Noretta Dunworth, longtime dance instructor, still kickin’ after 70 years

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Noretta Dunworth has taught Dearborn-area youths to dance for 70 years, starting in her parents’ basement in 1940 when she was 12 years old. She bought her dance studio at 2323 Monroe in 1952 and still teaches students every week.

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN – Most people would want to retire after 70 years – but most people aren’t Noretta Dunworth, who many say is a local dance teaching legend.

The anniversary was noted recently by city officials at a recital for the Noretta Dunworth School of Dance held at the Michael A. Guido Theatre in the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center. City Councilwoman Nancy Hubbard, who once took dance lessons from Dunworth, was on hand May 30 to formally commended her on behalf of Mayor John O’Reilly Jr. and the rest of the council for her 70 years of teaching dance in the city. From ballet floor work to smiling for the house, Dunworth has taught thousands of area youths to dance. Former students say she also taught them poise, self-confidence and how to pursue short-term goals and long-term dreams.

Some have gone on to professional careers as performers. Others have become professionals in areas like law, medicine, business and science. And many have said that much of what they learned about life was at the studio.

Born April 23, 1928, it wasn’t long before Dunworth was singing on the radio to help support her family during the Great Depression. At just 2 1/2 years old, she said, her grandfather was impressed enough with her singing ability to take for an audition for a Sunday radio show on WJBK-AM.

“They auditioned me right away, and took me almost every Sunday of my life until I was about 12 or 15 years old,” Dunworth said, “so I never had a social life. I would practice all week.”

Her mother would buy sheet music, sit her down and teach her songs at the piano, and Dunworth would earn about a dollar for each Sunday she sang on the radio. That money would go to buy food for her family or pay for the private Saturday dance lessons her mother decided to sign her up for at the Fox Theatre.

“She figured if I was on the radio, I might as well learn to dance, too,” Dunworth said.

Her first dance lessons were ballet lessons from instructor Emma Hartell of England, who Dunworth said was the only person around at the time who taught it. She also took tap lessons from Homer Babb, for whom she had high praise. Babb’s wife would play the piano while students tapped.

Dunworth’s mother paid $1 or $1.50 for her private lessons and was determined to get her money’s worth, Dunworth said.

“All the way home my mother would have me remember the step sitting down (in the street car), because if I forgot the step, that was a dollar and a half shot,” Dunworth said.

She almost didn’t become a dancer or a teacher – she wanted to quit when she was 12.

“I told my mother I’ve had it,” Dunworth said. “I was tired. I wanted to be a regular person. I wanted to be normal. I didn’t even know what free time was.”

So she quit dancing at age 12. But then her family’s insurance man talked her into teaching his two daughters for 50 cents a lesson – and unwittingly launched her career. Shortly afterward, Dunworth was teaching two boys and soon had 150 students.

Her classes grew and filled the basement of her parents’ small house near Fordson High School, a space not much bigger than the waiting room of her studio is now. Her father made her a barre, and she had a wooden surface on the floor.

But when some of the boys started to bump their heads on the ceiling, Dunworth knew it was time to find a bigger place, although it wasn’t until 1952 at age 24 that she opened her studio at 2323 Monroe.

“My dad took me out here to look at the building, and I said, ‘I’m not moving way out in the country,’ because east Dearborn was the city then,” she said.

They bought the building anyway — before she even bought a house — but Dunworth worried that her family would lose the building if her students didn’t follow her to the new location. Though it was considered far away at the time, she said, and many couldn’t afford the cost of gasoline, they did follow her.

“And from then on, that is what it was,” Dunworth said. “It happened.”

Helping it happen was the councilwoman’s father, Mayor Orville Hubbard, who held rallies at every school in Dearborn before elections and asked Dunworth to dance for him. That gave her the boost that really got her career started.

Dunworth is proud that her instruction has helped many young people in the city get started, whether in dance or another career. That may have something to do with her approach to dance instruction.

“I want the kids to work,” Dunworth said. “You can’t get anything handed on a silver platter. You have to work for anything. You have to work for it hard.

“You can’t just wish it’s going to be there – it isn’t.”

She believes the end result is worth the effort, however.

“It gives them personality and confidence is the main thing, and posture,” she said. “And discipline. I feel sorry for the kids who don’t have dance. They aren’t going to learn … to perform and feel good about themselves.”

Many have absorbed those lessons, however, and some have moved on to the big time. One of the first two boys she taught became a choreographer in New York who ended up working with one of her female former students in “Les Miserables.”

Another is Dunworth’s granddaughter, Casey Quinn Padesky, who currently is touring and performing with a professional company in the musical “Wicked.”

Most of all, however, Dunworth said she appreciates when her students grow up to become good people.

“I don’t care whether they’re a dancer,” she said. “I’m proud that they did something with their life. The ones that are professionals I’m very proud of. That’s what you worked for: to make them a dancer, or a teacher. I don’t care. As long as they have dance in their heart, that’s all that matters.”

Also apparently inheriting a heart full of dance is Dunworth’s daughter, Loni Lane Padesky, born the year after the current building was bought. She was raised there and now runs the studio. Dunworth, who has a favorite photo of herself holding up Loni out in front, continues to teach ballet there at a time when others might be thinking of hanging up their slippers.

The secret to her longevity, however, is simple: “Enjoy life, and enjoy your family,” Dunworth said. “And enjoy your work. If you don’t, then your life is not very good. It’s not work when you love it.”

At this point in her career, she’s hoping her granddaughter may continue the family tradition when or if Loni’s ready to step aside.

“When Casey gets tired of professional work, maybe she’ll come back and teach,” Dunworth said.