much bigger than me now. I don't even know what's going on in the space from day to day. There's such a community, and there's so much going on. Our mission statement states that we are a home for connecting through the arts. People are truly drawn to the space—artists, community members, and wonderfully random groups of people that call that space their home. There are professionals and there are people who are just finding art for the first time. I love that about the Lineage Performing Arts Center.


EG: Tell me about the first production I ever saw Lineage perform: The Brain in Motion.


HT: Aside from dancing, I'm also a seventh-grade science teacher by day. The Brain in Motion was inspired by my teaching about the human brain to my classes. I've always visualized the inner workings of the brain as a dance, so I decided to make a full length show about it. The show is educational—it teaches a little bit about how the brain works and has actors and dances and stories about the brain and what can go wrong with it.


In the process of doing the show, one of my dancers, Michelle Kolb, saw a documentary film on PBS about the Mark Morris Dance Group in New York and their Dancing Through Parkinson's classes. Michelle was really enthusiastic about creating the same type of program out here on the west coast—and since I generally say "yes" to everything that comes my way—we started our Dance For Joy classes, which bring movement and dance to people with Parkinson's and other neurological diseases.


EG: These classes are fantastic. "Joy" is the perfect description of what happens when you're there.


HT: What I have kind of known all along is that dance brings joy and pleasure and a healing that is kind of indescribable—even for people who have never danced before. The people who participate in the classes get the same level of satisfaction, if not more, than I do when I dance. I suppose they don't have that little voice in their heads that was in ballet class for 20 years telling them that they're not good enough, or perfect enough—all of that stuff that goes with being a professional dancer. They just experience the pure joy and satisfaction that comes with movement. So, now, that particular program as grown and evolved into theatre and music and has shaped so much of who we've become at Lineage. That is something I'm so proud of.


EG: I know that these classes are free for anyone who wants to participate. Are they funded by grants?


HT: The classes are provided through funds raised by Moving Day Los Angeles, a walk for Parkinson's, in conjunction with the Tournament of Roses Foundation, the Pasadena Showcase House for the Arts, and the Pasadena Arts League.


EG: So, Lineage is "a home connecting to the arts." Do you see that as its ultimate purpose, or do you see it morphing into anything else?


HT: It is a wonderfully broad statement, but it kind of gets to exactly the heart of what we do. We do still focus on the nonprofit support area, but now we partner with organizations and nonprofits and have them share information about themselves. They set up tables at our performances so that they can share information about the work they're doing. We try and work that way and then offer tickets to people. It is kind of what we can do at this point because it's hard for us to raise money for others when we're trying to pay rent ourselves.


EG: You also offer outreach programs to schools, right?


HT: Through grant funding, some of our dancers work with our partner schools in the Pasadena Unified School District. Some of them go into middle school, early arts magnet schools. We also have teachers who go into PE classes. We just got a grant to do professional development for the PE teachers in the district to bring dance into their curriculum.


EG: Did you ever think that you guys would be doing something like that?


HT: I'd like to take credit for having this grand vision and following it. But, from the start, I was really just doing what I wanted to do, and I kept following what I wanted to do. And it has evolved into this magnificent place with so many amazing artists and people that are just swirling around, and I am so happy.


EG: Why do you think all of the work you are doing is important?


HT: So many people call Lineage their home. It's a place where you feel totally comfortable and everybody knows you, you know everybody, but it's also full of artists. We have incredibly talented people, and we have high-caliber art. Yet, there's this feeling of ownership by the community—even by people who are not necessarily professional artists. It's become a space where people can share stories, sometimes difficult stories. Stories about gender and identity or homelessness or being a refugee. Stories about suicide or death—these things that oftentimes are challenging topics. And I feel really proud that we are not afraid to present these and also present them in an artistic way that people can maybe digest the topics a bit easier, and then we give them a forum to talk about it as well.

EG: You and I have discussed the concept of transmuting pain and the shadow and all this darkness into art, making it into something quite beautiful.


HT: Yeah, absolutely. That's something that I have been doing since I was very little. I always remember kind of dancing through emotional pain or whatever was going on. I just channel it all into my dancing. Now, I do that more than ever, but I feel like it's kind of expanded. I don't just channel it through my art, but now I channel it through the people that are involved with Lineage. I just kind of spread the love and keep working with people on ideas that they have. Or, if you're ever feeling down, just go take a Dance for Joy class—you'll be feeling like 1 million bucks in an hour!


EG: Do you see yourself doing this forever, working with Lineage?


HT: It's so much a part of my identity. I think it would be impossible to extract myself from it.


EG: Do you think you will be teaching science class forever?


HT: I don't know. I love being able to do something totally different. If I were just at Lineage all the time, I might drive myself crazy. I get very obsessive about everything going on there, and there's so much going on all the time. I need something that's totally separate that is fun for me. I love my students, and I love seeing them every day. I love that I get to use a different part of my life and brain. However, my students tell me that I'm dancing my way through every lesson. I'm sort of known for it. I've had parents say, "Oh, you're the one who literally dances."


EG: You dance in science class?


HT: Not officially, but I don't think I realize that I twirl all the time. I suppose that it's become more and more how I exist. It's how I move in the world, because it just feels so good to move rather than walk. I mean . . . why would you walk someplace if you could dance there?