Faculty & Staff Profiles

Faculty Spotlight: Middle School movement teacher Mary Norkus
Posted 05/26/2016 05:39PM

Dancing on the stage of Kenan Auditorium was Mary Norkus’ introduction to Durham Academy. It was in the early 1980s and DA provided performance space for Carolina Dancers, a community group of young adults who had a dance background.  

“I remember thinking what a great school, the theater and the whole concept of a school letting an outside community group come in and perform.” More than 30 years later and after 20 years as DA's Middle School movement teacher, Norkus still feels that way about the school.

Norkus has been teaching at the Middle School since 1995, when her friend and mentor Jennifer Potts, who taught at both the Middle and Upper School for many years, left Middle School became the full-time dance teacher at the Upper School.  

“When I came to interview and observe, Jennifer was using the math room where Robert Wilson is now. It was a long, carpeted room and she had seventh- and eighth-grade boys rolling and tumbling. Obviously it wasn’t enough room, but she was working miracles!”

Soon Norkus was the one working miracles with movement at the Middle School, walking around the campus with her boom box and teaching wherever there was a free room. She has a dedicated teaching space with a dance-friendly floor now — albeit a space that used to be the band room — and in 2007 she was honored with DA’s Excellence in Teaching Award.

Norkus grew up in Raleigh, the third of six children born to a dad who had been a professional ballroom dancer and a mom who had an art background. There were five girls and one boy in the Grady family and “we all danced.” Their ballet teacher was a woman who had gone to Russia to study technique. She was a “stern but good teacher” who put all of the sisters on point but Norkus, declaring she wasn’t strong enough.

“I was too skinny and my ankles were just too weak. I was 5’4” and 72 pounds. I was so little. … When she didn’t put me on point, I said that’s it, I’m not going to take dancing.”

She didn’t dance for about a year, and it nearly killed her.

“I would go see all of my sisters dance, and my mother made sure we went to see all of the Friends of the College series at State, and my heart would just be breaking. I would be sitting in that seat thinking I feel the dance, I feel the music. I’m a dancer but I’m not dancing. It was a real conflict.”

That conflict was resolved when Norkus went to St. Mary’s for high school.

“That was the first time I had taken modern dance, the first time I had seen modern dance. It had been ballet, ballet, ballet.”

She headed to UNC-Greensboro for college, majoring in journalism because she loved to write and continuing to take dance as her P.E. credits. One of her teachers had danced with Martha Graham’s company, and another had been in Paul Taylor’s company.

“They were really good teachers with a fabulous modern [dance] background. The UNC-G undergrad program was amazing. I was just so lucky. I had wonderful teachers and they would say, what are you doing, you need to major in dance, you need to change your major. They convinced me but my father said ‘Don’t let go of journalism.’ So I double-majored, and I just adored it.”

The year Norkus graduated, 1979, was the first summer the American Dance Festival was in Durham, and she was awarded a scholarship to study there.

“It was life-changing. There were companies from all over the world. I could do ballet, modern, I was meeting dancers who were my age and I got to be in performances for some of the choreographers who were there.”

She yearned to go to New York but moved to Atlantic Beach, cooked in restaurants in eastern North Carolina for two years and saved enough money to survive for six months in the city.

Norkus moved to New York and lived in loft in a six-story public garage at West 86th and Broadway. “The owner was a sculptor from Chapel Hill. He would rent it to kids — artists who were trying to make it — from North Carolina. I didn’t know any of them but they were so interesting.

“They shepherded me around, showed me where to go. That went on for three months, and then I was on my own. I had to find work because my money had run out. I was dog walking and catering and painting apartments and trying to take dance classes and auditioning.”

She had been juggling all of that for nearly a year when she came back to Raleigh for a wedding and met the man who would become her husband. She spent time that weekend with her sister, Noël Grady Smith, who had a dance school in Chapel Hill, was pregnant with her third child and was looking for a dance teacher for her studio.

“I thought it’s either go back to New York and struggle, struggle, struggle or stay in North Carolina where I have a job, a wonderful man and a company to dance in.”

In deciding whether to stay in New York or come back to North Carolina, Norkus “had a sense of I might be a little late with all of this. I should have come here when I was 13. I don’t really feel like I ever wanted to have dance as that big a part of my life and not have a family.”

Norkus was “extremely happy and taught with my sister for 10 years. When she relocated to Winston-Salem I took over her studio and taught 10 more years.”

And she’s been happily married for 33 years. Norkus and her husband, Joe, have a son, Joseph, 31, and daughters Elizabeth, 28, and Catherine, 27. All three danced when they were younger. Norkus’ husband is not a dancer, but “he has the heart of an artist.”

Norkus began her tenure at DA in 1995, and as her role grew — she went from part time to full time and also had an advisory — she realized that she faced a decision: continue with her Dancentre studio and stop teaching at Durham Academy or continue at DA and leave the studio to her partner.

“I could not leave Durham Academy. I love it here, I absolutely love it, I love the kids. I love the fact that I have boys and girls in the same classroom. Durham Academy has allowed me to be totally creative with my curriculum. I have learned so much.”

Norkus teaches fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, and all DA fifth- and sixth-graders take movement as part of a 12-week fine arts rotation. Her program is growing, with more students opting to take movement than the dance room can accommodate. Movement students also perform more than they used to, and Norkus is right there with them.

“When my kids are on stage and I’m backstage, I am dancing. I can feel their heart beat, I can feel how nervous they are, how excited they are. I feel like I’m performing when they perform.”

Norkus’s movement program is for all sorts of kids. “I aim it toward the athletic side of the child, the creative side of the child and the artistic side. There’s also a component of wellness. We’re doing a lot of work with mindfulness, breath control, stress relief. … It’s a great pulpit, if you will, for girls not saying boys can’t dance and boys not saying girls aren’t strong because in dance class you can erase all that because boys can dance, they are flexible, and girls are strong.”

Norkus also continues to be involved in dance in addition to teaching at the Middle School. About five years ago she started a nonprofit dance company, Carrboro Modern Dance.

“It’s kind of like what Carolina Dancers was for me when I was that age, young 20s and 30s.”

Dancers go away like Norkus did, and when they come back “they need a place to dance. We nurture the fine arts, they go to college and it’s nurtured some more, then they get into the world where they are working and that’s often snatched from them.”

Young adults with a dance background can take a class with a professional teacher on Sundays and the company performs twice a year. Classes and performances are held at Carrboro’s ArtsCenter, but when the company was just beginning they were held at DA.

“That’s another way Durham Academy has said yes: it had nothing to do with me teaching here, but it had to do with my growth as a teacher.”

An independent, coeducational day school, pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
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