The 22 members of the LaVerne Reed Dance Company, who will perform tonight at the Warner Theater in the opening of the three-day City Dance '78, are city dancers in more than one sense.

Besides being city residents, they all have been trained at city expense by LaVerne Reed, dance director for the Cultural Activities Division of the D.C. Recreation Department.

The young dancers, ages 15 to 22, will be on the city payroll over the summer and will receive minimum wages to give free dance concerts at parks, recreation centers and other civic centers throughout the District. They will perform under then name D.C. Dance Ensemble.

In order to perform in City Dance '78, sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society, the Reed dancers auditioned with over 40 area groups. Nine companies were selected by the panel of 22 judges.

Tonight the company will perform excerpts from four dances choreographed by Reed that draw on ballet, jazz and contemporary dance styles. Reed said the evening will prove that the company, after four years of working together, has attained professional caliber.

Several of the dancers, such as 15-year-old Patty Jacobs, attend Ellington High School for the Arts. One of six children, Jacobs decided four years ago that she wanted to be a dancer. Her mother enrolled her in a $10 course at the Shepherd Park Recreation Center.

At that time Reed, who had taught dance at all the recreation centers as a visiting instructor since 1969, was handpicking a showcase group to perform at civic events for the recreation dapartment. She chose Jacobs for her talent, dedication and inability to afford private lessons.

"If I didn't train them, most of these kids wouldn't be dancing," said Reed, referring to the high cost of lessons, dance shoes, leotards and transportation to classes.

She also has been able to instill a love of dance in teenagers who might not have responded to strict classical training. For her dances and classes, Teed uses the contemporary songs students hear on the radio. "Once they enjoy dancing, they don't mind the grind of the turnout," said Reed about the difficulty of mastering that ballet technique. "They don't mind the hard work and the sacrifice."

Jacobs, who had to give up basketball in order to come to classes and rehearsals at least four times a week, makes the same point: "Other places teach you technique, but they don't teach you to like it." Howard University donates studio space for the classes and rehearsals.

Reed, 28, now principal dancer for Louis Johnson and Resident choreographer for Howard University, has been teaching dance since the age of 15. After studying for 10 years with the Pennsylvania School of Ballet, she combines rigorous ballet training with dances that draw on the students' own experiences and fantasies.

In "Sparkle," one of the dances on tonight's program, three of the shyest company members (including Jacobs) will don red sequined costumes to do a jazz number inspired by the movie "Sparkle" with songs by Aretha Franklin. "Sweet Lucy," which will premiere tonight, is about a dance marathon in the early sixties. It includes period dances from the tango and cha-cha to the jerk, monkey and twine.

Through the sponsorship of the D.C. Recreation Department, the LaVerne Reed dancers get something most dance students don't - a kind of on-the-job training in performance skills. They give about 40 dance concerts over the summer.

Reed considers an emphasis on projection and role-playing one of the most important aspects of her own style of dance training.

"We are dancers who are technical, plus we can sell it," said company member F. Dion Davis. "That's what we're about."

To balance the company, which was at first mostly female, Reed recruited students from dance classes at the Jones-Haywood School (home of the Capitol Ballet) and Howard University. One of these was Davis, who came to Howard to study music education but now is aiming for Broadway.

Most of the Reed dancers envision a career in dance. Francis Drayton, a Howard student whose specialty is tap, and Kathy Merrick, a senior at Academy of the Holy Names who likes to act, want to perform in Broadway musicals.

Michael Goring, on leave from Louis Johnson's company, plans to return home to the Barbados and start his own dance company after graduating from Howard. One company member has been accepted at Julliard, and several others will auditioning for the Washington Ballet, the Capitol Ballet and other local troupes.

For all, Reed recommends a college education. "An educated dancer gets a job," she said. "You must have an alternative to fall back on, like teaching, choreography or dance therapy."

Twenty-year-old Phyllis Reid of Northeast, for example, is keeping her options open by signing up for Howard's pre-law program.

Reed also has a junior company of apprentice dancers waiting in the wings. She would like her senior performing company to keep growing, too with better costuming, additional teachers and a year-round salary for the dancers.

To make this happen, it's the same old story - more money. Reed sees participation in City Dance '78 as an important step in applying for a government or foundation grant.

For the dancers, it's a chance to compete with some of Washington's most established dance companies. Said one member, "We're gonna turn it out."