Going to college was a given in our family. Education was the key to dispelling ignorance, opening doors, and self-improvement. I don’t think my parents ever said this in so many words, but the actions were there – reading to us, getting a library card at five years old, setting aside time for homework and reading. Our report cards were always discussed before Mom or Dad approved and signed. Books all over the house. My mom was a teacher. My dad was enormously proud of her.

Going to college near my beloved New York City was also a given for me. The lure of culture, museums, shows, clubs, shopping, diversity, and the buzz of energy on the streets of New York brought my twin sister and me to Wagner College on Grymes Hill, Staten Island, then a 5-cent ferry ride to “the city.”

Jane Gardner maintained the tiny dance studio in a small area of the gymnasium. When I found out dance was an accredited course, I signed up for modern dance every semester I could. I got much more. Jane Gardner was also a tiny woman with long straight brown hair that hugged her back all the way to her waist. She was small, fit, articulate, and kind.

After one semester of barefoot dancing in her studio, we were privy to ‘practice’ there during off hours. Imagine five college co-eds in the mid-60s discovering African, Cuban, classical ballet, modern, or rock music that inspired dance steps and routines they had previously only dreamed of.

Mrs. Gardner, for she was always Mrs. Gardner, nurtured the lifelong habit of caring for your body while having fun. I was in the best shape of my life in body and mind during the semesters she mentored us. For mentor us she did.

Trust: Sure you can use the studio.

Confidence: Improvise, what does the music say to you?

Ambition: Come see Alvin Ailey dance at City Center.

See and inspired we were: Judith Jamison in her early days dancing, with attitude, in “Revelations,” Twyla Tharp and Erik Hawkins master classes. Mrs. Gardner had a dance idea– we followed, and never once was there a misstep.

The seeds of the habit of doing something physical and fun each day, to music, were planted in her tiny studio. The possibility that I could perform in a larger arena became a reality years later dancing with Serena Wilson’s Middle Eastern dance troupe in Central Park and Lincoln Center. Even today, more than fifty years later, whenever I hear music I have to get up and dance.

Thank you, Mrs. Gardner.








Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.