Deceased October 19, 2014
Bill Douthett is no longer with us. He died suddenly on Oct. 19, 2014, of heart failure. Bill underwent successful prostate cancer surgery in 2001, and received a pacemaker in 2007; otherwise, he had enjoyed good health. Most of us had not heard from or about Bill during the past five decades, Bill's choice, probably because he surmised that we would not understand his chosen way of life. It was truly different from that of virtually all of his classmates and from almost all post-war Amherst alumni. So that everyone may appreciate how and why he lived, I include more details than usual in this In Memory piece. The primary source is An Extraordinary Life An Extraordinary God, an autobiography that Paula Douthett, Bill's wife of more than 55 years, published and sent to me as I was preparing to write about Bill. Just after it arrived, I learned that Paula had herself died on Aug. 17, 2015. Cindy Nagel, Bill's elder daughter, helped with corrections to this piece, for which I thank her.
Bill was a serious and active classmate. He majored in psychology, earned an "A" in baseball and became manager of that team. He was a member of the band and the Glee Club. Our homes were near each other in northern Westchester County, N.Y.; we both joined Kappa Theta. Bill and I were active in and officers of the Outing Club. Most important, during the summer of 1949, we co-drove (and lived out of) a truck belonging to the New York State Commission for the Blind, which we parked at 18 - 20 resorts throughout New England and southeastern New York State, and set up for sale various items that visually impaired people had made in the Commission's workshops. You become very well acquainted with one another in such circumstances. Bill was the epitome of the self-examined life, but at this time, he did not often share his religious beliefs. He carefully considered all aspects of a situation and chose to do what he decided was correct. He did not seek others' opinions or complain about results. He could appear dour, but he possessed a sophisticated sense of humor that required only a little needling to emerge.
After College, Bill joined the navy; during his last year of service, he was stationed in France, where he received his discharge. He took courses at the University of Grenoble. In 1957 he entered Teachers College Columbia to study for a master's in teaching. Early in 1958 he met Paula Leland, a gifted modern dance student at Sarah Lawrence College, who worked with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Jose Limon, Merce Cunningham, etc.; their chemistry clicked, and in June of the same year, they were married. This union lasted more than 50 years, despite differences between them in how they worshipped: Bill approached Christianity through intellect, Paula increasingly as a charismatic. She came to believe that she and God conversed (as anyone could), that He intervened in everyday affairs and that through movement and dance, people can worship and communicate with Him. During the next several years, Bill taught in Spanish Harlem and Paula pursued a career in modern dance in NYC; she had not yet begun her dance ministry. In July of 1962, their first child, Cynthia Lynn, appeared; during the summer of 1963, they moved to Boulder, Colo.
Bill taught social studies at Baseline Junior High School, Boulder, Colo. They joined Trinity Lutheran Church in Boulder, and Bill became active in church affairs. Paula was devout but at that point did not see how her gift could be used in worship services. Their knowlegeable pastor, however, pointed out that "dance in worship" is often mentioned in the Bible and urged her to try to express herself via movement during church services. After some vacillation and what Paula believed to be direct instruction from the Lord, she performed her composition, "Prayer in Movement," in a service during the 1964 World Day of Prayer. It was well-received. Thus began the lifetime calling of both Paula and Bill, Paula as dancer and vessel of the Lord, Bill as manager, teache, and singer, rarely dancer.
Paula began to receive more and more invitations from churches to dance. Inspired by the Holy Spirit and building on her New York training, she started the New School of Creative Dance and Ballet (all ages), which flourished. Bill's salary as a teacher was not handsome, so in 1963, the Douthetts bought and expanded a dress shop, "The Treasure Chest", located near the University of Colorado campus, which supplied significant support for their ministry in later decades. In May of 1965, Nedra Nan, their second and last daughter, came into the world.
The New School morphed into the Sacred Dance Group of Boulder (SDG), members of which used the language of the body, i.e., dance, "to give reality to the presence of the Lord and His Word and His ways" (An Extraordinary Life An Extraordinary God, p. 126.). Invitations to demonstrate and minister arrived from different states. In the spring of 1972, the SDG of six women, Paula and Bill toured Arizona, California, Washington and Oregon, presenting Paula's composition, "Stained Glass Windows," and other dances, in churches and religious settings. During the summer of 1973, they traveled to Toronto to join a group of about 60 singers, instrumentalists and dancers preparing a series of "worship concerts," called "Shekinah" (Hebrew: "the glory of God"). Paula became leader of the dancers group, which presented the concerts the following summer at numerous sites in England. The entire ensemble lived on an estate in Dorset, the property of supporters. When their dancing schedule ended, SDG continued their ministry in the Netherlands and Switzerland, until they returned to Boulder. However, the Lord told Paula that she and the SDG must return to England and Europe for another two years.
Back home, SDG ministered in Boulder, Winnipeg, Washington (D.C.), New England and New Jersey. In April of 1975, the SDG group of 10 persons took the Queen Elizabeth II to England, where they were again welcomed on the Dorset estate. Soon they were performing in churches and church halls throughout the country. In 1976, directed by the Lord, they purchased an old farm called Longmead, just outside Milborne St. Andrew, Dorset, with sufficient bedrooms for the entire troupe plus guests, as well as a former ballroom for dance and worship services. From 1977 through 1994, Longmead remained the principal home of the Douthetts, the SDG and the apprentices who came to learn sacred dance. During these years, the group traveled to and performed in Scotland, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Poland, Israel and Switzerland again. In Italy in 1986, the SDG performed for Pope John Paul II, who subsequently gave his blessing to dance as a medium of worship in the Church.
Bill's role through these grueling decades was manager, intercessor, bus driver, roady, equipment carrier, set up man and portrayer of Jesus in some of the dances. In 1984, tensions led to separation and Bill returned to Boulder, alone. He took a night job. In 1987, Paula also returned. With the help of Christian counseling, they recognized some of the corrosive dynamics in their marriage. They realized that teaching was Bill's God-given gift and that SDG had rarely incorporated him and his talent into its core activities. After this, he found his voice as a Bible teacher and, in a lively and often amusing way, taught Holy Scripture in workshops and seminars and began to serve as the unofficial pastor of the group. He also employed his gifts in music and drama. Subsequently, Bill experienced a "spiritual awakening" and renewed his commitment to the Lord, dedicating his life to healing ministry for others. Bill and Paula reaffirmed their marriage.
In January of 1988, before returning to Longmead, Bill and Paula (sans SDG) embarked on a marriage-strengthening ministry to Australia (where they helped found the International Christian Dance Fellowship) and New Zealand, then Malaysia, Japan and Sweden. Later that year they returned to Longmead, which had functioned effectively during their absence. They initiated "marriage-healing seminars," which intertwined dance, testimony and teaching and produced a video, Harmonics (1993), that illustrates how movement can integrate body, soul and spirit.
The Douthett's older daughter, Cindy, married Scott Nagel in 1985 and settled in Minneapolis, where Evan (1991) and Paige (1994) were born. Nedra completed her education in England and in 1989 married Cliff Gilson, and settled there, with children Tyler (1992) and Georgia (1995). During the mid-'90s, both Bill and Paula began to evidence signs of burnout; the Lord told them it was time to minister part time. In 1995 they sold their home in Boulder and bought the "Little Blue House" in Minneapolis, to be closer to Cindy and Scott. They lived there half time in a new pattern: winter and summer in Minnesota, spring and fall in England. In 2010, they sold the Blue House and moved into a nearby apartment. In England in 1995, they had disbanded the Longmead ministry and gifted the property to another Christian healing ministry. They purchased a flat overlooking the sea in Lyme Regis, an hour from Longmead and Nedra and Cliff's home. They continued their ministry as a couple (dancing, seminars, tours) in both the U.S. and England, on a reduced scale, only ending it at their deaths.
The foundation of Paula and Bill's lives was their belief, not shared by many "modern" believers or secularists, in the reality of inner healing through the worship of Jesus Christ, using movement and dance as an avenue to reach Him. They became leaders—exemplars, really—in the international sacred dance community. Paula came to these convictions first, Bill more slowly. Paula felt that the Lord directly managed her (and everyone's) life and over the years learned to converse with Him almost casually, although respectfully; her book is full of explicit examples of this. Bill also experienced this. I have tried to present their lives in terms that they would find appropriate.
Uncounted numbers of Christians around the world experienced comfort and inspiration during the dance ministries of Bill and Paula. Both of them dedicated their lives to exemplifying this form of worship. That is why we secularists did not hear from them, until the very end.
John D. Herzog '52