Instructor forced to give up teaching, but she still loves dance, students
April 22, 2001
Last modified at 11:06 p.m. on Saturday, April 21, 2001
By Tara Gardner
For The Independent
"Sandy has been my mentor, my friend, my role model, my hero," said Ashley Woodward, a former student of Grand Island dance teacher Sandy Gardner.
Forty-six-year-old Gardner has taught and inspired young dancers for more than 28 years. However, less than two years ago her doctor gave her a startling diagnosis. She was told she had multiple sclerosis (MS) and would have to quit teaching.
Director of the Grand Island Dance Center since 1986, a choreographer and former Miss Nebraska, Gardner had more than 250 students.
"I could always talk to her about anything in my life -- good or bad," said Andrea Kosmicki, a former student and a junior dance major at Oklahoma City University. "I don't know where I would be without her. She helped me realize that dance was the right career for me."
Gardner attributes her success as a teacher to her professional dance background and her advanced level of training and ability.
"I've always felt that the best teachers are those who can actively demonstrate combinations for their classes and who have a working knowledge of what motivates students of all ages and abilities to do what you want, how you want it," Gardner said.
She stayed up to date with all styles of dance by attending conventions each year.
"I didn't want to be one of those teachers at dance conventions who always just sit on the sidelines and take notes. I always tried to set an example for my students by getting right out there in the action, dancing full-out."
Gardner has inspired many of her students to continue their dance education beyond high school, earning their dance degrees from Oklahoma City University. Former students have performed in movies, in music videos, with ballet companies, at theme parks, on cruise ships, in Las Vegas shows and with the Rockettes.
"That's what I love most about teaching," Gardner said, "seeing all the little successes that culminate to the end."
Having first been a professional dancer in the 1970s, she remembered exactly when she fell in love with teaching.
"I had always thought my calling was dance performance, but one day I turned around and looked at my students, and they all danced just like me. It was an amazing feeling."
For almost two decades, she traveled with students or even drove them to dance conventions, competitions, workshops and auditions sometimes more than 700 miles away.
Recital time in the summer was always much anticipated, Gardner said. However, her health forced her to close her studio immediately after her June 2000 recital.
The year before, after seeking medical attention for an odd tingling in her legs and undergoing many tests to determine its cause, an MRI revealed MS. Her first symptom started decades before with a hand tremor.
"Everyone would joke, since I'm a Diet Coke-aholic, that it was because of all the caffeine I drink every day," she said.
In 1994, she developed double vision in one eye. Her eye doctors were unable to determine the cause, and after 18 months, it cleared up on its own.
"When I finally found out about the MS years after the double vision, I immediately assumed the worst -- that I was going to end up in a wheelchair," Gardner said. "I sat and cried so hard in my car after my doctor told me that I eventually had to have a friend come and drive me home from the doctor's office."
Although she admits that her MS symptoms were mild compared to some of those possible -- blindness, paralysis in the legs and arms and impaired coordination -- they made teaching dance difficult.
She soon experienced random bouts of dizziness, fatigue, short-term memory, impaired balance, swollen and stiff knees and ankles, tingling legs and feet and arthritis-like pain in her joints.
"Some days my legs would feel like they were moving through a thick gel," Gardner said. Even walking the mall for less than an hour would cause her ankles to swell up painfully.
Gardner hid her ailments because she feared that people would think she couldn't do her job as well anymore.
"One time, I was dancing in a class at a dance convention, and I fell on the floor after doing a single turn," Gardner said. "Because I couldn't seem to keep my balance at all, I eventually had to just stand on the side and take notes. I hid my embarrassment from my students by laughing and joking with them about getting too old."
Gardner struggled through another year of teaching after her diagnosis but soon realized that her medications could not alleviate her joint pain and the swelling in her ankles.
"My doctors later predicted that my pain and disorientation would be more manageable without the physical and emotional stresses of my job. But it made me so sick to even think about giving up my studio."
During Gardner's final dance recital last June, her childhood dance teacher, Kitty Lee Dahlberg of Omaha, paid her a special visit.
"Everyone sat and cried during the finale," Gardner said. "They knew that was the end whether they'd been told or not, and after having hid my own emotions for so long, I was finally ready to let someone cry for me."
Many of her older students had already learned about her plans to close the studio. A group of the students donated money to the MS Society as a gift to Gardner.
She worried about where her students were going to dance.
"I tried everything I could think of without any luck to find someone to come and take over my studio. I contacted friends, college dance professors and former dance students to find a worthy teacher willing to take on a studio in a remote city in Nebraska with 250-plus talented students, be equally strong in teaching all styles of dance and continue with an already established and successful competition team."
She compared not being able to teach anymore to not seeing her own children.
"School teachers get to see their students for a year and then get a whole new batch of kids the next year," Gardner said, "but I watched a lot of my students grow up. Many have taken dance from me since I opened my studio 16 years ago."
"I consider Sandy a second mom," said Woodward, who had danced all 16 years at Gardner's studio. "It broke my heart knowing that she would have to give up what she has loved more than anything for so many years just because her MS was too hard on her body."
Many of Gardner's serious dance students now travel more than 100 miles, twice weekly, and some 30 miles to continue their studies. The rest dance at one of the other two studios in town.
"The most heartbreaking thing for me is to see the students that quit dance altogether," she said.
Gardner has also struggled with people's skepticism.
"MS isn't a very visible disease, so sometimes I get the impression that people are thinking, 'You don't look sick Š so why aren't you teaching anymore?'"
Gardner has forced herself to see her unfortunate situation in a more positive light, however, by getting involved in activities. They include choreographing for high school musicals, volunteering for the MS Society, teaching two dance classes a week at another studio, acting as a consultant for state pageant winners, helping fellow dance teachers in Omaha and judging for the Showbiz National Talent Competition.
"Grand Island doesn't have a lot of career opportunities to fit my performing arts background," she said, "but I refuse to give up my search to find my second vocation in life."
She stays in contact with many of her students to inform them of upcoming dance auditions and workshops, and she still drives some students to auditions.
"My quality of life has improved tremendously without the rigors and stress of the dance studio," Gardner said, "but the love of dance and for my students will forever be in my heart."
When asked about the impact Gardner has had on her life, Kosmicki said, "Sandy has been one of the greatest people to enter my life and many others' lives. She was more than just a dance teacher -- she was and still is an inspiration."
Tara Gardner, Sandy Gardner's daughter, plans to graduate in May from Oklahoma City University with a bachelor of arts in English writing.