Arts Beat: Remembering Lorilee Silvaggio

Jan 26, 2021

For 26 years, the name Lorilee Silvaggio was known to KCBX listeners through her weekly show “From Ballet to Broadway.” And for decades, she was known to the larger San Luis Obipo community for her world of dance. Lorilee Silvaggio died from ovarian cancer in late 2020 at age 73. KCBX’s Greta Mart spoke to people who knew Silvaggio well in this remembrance of the late San Luis Obispo trailblazer.

Born and raised in Modesto, Lorilee Silvaggio studied ballet from a young age.

“My mother and her sister, Deanna, also trained in San Francisco,” said Alexa Silvaggio. “So her parents would drive her into the city to train classically. And by the age of 18, my mother was actually a professional ballroom dancer and winning competitions internationally.”

Alexa is Silvaggio’s youngest daughter.

“So she really got her start in ballroom dance, but was of course classically-trained, did some TV work in LA...was on several shows as a professional dancer,” Alexa said. “And then when she moved to San Luis Obispo [she] began her own dance school.”

Silvaggio earned a teaching degree before moving to San Luis Obispo with her first husband, who attended Cal Poly. After not finding any luck getting a local teaching job, she opened up a dance school in her garage at age 21. In 1977, she founded the Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo, the first professional ballet company on the Central Coast.

‘She did everything from take dancers to the People's Republic of China, to an exchange in Spain, to taking dancers to Cuba—it was actually the first time since 1957 that Americans had even been on a cultural exchange in Cuba,” Alexa said.

Fifty years later, the SLO Civic Ballet is going strong, led by her son Drew Silvaggio.

And at age 50, Lorilee Salvaggio switched gears. She went back to school to become a psychotherapist and opened her own practice in Stockton.

“Lori...she had this amazing gift where she could lift anybody up if they were feeling down,” said Jennifer Blomfield. “And how she would do it is she would engage you with questions that brought out the best of you. I saw her do it with her kids;I saw her do it with students and volunteers of the ballet and even her closest friends. And so it was pretty clear that she would move into the healing arts of being a therapist because she already innately had those gifts.”

Blomfield and Lorilee Silvaggio were close friends.

“She and I became friends and her children and my children danced together, and did the China show and the Cuba show,” Blomfield said. “And, then we moved across the street from each other. So I, one time moved onto [San Luis Obispo’s] Buchon Street, my kids and I lived at Lori’s house.”

Many who knew Silvaggio spoke of her drive and her ambition, but not just for herself:

“It kind of all is involved in helping other people get to where they want to go,” said Jackie Lee, a longtime colleague and friend of Lorilee. “I know the whole ballet company was because she studied ballet and stuff, but she never had the opportunity to completely achieve her dreams because her body type—back then (and [for] me too) [it was] really hard, they looked for a long, tall ballerina with a long neck and skinny, and, if you didn't have that right body type, right turnout and feet and everything, you had no chance to be a ballerina.”

“I think she started the company for that reason—to let people that aren't perfect ballerinas train and become perfect ballerinas,” Lee continued. “Today, it's completely different. You can become a ballerina with any type of body, any turnout—it's the work that you put forward into things. And I think that's what she brought up in her students—that it's not what you look like, it's how much work you put into it to become successful. And she gave people the opportunity to be up on stage being the Sugar Plum Fairy when maybe they never would in some other situation.”

“I think giving opportunity to her students and a work ethic and a method of leading their lives—whether they were dancers or not—that you work for the things that you want to get in life, they aren't just handed to you,” Lee said. “That's what she did. She worked for the things that she wanted in her life, and she worked hard and she achieved them.”

Lee teaches at the Academy of Dance and is a ballet mistress.

“I just walked in and asked her for a job,” Lee said. “That was the first time I met her.”

Lee ended up working with Silvaggio for years.

“We even had a little group that she took around even to try to audition for like cruise ships and things like that,” Lee said. “She was just involved. She got ideas in her head and she just went full out for them. Always. She never did anything halfway.”

Helene Dinsmoor was six when her mother enrolled her at Silvaggio’s Academy of Dance. Forty years later she still dances with company.

“Words that come to mind when I think of her—she was captivating,” Dinsmoor said. “She would give amazing speeches to us of encouragement. She was inspiring. She just had really high expectations of her company, her dancers, the performances she put out.”

Dinsmoor says she’s danced in every SLO Civic Ballet ‘Nutcracker’ production since 1982, except for the year her daughter was born, and was close with Lorilee and the entire Silvaggio family.

“She just pushed you to be the best,” Dinsmoor said. “She taught more than just dance steps. I mean, she taught the discipline that I have carried throughout my whole life...and [she taught] just respect and doing your best and pushing yourself to be the best. And she just was very inspiring. I mean, that's the main word that comes to mind when I think of her.”

Dinsmoor, Blomfield and Lee all say Lorilee made her mark by lifting up others.

“She definitely has a big legacy that's still going strong in this community,” Dinsmoor said. “And I think it benefits many people, on the stage and in the audience—I think it's just a really special thing to be a part of.”

“I just think of her persuasiveness in getting things done with the people around her, her drive, her always wanting to go to the next level,” Lee said. “[First] she's got this studio that's in her garage, and then all of a sudden she has one downtown and then she has a jazz company, and then she has a ballet company, nd then, you know, she just keeps going and then she goes back to school and becomes psychotherapist. She just does more in her lifetime to make an impression and a life path for others than most people do. Definitely. She made her footprint in the world.”

“She left an imprint on everyone that she met, that kind of stuck to the marrow of your bones, as far as feeling that sense of nourishment, that sense of gratitude,” Alexa Silvaggio said.

According to Lorilee Silvaggio’s obituary, “in lieu of flowers, consider making a donation to the nonprofit she began over 40 years ago, The Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo. There will be a memorial for our extraordinary Lorilee at some point in 2021.”

The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County.