LIMA — The name Esther Damaris Toy holds meaning for those who remember her.
She was the strictest of dance teachers who also had a heart for children and social causes. She taught locally for decades, impacting many young people’s lives. But she was also a character who must have been viewed as eccentric, as she did not take her husband’s name, collected dolls and miniatures and often sought further education.
Toy was born in 1902, and before she was school age she was giving a recitation on Christmas Eve at her family’s home church of Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, according to a newspaper story published Dec. 22, 1906. In 1915, she gave another recitation at Epworth Methodist Episcopal Church, one of several young people receiving honors for their skills.
She graduated from Central High School and Ohio Northern University and started teaching dancing and dramatic work to children.
“Miss Esther Toy and her 20 little pupils in elocution entertained the patients at the tuberculosis hospital on Thursday afternoon,” a Dec. 24, 1920, story reported. “The program consisted of pantomimes, dancing, songs and a Christmas candle drill.”
She busied herself with giving little recitals around town, both with Toy sharing of her own skills and showing off her pupils. She and her students often performed for social groups, churches and hospitals.
“The program was a very unique and interesting one, Miss Toy demonstrating splendid ability in her interpretation of the various character roles. Her voice is very pleasing and her enunciation distinct,” a story reported June 8, 1921.
In 1923, she traveled to Maryland College in Baltimore for a six-month course in expression and dancing. When she returned, she set up a studio space at her home at 949 Richie Ave. Later, she lived and taught at 124 1/2 W. High St. Jeanette Benjamin took over lessons at that address in 1927, as Toy was getting married.
Her wedding announcement from that year explains she married David J. Wolf, a fellow ONU graduate. They were married in the morning and returned to her parents’ home for a wedding breakfast with close friends. At that breakfast, four of her students gave a little program.
“The bride is well known as a teacher of dancing and dramatic work among the children and has met with unusual success in this line because of her original methods,” the announcement stated.
Toy returned to teaching in 1931, offering classes in expression, dancing and drama. Dramatic classes, 10 lessons of one hour each, were $5. Dancing classes, eight lessons of one hour each, were the same price. She also taught physical education for a time at St. Rose School.
In 1933, her studio at 123 1/2 W. North St. held an open house with music by an orchestra and acts by students every hour. The open house from 12:45 to 10 p.m. that day.
Classes continued as she made her name into a brand in Lima. She also tried her best to promote the arts in town, bringing the Ted Shawn Male Dancers to South High School for a concert March 18, 1937. This troupe consisted of men that had been recruited away from college athletics toward dancing.
“Your average American male is comically gun-shy of anything that smacks of the arts,” Toy said in a Jan. 31, 1937, story. “He blames it on his pioneering progenitors, but the pioneers are not timorous. … Shawn and his dancers will prove to the most demanding ‘red-blooded’ man in Lima that the terpsichorean art as presented by them is not only art but real work that demands the greatest stamina.”
The show was not reviewed, however, so it’s unknown how many Limaites attended.
Her annual concerts because a standard entertainment in town. She rehearsed her students to perform fine art in fine costumes.
“The presentation was complete in every detail from finery and ingenious costumes to snappy dances and catchy tunes,” reported a story June 17, 1937, about Toy’s “Rhythm in Review.” She would give more than 50 of these shows in her Lima career.
During the war era, she branched out to offer ballroom dancing lessons for adults and kindergarten classes before it was in the schools. She also found time to be heavily involved in the Soroptimist Club and teach classes on home defense for the American Women’s Volunteer Service. Her pupils also gave a recital with the proceeds going to the new Robin Rogers School.
By this time, her studio and home was at 1021 W. Market St. and the number of students swelled to about 100. She proudly displayed membership in Dancing Masters of America Inc., Chicago National Association of Dancing Masters and Dance Educators of America Inc.
Toy helped with the dance sequences in “Brigadoon” at Central High School in 1955.
“The achievement which appears most unbelievable is that this musical comedy — filled as it is with numerous ballet and dance sequences — is being so ably accomplished by students aged 15 to 18. Boys and girls alike have been under the guiding hand of Esther Toy for more than eight weeks to reach the point of perfection required,” an April 11, 1955, story reported.
Toy choreographed “Boccaccio,” a Lima Symphony Orchestra production of the operetta featuring a former ballet student.
In 1957, she organized a film program at the Allen County Museum. Her studio dance students were highly suggested to attend — she noted in a newsletter it was “an educational must” — but the program was open to the public. She screened two films done by the New York City Ballet and a film by Ballet Russe.
By this time, Toy had more than 300 students. Under her leadership, some of her students continued on to careers. Maidie Ruth Gamble — who would later go by Maidie Norman — became a movie actress. The African-American woman later taught theater studies at UCLA, and a reception was held for her at Bradfield Center in 1953.
Former student Barbara Lynn Baxter opened studios in Elida in 1959. Former students Jill Courtney and Linda Westrich majored in dance at Butler University and went on to perform with the Jordan Ballet Company in Indianapolis. Courtney continued on to dance with the Ballet Russe and Brooklyn Ballet Company in New York, the Baltimore Civic Ballet and Les Grandes Ballet Canadiens in Montreal. The Canadian troupe took “Divertissement Glazunov” and “Carmina Burana” on the road. Courtney later became an assistant professor at York University in Toronto.
Former student Jan McNamara went on to study with the Joffrey Ballet in New York.
“As we’ve come to know over the last half century, ballet students of Esther Damaris Toy have gone places and done things,” a story reported Jan. 28, 1973.
Toy died at age 90 in 1992.