Speak the names, tell the stories (part 5): LaVerne Reed, founder of the LaVerne Reed Dancers

A dancer, playwright, choreographer, director, and producer, she reimagined classic stories as musicals and inspired generations in the District and beyond.

By Lauretta Malloy

Mwenye Maono

Swahili for the visionary

My daughter LeeAnét was one year old. I was newly married and returning to my studies at Howard University. On a whim of inspiration after recalling a performance I saw of the LaVerne Reed Dancers at an event in Washington, DC, where they leaped across the stage with endless poise, I decided to sign up for a beginner dance class.

On day one, I squeezed between women in leotards with rippled leg warmers and men in black tights to find a space in the full-almost-to-capacity basement dance studio. LaVerne Reed entered the studio with her regal modelesque walk slightly in first position and began the take-no-prisoners warm-up. The class was more than a class; it was an experience. She took mental notes if someone missed a step or if their lines weren’t flowing before addressing it. As we stretched, she made her way to me and demonstrated the correct way to do the movement, then flashed a smile and a nod of encouragement with direct eye contact once I got it right.

When she discovered I had a one-year-old, she let me know she had a dance school in Silver Spring, Maryland, for her once she turned two.

LaVerne Reed. Photo by Tom Radcliffe, courtesy of the family of LaVerne Reed and Kathy Merrick.

It was under the direction of LaVerne Reed that my daughter and I later performed in our first professional musical, Santa and Mother Goose Rock (aired on WHMM-TV), which Reed also wrote and choreographed. A dancer, playwright, choreographer, director, and producer, LaVerne Reed is the epitome of a multi-hyphenate artist. A queen of all trades who reimagined classic stories as full-scale musicals and inspired generations in the District and beyond.

LaVerne Reed’s journey in the arts began in dance class with her godmother, who was no ordinary dance instructor; she was Maria Olivia “Libby” Hill Spencer, a choreographer and dancer who studied under the likes of the Nicholas Brothers and served as the dance captain at the world-famous Apollo Theatre from 1940 to 1948.

In addition to studying with Spencer, Reed trained at the Pennsylvania School of Ballet, the Author Hall Afro-American Dance Company, and Juilliard. She majored in Drama at Howard University, which did not have a dance major at the time. Her steps into drama had to be ordered by God as they fed into her gift of creating original musical theater productions.

As a performer, Reed worked with such companies as the DC Black Repertory Company, Joyce Trister Dance Company, and the Louis Johnson Dance Theatre. She choreographed for the Washington Ballet and Capitol Ballet and appeared in commercials and on television.

TOP: LaVerne Reed, Kathy Merrick, Linda Crawford, and Paulette Johnson;  ABOVE (front row:) Tammy Gibson, Kathy Merrick, Judy Leak, Robbin Tasha Ford, Patty Jacobs, (back row:) Phyllis Reid, photos courtesy of the family of LaVerne Reed and Kathy Merrick.

In 1976 Reed founded the LaVerne Reed Dancers, a troupe of 25 dancers who quickly became the preeminent Black dance troupe in DC, performing with the likes of Stephanie Mills, Melba Moore, Cicely Tyson, Esther Rolle, and more with rave reviews from press such as The Washington Post. Her pieces went beyond dance for dance’s sake; they told stories and had narrative themes. She featured Black women in the troupe, many who have continued their careers in dance and the arts including Desiree Davidson, Kathy Merrick, Joyce Mosso, Tammy Hurt, Linda Crawford, Patricia Williams, Judy Leak, Robbin Tasha Ford, Phyllis Reid, Carol S. Braswell, as well as male dancers Adrian Vincent James, Randy Scott, Neil Whitehead, George Fauntleroy, and many more.

In addition to directing the troupe and teaching at Howard University and being the resident choreographer for the Department of Fine Arts, Reed served as the city-wide dance director and children’s theater specialist for the DC Department of Recreation.

Each year she was tasked with writing, directing, creating, and choreographing professional holiday productions for the city. These productions featured professional artists, students of all ages, and local pre-professional performers. The full-scale original musicals featuring Black artists were captivating with their extensive sets, rigging, actors flying across the stage, casts of up to 100 people, and more. The performances often aired on WHMM-TV, bringing musicals to those who could not make it to the theatre.

Reed’s work allowed young Black children and adult artists to see themselves in beautiful works of art on massive stages — from her work as a dancer performing with the likes of Hinton Battle to creating pieces like “We the People” featuring the LaVerne Reed Dancers to her renowned holiday musicals Santa and Mother Goose Rock, Santa and the Haunted House, The Chocolate Nutcracker, Santa and the Superheroes, and many more.

In 2000 she returned to DC with her renowned production of The Chocolate Nutcracker previously seen on tour across the United States. The production featured R&B sensation Chanté Moore, Broadway stars, and 150 local artists at the Lincoln Theatre. The Washington Post stated, “In the end, Claire wakes to find the whole journey has been a dream, but the audience left the theater wide awake and aware of the inclusive message.”

LaVerne’s reach was beyond measure and still resonates in the current generation of DC artists who came of age under her tutelage. We reached out to a few of the creative forces she influenced and had an impact on to reflect on her work.


From a former student and stage manager of LaVerne Reed, Harriett D. Foy, an award-winning actor who has graced stages across the world and can currently be seen on the Starz hit television series P Valley:

I always talk about us [my freshman class at Howard University] having 8 am ballet class… which is the basic foundation of how I’ve been able to have a dance career and dance in shows throughout my 30-year artistic journey, and that is because of LaVerne Reed. She taught us how to be a triple threat! What I love most about LaVerne Reed is that she gave the students at Howard an opportunity to develop as artists outside of class. I was fortunate to work on the other side of the table as a stage manager during her very popular Christmas musicals. Listen, we did EVERYTHING!! We all earned a paycheck and learned every aspect of the art of creating a new musical — lessons that serve my journey as an artist to this day. It really was like grad school when I attended Howard; the doors she opened made me feel like I could do anything. They made us toe the line; we were on it! That discipline has served me well…

From a former LaVerne Reed dancer, singer, songwriter, and performer, Kathy Merrick:

LaVerne was always encouraging us to be more than what we saw for ourselves. She taught us to reach for things that in our minds were unreachable. She taught us the ethics of hard work and discipline. Every time I step on a stage or perform in any show, all that experience and knowledge that she absolutely instilled in me is solidly and innately rooted.

From a former flower in LaVerne Reed’s Santa and The Mother Goose Rock, Kristen Jackson, associate artistic director and connectivity director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre:

I credit LaVerne Reed with introducing me to the performing arts at the young age of two. She ignited a spark within me that grew into a lifelong passion for the arts — personally and professionally. LaVerne Reed cultivated a space where young Black artists could see themselves reflected both onstage and off and nurtured the growth and evolution of performers and arts administrators alike. I am proud that her legacy lives on in the work I do as part of the leadership team at Woolly Mammoth.

Linda Boyd, Alvin Ailey, and LaVerne Reed in the mid-1980s. Photo courtesy of the family of LaVerne Reed and Kathy Merrick.

From the former Tweedle Dee in LaVerne Reed’s Santa and the Mother Goose Rock, Kelly Chauncey, now artistic director of Black Rock Center for the Arts:

It’s very simple: Laverne Reed is a living legend, a visionary who was and is selfless in all she gives and gave to the majesty of DMV performing arts, from Christmas shows to show stoppers. I was inspired by the unbelievable immeasurable wave of artistic discipline, the critical importance of professionalism, and all that she did. LaVerne Reed changed my life and defined who and what I needed to become to be a full-out performer and artist. I’m so thankful for the deposits LaVerne Reed and the LaVerne Reed dancers have made in my life. I use and instill in others what LaVerne Reed instilled in me, and for that, I am supremely honored and thankful.

From a former LaVerne Reed dancer, Gabrielle Dubose, Arts as Activism teacher at Duke Ellington School of the Arts and DC activist with Empower ED for Equity in public school education:

LaVerne Reed brought razzle dazzle to the DC community with her Christmas shows that were extraordinary, and I had the pleasure of performing in many of them! LaVerne believed in me, and she committed to taking my dancing training to another level at a time when I needed it most, and the result was my gaining acceptance into SUNY Purchase to study professional dance!

LaVerne Reed. Photo by Erica Ashley Reed, courtesy of the family of LaVerne Reed and Kathy Merrick.

Today Reed continues to create and produce original musicals across the United States with her company LaVerne Reed Productions. Her productions and decades of work in DC are often in the thoughts and minds of all who shared the stage and witnessed them.

Speak the names, tell the stories (part 1): Shining a light on DC theater history
Speak the names, tell the stories (part 2): Dr. Kelsey E. Collie, pioneer of children’s theater in DC
Speak the names, tell the stories (part 3): The DC Black Repertory Compan
Speak the names, tell the stories (part 4): An ode to Mike Malone


  1. LaVerne Reed facilitated more in the members of the Laverne Reed Dance Company than a commitment and love for the arts. She taught us how to love each other and that love continues to transcends time and place. Every time we get together, the joy, the laughter and even the reflection and respect for those company members who have passed on, demonstrates our unyielding timeless devotion to one another. We appreciate this Phenomenal Woman who always told us, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, hold your head up, reach, stretch, point your feet, do it again, have fun and people will enjoy every movement!” “Also, be on time, get some rest, renew your spirit and LISTEN TO YOUR PARENTS!!!” We love, honor and appreciate you LaVerne, yesterday, today, tomorrow and always. #justjudy #orignlsweetlucy


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