DM’s only remaining founding teacher has been molding great dancers–and minds–for 25 years


Courtesy of Ms. Noriega

‘A WONDERFUL OUTLOOK’ — Members of DDC, Desert Mountain’s elite dance group, surround Nori. (Clockwise from far left): Ashton Ganse (12), Kira Levy (11), Audrey Chang (11), India Josephon (10), Laura Nickson(10), Mia Person (12), Kiki innes (11), Allie Angus (11), Kamryn Smith (12), and Lauren Oh(12). “Working with Nori is always a fun and positive experience,” said Levy. “(she) has a wonderful outlook on things and makes school a better place to be”. Many of Noriega’s students have ultimately achieved success, including television appearances, Grammy shows and even “So You Think You Can Dance” appearances.

Shearel Cohen, Staff writer

Since Desert Mountain High School opened 25 years ago, it has witnessed state championships, award-winning performing arts, and thousands of success stories. But it also has witnessed its share of tragedy–from 9/11 to fear surrounding shootings in other schools to the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

But through it all, there has been one constant. 

And if you’ve ever ventured into the eerie and barren halls of this school’s basement, or perhaps participated in a dance class, you may have met that constant: Ms. Liza Noriega–the only teacher who has taught at DM for the past 25 years.

‘I taught myself’

Originally, Ms. Noriega–or “Nori” as she is known by her students and  colleagues–admitted she was inexperienced with teaching.

 “I just always knew I wanted to … work and teach kids,” she said.  

Having moved from New York to Arizona at the age of 17, Noriega received her first job as a choreographer at Coronado High School. 

“I wouldn’t know the names to anything cause I taught myself how to spin,” she said. “I’d be like turn-around-and-reach-the-ground-and-up-and-down.” 

Despite having little experience in dancing at the time, Ms. Noriega has choreographed in many schools throughout Phoenix. But after receiving a dance degree from ASU, she ended up at Desert Mountain in 1995, the year it officially opened. 

And since then, throughout all the ups and downs of the last quarter century, Nori’s spirit hasn’t wavered.

Every single day is a great day here!”

— Ms. Noriega

“Every single day,” she said, “is a great day here” 

‘1, 2, 3, 4’

It’s 7:40 in the morning and rather than hear the usual silence effused by the sleep-deprived students and teachers–there is the odd and stimulating sound of laughter. Noise trickles into the room as each student enters and greets Ms. Nori prior to dressing out.   

“Four minutes!” Noriega calls out. And the countdown to class begins. “Three minutes…two minutes…one–” 

Suddenly, a student counts down from 10, rhythmically clapping as everyone rushes to their assigned places. 

Teaching from 'a place of love'
Courtesy of Ms. Noriega
Ms. Noriega prepares to lead her students in a routine. “She teaches from a place of love and teaches all of her students the true meaning of life and to embrace their uniqueness,” said former longtime DM band and orchestra director Michelle Irvin. “It is those unique qualities that make them special.”

In an instant, a waterfall of noise fills the room as Ms. Noriega plays a song so loud, the police could have shown up with a noise complaint.

“1, 2, 3, 4” Nori said–commencing the warm-up. The girls began to jump in unison and complete an array of cardio exercises. It was like watching an aerobics DVD from the early 90’s–except without the leotards.

She truly truly cares about every single student and every single person that comes into her (our) life no matter who they are.”

— Serena Schein

After some stretching, the dancing took place. A slower, almost melancholic song played, cuing the dancers to gracefully tiptoe into rows of arranged chairs.

Nori delegated and instructed the dancers, and with everyone’s cooperation and effort, the song was brought to life. 

The support and encouragement the dancers exuded was especially noteworthy; when succeeding at a difficult part of the routine, everyone clapped and cheered, while some thanked God. 

“Don’t thank God.” Nori quipped. “Thank me.”


Of course the school we know today is not the school that existed 25 years ago. 

“We didn’t have lockers.” Noriega recalled. “The whole school was carpeted.”

Students weren’t badgered to wear their IDs and their surroundings were nothing but wilderness where the scorpions, peccaries, and wild javelinas roamed. And–fun fact–our school colors were not always maroon and grey but rather, turquoise.

And through the years, Nori has touched the hearts of many. 

 “She shapes what DM stands for in the world” Dr. Hirsch said. “In terms of humanity, depth of understanding and the ways we ought to see the world.”

And in Nori’s world, every student matters.

“She truly truly cares about every single student and every single person that comes into her (our) life,” said Serena Shein, a former student of Nori’s. “no matter who they are.”

Nori can be considered a vessel that takes students and creates art with her emotionally compelling performances. 

“When I watched her dancers act/dance the Giving Tree both with and without music,” Dr. Hirsh said, “I could see Ms. Noriega peering at me to be sure I had tears in my eyes.”

As for academics–well that changed quite a bit.

 “I’ve seen standardized testing come and go,” Noriega said. “No other assessment… you can make a portfolio and that’s your assessment.” Over time, the rigor of academics had swung like the weights on a pendulum.

“I’m happy to see it swinging back the way I like it,” Nori said, “where the Arts can thrive.”

Stretching young minds
Courtesy of Ms. Noriega
Ms.Noriega, stretching before a class, calls teaching at DM “the best times. Every single day is a great day here. It’s a great day.” Nori, as she is universally known, had planned to pursue a singing career; with Carnegie Hall on her resume, she was on her way to University of Arizona to pursue a vocal education major before attending Arizona State–and landing at Desert Mountain to teach dance.

Dr. Hirsch said that Ms. Noriega teaches lessons that extend far beyond the classroom.

“What she really teaches is the perspective on life that we need,” said Dr. Hirsch. “We need to see beauty, we need to acknowledge pain and we need to understand the arts as a discipline…one of the most mindful practices in existence.”

 These lessons have been invaluable throughout the years, as Ms. Noriega has witnessed how unfortunate events shaped Desert Mountain. And along with it, she changed too. 

‘She came to me’

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Ms. Noriega was in her classroom with dozens of kids, witnessing the disaster of the first collision. 

“It just became, like, a revolving door of kids,” Nori said, “just coming in here and crying.”

Everyone was distraught and some students were even devastated by the loss of family members involved. 

“She came to me,” Nori said, remembering one former student. “She’s like, ‘Hey Nori, I just wanna let you know that I can’t make it after school today because my uncle just died in a plane crash that hit the Pentagon.’” 

Taken aback, Nori rushed out of her classroom and called out to the student. 

“She turned around and she just, like, fell to her knees, lost her bits crying, dropped her backpack.” Because of what happened that day, many students were pulled out of school by their parents. 

But the ones who stayed had comforted each other in the wake of the crisis. 

“We journaled,” Noriega recalled. “I just appreciated that we’re all safe.” 

Other unfortunate incidents occured where a kid was on Desert Mountain’s campus with a firearm and students were locked in their classrooms for hours. Power was also lost during a four hour lockdown.

 “Kids were crying and panicked,” she said. 

As a result of these incidents, Desert Mountain has gradually increased its security and  improved its safety. ID’s, Fire Drills, lockdowns, and protocols were enacted to protect the lives of each student. Teachers such as Noriega have been entrusted to do their part in protecting us, too.

 “You got to have your stuff together,” she said “and know if this is where it happens, this is where it happens.” 

Even today, with the COVID-19 pandemic, Noriega and her family have made the best of unfortunate circumstances.

“We really focused on our faith,” she said. “We just keep going.”

And she–along with other teachers–have put in great effort to make up for the losses the Art department suffered. From virtual celebrations to ceremonies and banquets to council elections, the Art department has kept these opportunities for their students to be together–at a distance, of course. 

“It is really beautiful to stay connected with them,” Noriega said.

She shapes what DM stands for in the world. In terms of humanity, depth of understanding and the ways we ought to see the world”

— DMHS Principal Dr. Lisa Hirsch

In spite of the tragedies that Noriega has experienced during her time here, she also looks back on countless positive memories. 

But for Nori, one day stands out the most. 

“Isadora Duncan Day”, a day celebrating one of the greatest dancers, is what Noriega refers to as the “best teaching day of [her] entire life”. One year, during a performance day, Noriega’s students were taking a long time to get ready. Always a performance perfectionist and a stickler for starting on time, Noriega admits she was agitated, telling her students to hurry.


 “I turn around and they’re all in togas and they had a sheet for me and they (said), ‘It’s Isadora Duncan day and we want to celebrate her and you,’ and I stood there like this” she said– extending her arms out. “All I did was cry. Then, I rallied; we went outside and we took pictures in the outdoors.

“(It was the) best teaching day of my entire life”