A tiny dancer takes steps on road to fame Dancer's dream: Meredith Exler makes her Kennedy Center debut and has the opportunity to study under award-winning actress and choreographer Debbie Allen.

April 16, 1996|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,SUN STAFF

Meredith Alissa Exler grew up watching Debbie Allen as no-nonsense dance teacher Lydia Grant in the television series "Fame," demanding the most out of her talented dance students.

Last week the 17-year-old Kings Contrivance village resident took similar orders from the Emmy award-winning actress and choreographer onstage at the Kennedy Center in Washington in the world premiere of the musical "Pepito's Story."

The sold-out performance told the tale of a poor boy, ridiculed by other youngsters, who makes the town mayor's sick daughter happy through his dancing.

Some 429 youngsters auditioned for roles in the production. Of the 31 picked from the Baltimore-Washington area, Miss Exler and Jamie Smith, 16, of Woodstock, were the only Howard County youths chosen.

The performance, which the Kennedy Center commissioned in honor of its 25th anniversary, was Miss Exler's first major role. She played Pepito's grandmother, performing two duets with Pepito, to music composed by Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter and composer Arturo Sandoval.

"This is just the greatest opportunity," Miss Exler said, sitting in her family's living room last week.

The role seemed appropriate because she was one of the oldest students in the musical. Because of her age, she and her mother, Barbara Exler, had doubts that she would be picked from the sea of 8- to 14-year-olds who auditioned.

Either way, she wanted to meet Ms. Allen.

During "vigorous" auditions, Ms. Allen -- whom Miss Exler found to be warmer than her tough-as-nails television alter ego -- taught the youngsters ballet and jazz combinations.

"After each combination, she put us into groups. Nobody knew if they were in a group who made it or not."

Two days later, Miss Exler received a letter. She was in.

"I was just star-struck when I first saw her," she said of Ms. Allen. "She is an idol of mine."

Ms. Allen's assistant, Stephen Smith, who attended the Baltimore School for the Arts, said Miss Exler and the other youngsters performed well. "I know Ms. Allen is very, very pleased with her," he said.

The words of praise didn't surprise Miss Exler's dance instructor, Gary David Shaw, who has known her since she was 9. "She's one of those rare dancers you find," said Mr. Shaw, who opened the Ethnikos Dance Theater of Maryland in Baltimore in October. "Right from the beginning, dance meant more than a job to her."

Miss Exler, who began dancing at age 3, views dance as a means of communication. "It's the most comfortable way I know of expressing what I feel besides talking," she said. "It's an outlet for me. If I'm angry, I dance. If I'm happy, I dance."

She has studied ballet, jazz and modern dance and has performed in "The Nutcracker" and other productions at the School for the Arts and pieces for Ethnikos.

As a senior at the Baltimore School for the Arts, where she studies dance, she can relate to the "Fame" characters, who portrayed students at a similar school in New York City.

Like the characters, she combines the arts with academics. But "we do not dance on tabletops, and we don't stop traffic," she said, laughing about the TV show's spontaneous dance sequences.

Miss Exler said she learned many lessons from Ms. Allen. Among them is the realization that her 5-foot-3 height could be a hurdle to a dancing career, though it was an obstacle Ms. Allen overcame.

"She told me because of my height, I have to make up for everything. Be bigger. Take the space," Miss Exler said.

Ms. Allen also told her young charges that they are not just dancers when on stage. "We're actors and actresses," Miss Exler said. "Everything tells a story."

There were also lessons to be learned offstage. One was how to relax after a late rehearsal. Ms. Allen reserved a suite for Miss Exler and six other Baltimore-area girls who planned to stay overnight.

"We put on CDs and danced around the room. We just had a good time," she recalled. "Ms. Allen got seven pints of Ben and Jerry's ice cream -- all flavors."

Miss Exler dreams of becoming a professional dancer and choreographer and has received a four-year scholarship from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where she plans to major in visual and performing arts, concentrating in dance choreography.

She "made the decision that [dancing] was her life" at age 7, Mrs. Exler said, adding: "I'd love for her to become a dancer, but I realize how difficult it is."

About 25 friends and family members saw Miss Exler's Kennedy Center debut. Her father, Jan Exler, raved about the show's music and costumes -- and his daughter's performance: "I was blown away."

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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