Beloved Dearborn dance instructor, Noretta Dunworth, taught until her final days

It's a dream shared by thousands of kids: slipping on a pair of points and learning to pirouette.

Or maybe it's feeling the rhythm as the steel toe plates hit the floor for a tap number reminiscent of Fred and Ginger. Or maybe even worthy of a national audience on shows like "Dancing With the Stars" or "So You Think You Can Dance."

Noretta Dunworth made those dreams happen.

Noretta Dunworth at her desk at Noretta Dunworth School of Dance.
Noretta Dunworth at her desk at Noretta Dunworth School of Dance.

Dunworth, who, at age 12, started teaching neighborhood kids how to dance in her parents' basement, went on to found the award-winning Noretta Dunworth School of Dance in Dearborn. She died on Sunday at age 94, surrounded by family.

Noretta Dunworth, left, with Lauren Yakima, center, and Loni Lane Padesky, right, at the Dance Awards.
Noretta Dunworth, left, with Lauren Yakima, center, and Loni Lane Padesky, right, at the Dance Awards.

Since 1940, Dunworth dedicated her life to teaching dance and has made a name for herself in the industry. She continued teaching Cecchetti ballet classes until her final days.

"A week ago she was teaching her Cecchetti classes, the next day had a hair (appointment), and then went out to lunch the next. So I assumed she was getting better each day but that wasn’t the case. This morning my beautiful mom didn’t wake up," said Dunworth's daughter, Loni Lane Padesky, in a statement on Facebook.

'The epitome of a lady'

Dunworth was a member of Dance Masters of Michigan/America and Cecchetti Ballet Council of America for over 50 years. After running the studio for decades, Dunworth's daughter and granddaughter, Casey Quinn, took on the family business while she continued teaching Cecchetti each week.

Many of her students went on to dance professionally and run their own dance studios.

The Noretta Dunworth School of Dance on Telegraph Road is known as "one of the most honored studios in the country," according to its website. "The Noretta Dunworth Dancers can be seen on Broadway, on tour all over America and in Europe, in music videos, in professional ballet companies, Radio City Productions, Rockettes, Disney, Busch Gardens, cruise lines, television, modeling, pageants, and competitions."

One of Dunworth's most notable students is Amy Yakima of Northville — season 10's "So You Think You Can Dance" female winner. The winner's mother, Mary Beth Yakima, said she will remember Dunworth as "the epitome of a lady."

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All three of Yakima's daughters took ballet, tap, jazz, contemporary, hip-hop, and other dance classes at the Noretta Dunworth School of Dance. They started attending classes in 1997 at Dunworth's first studio, which was operating out of a smaller building on Monroe Street before moving to a bigger location on Telegraph Road.

"It's amazing to think somebody's been teaching for that long and doing it with the same amount of energy, even in her 90s," Yakima said. "So loving and caring and generally just so happy for everybody's successes. ... She loved all her students."

Noretta Dunworth
Noretta Dunworth

Dunworth and her daughter, Padesky, have helped many girls make connections in the dance industry that they would not have had access to otherwise. The school consistently brings in all types of choreographers that expose the dancers to what is current.

"Nothing was too much and that's what I love about them. They taught me that nothing was too hard," Yakima said. "Noretta didn't waste a moment till she died."

Dearborn's Shirley Temple

Dunworth was known as Dearborn's Shirley Temple. She was born on the same day and year as the actress — April 23, 1928 — and started dancing and singing at just 2 and a half years old, according to a video tribute from Adrenaline Dance Convention and Competition. She even danced with Bill Robinson to learn the infamous stair dance.

Noretta Dunworth

Yesterday, on February 5, Noretta Dunworth passed away at the age of 94. An educator until the very end, she continued to teach regular weekly classes and excitedly supported every one of her dancers that graced the stage. “I hope they all love dance as long as I have, because it keeps you young.” She is survived by her loving family, her NDSD family, her local dance community, and the lives of those that she touched and influenced with her infectious kindness, radiance, and warmth. Through them all, her legacy will live on.This piece was produced and presented during the NDH gala in Orlando, FL in July 2017 as part of the Honored Legacy tribute to Noretta. Please take a moment and join us in celebrating the life and legacy of Noretta Dunworth. Keep dancing. 💙💚🤍Noretta Dunworth School of DanceRevive Dance ConventionThe National Dance Honors

Posted by ADRENALINE DANCE on Monday, February 6, 2023

Dunworth received the Legacy Award and Most Honored Studio Award at the 2017 National Dance Honors Competition. Dunworth was also awarded the Dearborn Arts Council Mayor's Award twice — once under Mayor Michael Guido and another under Mayor Jack O'Reilly.

Over 600 students, friends and family members took to the comments section of Padesky's Facebook tribute to share their condolences and honor Dunworth's legacy.

"One of the best dance instructors I was able to work with," one person commented. "She was an impactful mentor and role model. ... From teaching Cecchetti, to tap, to even being my first pointe instructor; I will always remember her. Sending condolences."

Noretta Dunworth (lower center) and her daughter Loni Lane Padesky pose with their Noretta Dunworth School of Dance students.
Noretta Dunworth (lower center) and her daughter Loni Lane Padesky pose with their Noretta Dunworth School of Dance students.

Many others recalled Dunworth as a "legend," "a true Dearborn icon," and "a pillar of this community."

Multiple dance studios also took to Facebook to share a tribute, including Dance BEAT, Juliana's Academy of Dance, Larkin Dance Studio in Minnesota and more.

"She always lit up the room when we saw her through the years at conventions and in time spent with her at Cecchetti meetings," according to Dance BEAT. "She will be fondly remembered and dearly missed."

Funeral arrangements

Dunworth's visitation will be from 10:30 a.m. - 8 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. - noon Sunday at the Dearborn Chapel of the Howe-Peterson Funeral Home, according to the funeral home. Memorials can be made to Dunworth by sending flowers through the funeral home's store.

In addition to her daughter, Padesky, and grand-daughter, Quinn, Dunworth is survived by her son Kip Mrkva; her grandchildren Cory Clark Padesky, Kyle Mrkva and Kellen Mrkva; great-grandchildren Emilia Quinn Padesky, Henry John Padesky, Adelina Marin Mrkva, Sylvie Margaret Mrkva and Leonard Jai Mrkva.

"I know our lives will never be the same without her. My mom, Noretta Dunworth, touched so many lives in so many ways that she will never be forgotten," according to Padesky's tribute. "Her legacy will live on in all of the thousands of students, friends, colleagues, and people that she’s met throughout her 94 years. Her elegance, generosity, kindness, talent, knowledge and professionalism will be remembered throughout their lives."

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Dearborn dance instructor dies at 94, taught until her final days