Dancing for Denise: Beloved Eastpointe dance teacher/choreographer remembered

By: Maria Allard | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published October 13, 2021

 Friends, family and students gathered Oct. 2 at the Halfway Schoolhouse in Eastpointe to remember dancer and choreographer Denise Szykula-Giordano.

Friends, family and students gathered Oct. 2 at the Halfway Schoolhouse in Eastpointe to remember dancer and choreographer Denise Szykula-Giordano.

Photo provided by Michele Reis

 Szykula-Giordano was the founder of Nonce Dance Ensemble, which later became Dance Nonce.

Szykula-Giordano was the founder of Nonce Dance Ensemble, which later became Dance Nonce.

Photo provided by Michele Reis

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EASTPOINTE — The local dance community continues to feel the loss of dancer and choreographer Denise Szykula-Giordano.

The founder of the dance company Dance Nonce died in June 2020 at the age of 74.

On Oct. 2, those who knew the modern dance artist gathered at the Halfway Schoolhouse, located at 15500 Nine Mile Road just west of Gratiot, for a celebration of her life. The schoolhouse, originally built in 1872 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is used by the public for educational purposes, social events, dance classes, weddings, baby showers, historical reenactments and other activities.

The Halfway Schoolhouse was one of many locations that Szykula-Giordano used as a rehearsal space to teach modern dance class. Students came from many local communities, as well as from Canada.

“Denise could find a place where she could move around and was reasonable to rent,” former Eastpointe Mayor Suzanne Pixley said. “She loved being here.”

There was one issue, though, with the hardwood floor.

“Our floor was old, and some of the wood was rippled,” Pixley said. “Some of the wood was slivered.”

But that didn’t stop the dance troupe from kicking up its heels when it came to practicing. As a way to honor Szykula-Giordano, Dance Nonce student Michele Reis organized the GoFundMe page “Restore the Floor Project” to raise money for a new hardwood floor at the schoolhouse. The fundraiser began in March 2021, and by July, $7,000 had been raised for the purchase and installation of the new floor.

During the celebration of life, attendees checked out the new floor. There also were speeches, video tributes and a chance to look at photographs of Szykula-Giordano, who served as Dance Nonce’s artistic director and choreographer for over 45 years. Szykula-Giordano’s husband, Bill, and daughter, Leah, were in attendance.

Reis, of Clinton Township, first met Szykula-Giordano in 1999. Reis had been a dancer her whole life and was looking to continue with it after graduating from college. She began auditioning for companies and got accepted, but the practice times conflicted with her work schedule. When she met Szykula-Giordano, everything clicked, and her work schedule allowed for her to join the company.

“She had the ability to pull out of you what you didn’t know you could do,” Reis said. “She challenged you in ways you were never challenged before. I miss that greatly. It’s been a huge loss.”

Reis, with the help of LaDonna Leyva and Yvonne Maes, has taken over Dance Nonce, which was once known as Nonce Dance Ensemble. The group performs recitals at various locations. Maes, of Grosse Pointe Park, was another student at Dance Nonce. She knew Szykula-Giordano for 31 years.

“I was looking for a class. When I first talked with her, all these lightbulbs were going off,” Maes said. “She completely transformed me. She was exuberant, super creative, a force of nature. She transformed people into better artists. She became a very dear friend. She was such a mentor for me. I miss her strength and her wisdom.”

Choreographer, teacher and performer Harriet Berg was one of the guest speakers who shared her thoughts on Szykula-Giordano.

“She came to me when she was 15 years old. She came from the east side to the west side. She wanted to learn modern dance,” Berg, of Detroit, said. “She joined my company for teenagers, the Young Dancer’s Guild. She was outstanding. She was like a sponge. She picked up everything. She was hungry to learn.”

At one point, Szykula-Giordano became Berg’s assistant.

“I think she worked with us about five years,” Berg recalled. “She taught classes in our department and was a choreographer. She choreographed some wonderful dances. She always had good ideas, and she knew how to direct people.”

Szykula-Giordano eventually started Nonce Dance Ensemble.

“She knew she had to strike out on her own and form her own company,” Berg said.

Szykula-Giordano had deep roots in Eastpointe, once known as East Detroit. She graduated from East Detroit High School in the mid-1960s and was an Eastpointe Memorial Library trustee for 15 years.

Szykula-Giordano is in the “Guide to the Michigan Dance Archives: Denise Szykula Papers UP002560” at the Walter P. Reuther Library in Detroit. Check out the website at reuther.wayne.edu.

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