UI chemist fosters local dance opportunities


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The pounding Latin beat of the music reverberated around the room of the small dance studio as a petite woman clad in striking black and red faced the mirror and swiveled her hips. Completely at ease with the movements, she scooped the air above her head with the palm of her hand and laughed at the occasional misstep.

Nora Garda's creativity and ease is not limited to the dance floor. The local dance powerhouse is also a University of Iowa chemist at UI Pharmaceuticals.

"She has a fascinating combination of skills in that she's a chemist, and she can work very precisely on scientific questions, and she also is very expansive and creative and able to dance," said UI music Professor Kate Gfeller, a friend of Garda's who has taken dance classes with her in the past.

Garda started taking ballet when she was 5 years old in her home country of Argentina, a place she described as being enmeshed in dance.

"It's a dancing culture," she said. "Every time three or four people get together, you end up dancing. You don't have to have a party or a reason."

Her ballet lessons continued for 10 years, and she also discovered other styles of dance, including modern, Argentinean folk dance, African dance, Spanish dance, and flamenco.

In her senior year of high school, she discovered an affinity for chemistry and decided to turn it into a career. But Garda still held on to her passion for dance.

"I think they kind of complement each other," she said. "I need the artsy part in my life. I can't just go with the plain science."

Dancing balances out Garda's stressful job in chemistry; she develops methods of analysis for new drugs and does preliminary testing on the new compounds before they are filed with the Food and Drug Administration. She said she finds a release from this high-responsibility occupation in movement.

"After a heavy day, you can go to a studio, and the only problem is how to position your hands and your shoulders," Garda said.

The 52-year-old also furthers her passion for dance by enriching the Iowa City community with myriad programs and classes. In addition to helping organize Iowa Dance Fest and National Dance Day, Garda founded the nonprofit organization Interdance, a group that coordinates all of the programs and performances.

"The idea of Interdance is to use dance as a way of communication — breaking cultural barriers and seeing that when we are moving and dancing we are all the same," she said.

She teaches an after-school dance program at Southeast Junior High for kids who might not have tried dancing before. The program, which recently received a grant from the Iowa Women's Foundation, helps young people build confidence and have fun.

"She's able to bring this creativity out of these junior-high kids, and they discover that they can dance, that they can do things in front of people; they can be creative and choreograph pieces," said Carol Johnk, a friend who's known Nora for more than 10 years. "And they love being around her."

Garda views anytime that people are inspired by the work she does as an accomplishment.

Every time we perform, we have two people who decide to go and take a class, that has been a huge success," she said.

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