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Next generation takes a turn at Edna Lee's studio


They adorn every wall of Edna Lee's dance studio -- pictures of little girls in fluffy tutus, of lithe young ladies on the cusp of adulthood, bodies beautifully turned and bent.

There are a few pictures of Lee herself, but not many. She was never the kind of dancer who basks in images of her own talent. She never lived to perform, never craved the peculiar adulation that comes with dancing in front of crowds.

"I think you are either a performer or a teacher," she says. "Basically, I am a teacher. I don't think you can be both."

For the last 35 years, Lee has devoted her life to teaching dance. Edna Lee's Dance Studio of Linthicum -- located first in a fire hall, then in a women's club, then in her basement and, finally, in a shopping center -- has been a place where hundreds of young girls in North County have grown up.

"Just about every little girl who has lived in this area has come through at one time or another," she says.

Now, Lee is turning over management of the studio to one of her prize pupils -- her daughter, Gail Charney.

At 58, Lee says she's ready for semi-retirement. Though she will continue to assist with the studio, she wants to be able to travel with her recently retired husband, Gene Kuhn. The Kuhns live in Brooklyn Park.

It's fitting that she turn the studio over to Charney. Not only is Charney the best all-around dancer Lee says she's ever taught, not only has she led dance classes at the studio for years, but dancing has always been a mother-daughter affair in this family.

Lee was only 8 when her mother enrolled her in dance classes in a little basement studio near their home in Baltimore's Pimlico. "My mother said she always dreamed of being a dancer. She said she had dreams of dancing on her toes."

Lee has never stopped living her mother's dream. As soon as she started lessons, "I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life, and it has been the rest of my life."

Lee was 20 in 1957 when she set up her own studio in a rented room at the Linthicum Fire Hall. After that, she taught for a time at the Woman's Club of Linthicum on Hammonds Ferry Road, then at a studio in her former home on Lyman Avenue for 22 years. She moved the studio to its current location in the Burwood Shopping Center in 1980.

Lee has never danced professionally, and never regretted that fact. She was a born teacher, gifted more with patience, warmth and stability than the single-minded, often self-centered perfectionism required of professional performers.

"With teaching, your student has to come first," she said. It's just like being a mother."

Her reward is watching extraordinarily gifted students like Meredith Reffner, 14, move on to the Washington School of Ballet. Seeing others have a ball dancing on cruise ships or in theme parks. Or being chosen as the subject of another 14-year-old's essay on why dancing is "the greatest experience of my life":

"[Miss Edna] is a great friend to everyone," she wrote. "Her attitude toward dance and her charming personality always has everyone on their toes and smiling."

Charney, at 29 the youngest of Lee's four children and herself the mother of three, shares her mother's enthusiasm for teaching.

The studio's mission will not change under her tutelage, she promises. It will remain a place for children and adults to learn the three major dance disciplines -- ballet, jazz and tap -- whether they aspire to a career or simply want to make their lives more complete.

The only difference Charney says she would like to make -- and she's not so certain she can -- is the inclusion of more boys. So pervasive are the stereotypes against male dancers in our society that only 1 percent of the 300 students at Lee's studio are boys, she says.

And it's not just the fathers who put up a fuss. "The mothers are the same way. The little guys are going, 'I want to dance,' and the mothers say, 'We will find something else for you to do,' " says Charney, a Pasadena resident.

She would like to change that. But nothing else.

"As long as Miss Edna is alive," Charney says, "she will always own it."

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