A Saturday morning in "Mrs. Z's" basement meant a session in manners, etiquette and mental toughness. Although billed as dance classes, a couple of hours with Zelma Cole Brown always meant much more.
"It was about learning dance, but she also taught us how to feel good about ourselves and how to mature and how to act like little ladies," said Ellyne Brown of Baltimore, one of Mrs. Brown's former students and a member of the Aurora Dance Company in residence at Howard Community College in Columbia.
Mrs. Brown, 75, died Sunday at her West Baltimore home after a brief illness. She taught modern, tap and interpretive dance, as well as ballet and jazz, in the Baltimore area for nearly 40 years, teaching at schools and camps, as well as in the studio basement of her Grove Park home.
She gave her lessons to nearly 500 students from 1963 to 1977 -- and thousands more as a Baltimore County schoolteacher and at the old YWCA on Madison Avenue.
A lean woman, Mrs. Brown had a reputation for being quite strict but fair to her students.
"She'd never allow gum in your mouth and she'd say, 'Don't slouch' and 'Walk properly.' Even outside of the class she didn't want us to chew gum," recalled Kimberly Morton of Baltimore, who studied dance under "Mrs. Z" for 13 years.
"Whenever we said that we were hot, she'd always tell us, 'Horses sweat, men perspire and ladies only glisten.' "
A lifelong Baltimore resident, the former Zelma Cole graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in 1942 and earned a bachelor's degree in physical education in 1946 from what is now Morgan State University.
She received a master's degree in health, education and dance from New York University in 1955 and did additional graduate work in administration and supervision at the Johns Hopkins University in 1965.
Mrs. Brown began her teaching career in 1949, working for the Prince George's County school system until 1951. She transferred to Baltimore County, teaching at Sollers Point Junior-Senior High School in Turners Station from 1951 to 1965, Woodlawn Junior High School from 1965 to 1974, and Deer Park Junior High School from 1974 until she retired in 1982.
She married Richard "Dick" Jerome Brown in 1955.
In addition to teaching in the schools, Mrs. Brown taught dance. When she opened her home studio in 1963, money was not an issue. At the time, there were only a handful of black dance schools in the city.
"If you couldn't afford it, you didn't have to pay," said Jackie Richardson, a longtime friend. "She saw the lack of cultural development in the African-American community and took it upon herself to do something about it."
Mrs. Brown was a longtime member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and a founder of the Baltimore chapter of Jack and Jill Associates.
Services are scheduled for 6: 30 p.m. today at the New All Saints Roman Catholic Church, 4408 Liberty Heights Ave.
In addition to her husband, she is survived by a daughter, Lynda Maria Brown; two brothers, George W. Cole and Ralph J. Cole; and two sisters, Doris Cole Pennick and Shirley Dean. All are of Baltimore.