Maryland Youth Ballet spins into Silver Spring

Dance company opens studios downtown after leaving Bethesda

Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007

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Photos by Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
(Above) Kahina Haynes (left)and Brittany Rose of the Maryland Youth Ballet rehearse Monday at the ballet’s new studios in downtown Silver Spring. (Left) Melanie Riffee (center) rehearses Monday with the Maryland Youth Ballet in its new studios in downtown Silver Spring.

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Dance was originally something that got Caroline Martin out of the house for a few hours as a young child.

But now, the 17-year-old Bethesda resident doesn’t know what she’d do without the Maryland Youth Ballet.

‘‘It turned into something I really liked,” Martin said. ‘‘My best friend quit when I was younger, but I kept on doing it. It was something I was good at.”

The Maryland Youth Ballet, which has been open 36 years and spent 30 years in Bethesda, moved to a space on Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring last week. The location — outfitted with mirrors and sprung floors that protect dancers’ knees — has five studios and more space to accommodate classes for adults and children, said Michelle Lees, associate artistic director and former professional dancer with the National Ballet in Washington, D.C.

MYB looked to Silver Spring after its building in Bethesda was torn down to make way for condominiums, Lees said. It moved to another space in Bethesda that was not large enough. Administrators and parents kept looking for acceptable space and ultimately found and raised money for the space in Silver Spring, Lees said.

‘‘This is good for everyone,” Lees said, adding her dancers can be seen after rehearsals — easily identifiable by the buns atop their heads — visiting stores and restaurants in the downtown.

The studio is open seven days a week, Lees said, and offers classes that cater to dancers of all skill levels, including adults who are looking to learn.

In fact, MYB is planning to offer lunchtime classes for employees in nearby buildings in downtown Silver Spring, said Alyce Jenkins, MYB’s executive director.

Jenkins said many children who take dance with MYB often start young and stay until they are 18. Her daughter, now 24 and in law school, danced with MYB and also danced through college. About 350 students are in MYB’s academy, which hosts its intermediate and elite dancers.

For MYB’s elite students, the schedule is rigorous. Several of them get out of school early to practice, and spend three and a half hours daily at the studio and five to six hours rehearsing on the weekends preparing for performances. Dancers performed ‘‘The Nutcracker” in December and are now preparing for a spring performance.

Lily DiPiazza, 17, of Silver Spring has been dancing with MYB for about 12 years and spends about 20 hours a week at the studio.

As a 5-year-old, she said, she saw what older students were doing, and looked forward to the day when she, too, would be old enough to perform in ‘‘The Nutcracker.” The first year she danced in that performance, she played a gingersnap. Since then, she said, she’s graduated to a sugar plum fairy.

‘‘It’s a lot of fun,” she said. ‘‘The people are nice and it’s fun to just come here.”

On Monday afternoon, 18 dancers — young women in purple leotards and young men in white T-shirts and black pants — stretched, twirled and jumped in a studio overlooking Silver Plaza and the fountain on Ellsworth Drive while other teens their age were still in school.

Instructor Harriet Williams gave direction and instruction while pianist Levon Mikayelyan provided live music. In between routines, dancers stretched and went over their footwork. But it wasn’t all work, no play. When Williams made a joke, giggles escaped from several dancers’ lips as they exercised.

John Mark Giragosian, 18, of Manassas, Va., listened closely to Williams, effortlessly completing the spins and stretches she requested. Giragosian has danced with MYB for nine years, deciding to come to the organization from another dance company in Virginia.

‘‘It’s been very good,” he said. ‘‘I’ve been given a lot of opportunities that I probably wouldn’t get otherwise.”

If he wants a private studio in which to rehearse, Giragosian said, faculty does its best to provide one. He gets one-on-one instruction and has been able to take part in a number of national and international competitions. He recently placed third in an event in Seoul, Korea, and hopes to become a professional dancer.

Martin doesn’t want to become a professional dancer but said she hopes to dance in college. She finds the pastime satisfying.

‘‘It’s something that not everyone is doing,” she said. ‘‘Everyone else plays soccer or lacrosse or something. I tried all those sports, too, but nothing quite seemed to match. I like [dance], and I’m good at it, too. I’m not the best dancer or anything, but I’m good.”

Martin said she enjoys both the faculty and her peers at MYB. ‘‘We work real hard, but we still have a lot of fun,” she said.