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Dancing through life

Passionate students love to train with Donna Morris


Donna Morris made a comical discovery. by: VERN UYETAKE  - Doing what you love so much can make you happy, which Donna Morris has been proving since she was 3 years old.

“These are the world’s oldest pointe shoes,” she said with a laugh, while preparing to teach dance at Lakewood Center for the Arts. “I can still do everything my students do. But I can only do it once.”

Unlike her ballet shoes, her enthusiasm for dance never ages. Throughout her career she has danced as a professional ballerina in countless performances and has taught hundreds of students. She has taught in Lake Oswego for the last 16 years.

Yet her reservoir of energy never runs dry as she instructs students young and old, tall and small. Her main class requirement is a passion to dance. by: VERN UYETAKE  - Natalie Bruun, 14, takes to the air under the close supervision of Donna Morris. Passion is the first requirement that Morris has for her ballet students.

“I can’t say I did it for the money,” Morris said. “There isn’t any. You exist to dance. If dancing isn’t the only thing you want to do, you should do something else.”

Dance fever took over her life when she was just a child growing up in Detroit. She started dancing at age 3, yet admits at that time, “I was not a good student.”

But she kept plugging away. At age 13 she got away from dancing for a while. Her layoff didn’t last long.

“I missed it terribly,” Morris said. “I decided I wanted to be a professional dancer.”

Stroke of luck

When it comes to dancing, many little girls are called but few are chosen. Morris never waivered from her decision. It helped tremendously that she got the greatest stroke of luck in her dancing life when Iacob Lascu — a former member of the world-famous Bolshoi Ballet — took her under his wing.

“I was thrilled,” Morris said. “I wouldn’t have gotten the invitation to New York without him. He is why I respect the art of teaching ballet so much.”

Once she moved to New York City at age 17, Morris moved up quickly. She received a scholarship to the American Ballet Theatre — the famed company started by Jerome Robbins — and earned money as a babysitter.

A year after her arrival, she was dancing professionally. From then on it was the dancer’s life for Morris. She performed with the Albany Berkshire Ballet, the ballet company of Pittsfield, Mass., and back to New York with the Bernhard Ballet.by: VERN UYETAKE  - Passion is the first requirement that Morris has for her ballet students.

She also became a founding member of the New York Chamber Ballet, which at the time performed all original modern ballets.

The life she loved was extremely demanding, but she received praise and motivation from her performances as the Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker,” as well as in “West Side Story,” “Giselle,” “Copelia” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

“I went on to do everything I wanted to do,” she said. “The thought of performing kept me going. It was so thrilling to feel the connection with an audience, especially if you like to act, which is me.”

Right in her prime as a dancer, something big happened.

“Then came real life,” Morris said. “I got married.”

Accompanied by her new husband, William G. Douglas, Morris moved to Florida to join the Ballet Classique in Saint Petersburg, where she began teaching ballet for the first time. From there she moved on to the City Ballet of Houston for a three-year stint.

However, there was a problem.

“It was the heat,” Morris said. “All you get in Houston is heat. I missed the seasons and the snow. I heard this (Oregon) was the coolest place to live.”

Techniques that work

Morris moved to Oregon in 1993 with no job offers or friends in the area. Then in 1997 she connected with the Lakewood Center for the Arts, which just so happened to need a dance instructor.

“Andrew Edwards is so kind and supportive,” Morris said of the center’s executive director. “This place is like a home.”

Morris not only took up her teaching career in earnest but has served as choreographer for many Lakewood productions. She has choreographed more than 100 original works.

Today, she teaches dancers aged 4 to 60. Over the years she has developed a teaching philosophy, one that differs from her experience as a student of dance. Morris refuses to be a classic ballet taskmaster, much like the ballerina who once taught her.

The teacher — who appeared in Guinness Book of World Records by executing 64 turns in a box — was just as demanding of her students as she was of herself. Morris rolls her eyes at the memories of those dreaded days. The experience, however, helped her become the teacher she is today. by:  KACIN MENEGHIN - Donna Morris is shown here at age 18 at the beginning of her career dancing at the Harkness House for Ballet Arts in New York City.

“I teach what techniques work. I teach what can be done physically,” Morris said. “I do a lot of one-on-one coaching. If there is a problem with a turn, I look at it scientifically and basically try to fix it so the next time they do it better.”

Muriel Smith, 21, has been Morris’ student for 12 years.

“I’ve been with Donna so many years now,” said Smith, who currently takes pointe, advanced, company and intermediate dance classes. “She is a teacher who can take you to the next level.

“Dancing was recommended to me because I was so tall (6’1”) and I fell in love with it. Donna is very honest, very helpful and very encouraging. She makes you confident but she makes you work hard. If I have injuries or weaker points, she hones in on me.”

Caroline Cohen is at the other end of the spectrum. The 10-year-old has been Morris’ student for only a few months. She said she has already benefited a great deal.

“A couple years ago I danced hip-hop and jazz here,” said Cohen, who is a member of the Riverdale Dance Team. “I was interested in dance competition and my coach and my mom recommended I take ballet class. I was afraid it might be nerve-wracking.”

Instead, Cohen said, “My flexibility, balance and technique have improved. Donna lets you know when you need to slow down or when you need to speed up and accept more challenges.”

Young as she is, Cohen already has a career goal: “I want to be a Rockette.”

Lucikly for Smith, Cohen — and hundreds of other dance students — Morris has the ability to take her students where they want to go.

They just have to be “super passionate,” she said.by: VERN UYETAKE  - Morris has been teaching dance and doing choreography at Lakewood Center for the Arts since 1997. She said the center is like home to her.



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