(ODU student Alayna Vilardi. Photo by Lyn LeFevre.) 

 By Kathryn Finney

Inside a large Victorian house on Lafayette Boulevard in Norfolk, thousands of students studied the art of dance with their teacher, Eva May Morris. Her legacy lives on through a merit-based scholarship at Old Dominion University. Its most recent recipient, announced this month, is Alayna Vilardi, an ODU student who is majoring in Dance Education.

Growing up in Norfolk, Morris was one of nine children. At age 3, she started dancing and loved these classes. She told one reporter that she considered dancing as natural as breathing. As a student at Maury High School, she tried to study business but couldn’t stand the classes.

At age 15, she began teaching ballroom dance for the Mabel St. Clair Swift Dance School, and found her lifelong calling. A young Dr. Lewis Webb, the first President of ODU, took private lessons from her during this time.

Morris was determined to run her own dance studio, despite pushback from family members. Her brothers feared she wouldn’t make any money because dancing was considered a “luxury.” Post-Depression years were economically hard, but Morris persisted.

In 1938, she started teaching in her mother’s home in Lafayette Park, holding classes in the living and dining rooms. Alongside teaching, Morris pursued her own study of dance by spending summers at the Lucille Stoddard Dance Congress in New York City. There she was a student of Gene Kelly, who was performing on Broadway in “Pal Joey.” Kelly chose Morris as his partner during a class, and the moment was captured in a photo that became a life-sized poster for Morris’ retirement party in 2002.

Even though New York played an influential role in her studies, Morris encouraged students to focus on working with local communities. Family was an important part of Morris’s vision and she hoped that the teachers she trained could run studios, while having families and children of their own.

Morris met the love of her life, L. Cameron Gregory, when they were both children, and reconnected as adults after Gregory saw a photo of Morris in the society pages. They fell in love and married quickly, since Gregory was beginning his career as a naval officer during World War  2. When he returned to Norfolk, they had their daughter, Cam Gregory Williams.

While raising Cam, Morris continued to teach dancers, sometimes multiple generations within a single family. Cam recalled, “Everyone came away from her classes feeling special.” Because their house was in a residential neighborhood, there was no sign for the Eva May Morris School of Dance. Norfolkians knew the home’s first floor was dedicated to dancing. Winona resident Ericka Volk, who took ballet classes from Morris in 1987, recalls, “There was no furniture in the rooms, but there were a few freestanding oval mirrors with Queen Anne feet. I remember being really excited to have class with her because she was so nice. All of my friends from the neighborhood went too. She made it fun.”

Morris not only taught dance, but also dispensed lessons in manners and etiquette. She produced yearly showcases for her students at Norfolk’s Chrysler Hall. Her productions featured singers and comedy routines, plus tap, ballet, jazz and ballroom dancers. She received awards from the United Services Organization, Governor Mark Warner, President George W. Bush, as well as the first Hampton Roads Professional Woman of the Year Pioneer Award.

In 2001, the Eva May Morris Gregory Dance Scholarship was established for ODU students. Its first recipient, Tamika Steeley, remembers meeting Morris, “She really stressed the importance of community.” Steeley worked as the Director of Dance at Booker T. Washington High School’s Academy of Visual and Performing Arts for 14 years before becoming a dance teacher at Old Donation School in 2022. Steeley says, “Her legacy lives on. I find my life mirroring hers. I am now teaching the children of children I’ve taught. It is an extremely rewarding journey to share dance with students. They are my extended family.”

Morris’s love of dance lives on through ODU students, and they tend to agree with her: dancing can be as natural, and as life-giving, as breathing.