Richard S. Thomas, prominent ballet teacher; at 87

NEW YORK — Richard S. Thomas, a prominent ballet teacher and a former soloist with the New York City Ballet, died July 27 in a hospital near his home in Paintsville, Ky. He was 87.

The cause was a stroke during treatment for a pulmonary embolism at the hospital in Prestonsburg, Ky., said his son, actor Richard Thomas.

Mr. Thomas achieved wide influence teaching at the New York School of Ballet, which he and his wife, ballerina Barbara Fallis, founded in 1958 in Manhattan. Both he and Fallis, who died in 1980, had danced with the Ballet Theater in New York as well as with Alicia Alonso in Cuba.


Soon after opening their school, they moved it to the former studios of the City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet, where George Balanchine had choreographed some of his major works.

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Mr. Thomas and Fallis brought fresh energy to the studios, at Broadway and 89th Street, where dance history was virtually embedded in their comfortably worn floors and walls and ratty dressing rooms. The school was a family affair. Before his success as John-Boy in the television series “The Waltons,” their son sometimes registered students for class.

Famous dancers like Cynthia Gregory studied there. And many of the school’s other students achieved renown, among them Twyla Tharp and Sean Lavery.

Mr. Thomas was in particular a lasting mentor to choreographer Eliot Feld and choreographer and director Daniel Levans.

Mr. Thomas and Fallis imbued their teaching with old-school classicism, a quality that shone in the performances of their school-affiliated US Terpsichore troupe.


Their teaching styles were complementary. Where Fallis was serene and quietly authoritative, Mr. Thomas was exuberant and mercurial with a teasing wit.

He was also plain-spoken. His advice to a young dancer auditioning for Feld’s first company in 1969 was just “keep your nose over your left foot.”

Both Mr. Thomas and Fallis encouraged innovation in choreography and dancing, but for Mr. Thomas, the ideal was the Ballet Theater of the 1940s, whose dancers “could create drama on stage” but “also get in line,” as he told The New York Times in 1983.

Mr. Thomas valued expansive, full-out dancing and urged students to let the music guide them.

“You cheat, you cheat!” he roared amiably in a class in 1991 at a child slacking off at Feld’s New Ballet School, which was created to bring classical ballet training to minority children in New York City’s public schools. “Plié and see what happens.”


Richard Scott Thomas was born in Paintsville and grew up in Muddy Branch, Ky.

His father was a coal miner and his mother a nurse.

As a boy, Richard wanted to join the circus and be a trapeze artist, but his father wanted him to be an engineer. So he enrolled at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, but lasted only a semester.

He traced his interest in ballet to a performance of the Ballet Russe he attended as a young man in Seattle, where he was visiting relatives.

He later moved to California to study ballet with Bronislava Nijinska, a Russian ballet dancer and choreographer who had settled in Los Angeles to teach. He also trained with Vincenzo Celli, a noted ballet teacher in New York City. His early dancing career included stints with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Ballet Theater, where he met Fallis.

They married in 1950 while performing with Alonso in Cuba. Their son, Richard, was born in 1951 and their daughter, Bronwyn, who is also a dancer, in 1960.

They are his only immediate survivors.

Mr. Thomas danced with Fallis at City Ballet from 1953 to 1958, performing several roles in Balanchine’s “Nutcracker,” as well as in the premieres of Todd Bolender’s “Souvenirs” (1955), Balanchine’s “Jeux d’Enfants” (1955), and “Concert” (1956), by Jerome Robbins.

Mr. Thomas, whose father had shared with him a love of foxhounds, had a second career breeding dogs and horses at his farm in Kentucky. His wife and daughter helped to show Great Danes and later Brussels griffons, the latter breed favored by their friend Robbins.

Showing dogs, Mr. Thomas once said, was at least as unnerving as performing dance.