Dancing Queen

Dancing Queen

At Strathmore, Lorraine Spiegler is guiding CityDance's next generation step by step

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On a recent Saturday afternoon, a teacher shouts instructions over the driving beat of DJ Rodriguez’s “Vibes & Tribes” while several dozen teenagers in tight shorts and tank tops run through an athletic dance sequence that includes leg swings, handstands and shoulder rolls.

In the far corner, an unobtrusive blonde sits with a notepad balanced on her knee, jotting observations about the dancers. “[Student A] isn’t using her core effectively,” she writes. And: “Time to put [Student B] on a merit scholarship.”  

This is a master class at CityDance’s conservatory program at The Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda. And despite appearances, the woman in the corner is the one who’s center stage.

Lorraine Spiegler is the driving force behind the conservatory, which in five years has become the region’s preeminent program for budding contemporary dancers.

The term “conservatory” usually refers to residential arts programs. But here it connotes the seriousness of the school, the only one in the region offering a contemporary dance curriculum grounded in rigorous technique for middle school and high school students.

Spiegler, who declines to give her age, oversees all of Strathmore’s studio classes. But the conservatory is her baby. No matter how exhausted she is, “I walk in here and am immediately revitalized by everything we’re doing.”

A Friendship Heights resident on and off for 15 years, Spiegler grew up in D.C.’s Cleveland Park and attended The Washington School of Ballet, taking classes from founder Mary Day. But by 13, she realized she didn’t want to be a professional dancer. “I wanted to be like the Mary Days of the world, creating a team that drives everyone to excellence,” she says.

She earned master’s degrees in dance and arts management from American University, then ran an outreach program for young dancers at The Washington Ballet starting in 1999.

In 2001, Spiegler moved to Brazil with her husband, Angelo Segrillo, a Brazilian professor she met while he was a visiting scholar in Washington. She cobbled together dance-related jobs, including teaching dance to children from Rio’s notorious slums. Then, at an international development conference in Brazil in 2006, she met Fabian Koss, the youth development coordinator at Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C., and an adviser to CityDance.

“He heard me talk and said, ‘You need to know CityDance, and CityDance needs to know you,’ ” Spiegler recalls.

At the time, CityDance’s 2-year-old school—the outgrowth of a professional dance company—lacked focus. Executive director Alexandra Nowakowski and artistic director Paul Emerson were seeking someone to drive educational programming. Soon they were exchanging emails with Spiegler.

The chemistry was immediate. “She had our same core values about educating the whole child, not just looking at young dancers from the perspective of ‘Do they have the right body? Do they have the right feet?’ ” Nowakowski says.

In 2007, Spiegler moved back to the area with her daughter, Lara, now 14 and a dancer. Her husband remained behind, though the two see each other as often as possible. Spiegler envisioned a top-notch, pre-professional program with tiers that would allow students to advance as they developed skills. It would offer tough classes as well as performance opportunities.

She handpicked a dozen dancers that first year. Today 100 are enrolled in the pre-professional program. They spend weekday afternoons and Saturdays perfecting their ballet and modern technique, and familiarizing themselves with other popular styles. Many plan to study dance in college; some have already gone on to distinguished programs, including The Ailey School in New York.

As the master class ends and students spill into the lobby, Spiegler makes her way down the hall, greeting students’ mothers by name. Recently, one of the mothers told her about a former student who was a late-starter in dance. The boy was one of 30 boys accepted into a prestigious program after graduating from high school last year.

“These are the stories that keep me going,” Spiegler says. “I think to myself: Yes, we did something right.”

Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer and dancer who lives in Washington, D.C.

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