Auditions are over for Talent Search 2006. Forty-eight singers and 24 dancers have advanced to the competition rounds. Let’s meet some of them:

Brandon Long, 18-year-old from Oak Park, wowed the judges with the soulful ballad, “In Your Hand.” Long has been singing for eight years and belongs to a contemporary gospel group called The Ensemble. He has a “volunteer” vocal coach but will begin paying for lessons as soon as he starts his full-time job.

“I was very nervous at the audition,” Long said. “I’d never sung that song out like that.” It was his best friend who selected the song and gave him some pointers. “I was able to connect with the song and incorporate gestures,” said Long. A natural tenor, Long can sing as high as third soprano. This is fitting, because Long will be soaring with “So High” at Molly Malone’s on April 22.

Alexus Smith, 10-year-old from Forest Park, was also nervous during her audition. “I meant to use my hands and move around, but I didn’t,” she confessed. Nonetheless, her rendition of “Hero” by Mariah Carey won over the judges.

When Smith performs at the Buzz Café, on April 23, she’ll perform a number she already sang at her school’s talent show: “Respect.” She hopes to include some finger-snapping ala Aretha Franklin. Smith’s goal for Talent Search 2006 is quite modest.

“I want to win the competition.”

Siana Ruffin, an eighth-grader from Oak Park, also has lofty goals. She passed the audition with her heartfelt rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and hopes to someday perform the anthem at a Sox or Cubs game”in that order. Why did she pick such a difficult song? “I sing it all the time around the house,” Ruffin said, “And my mom said I sang it well.”

Unlike many of the competitors, Ruffin didn’t have any jitters in front of the judges. “I wasn’t nervous at all. I don’t mind singing in public.” In fact, she has already qualified for a competition at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, which will be held in July 2006. “My goal is to take my singing to the highest peak,” Ruffin said.

Speaking of peaks, Ruffin is a first soprano who loves to run her voice up and down the scale. When she performs at the Pasta Shoppe, on April 30, Ruffin’s voice will caress “I Will Always Love You” by one of her favorite singers, Whitney Houston.

As for the dancers, Olivia Saunders encountered a performer’s worst nightmare when she brought the wrong CD to her audition. The 15-year-old from Oak Park went on with the show anyway and belly-danced to “Rock the Kasbah.”

Saunders first heard about belly-dancing from her mother and has been taking lessons for 2½ years at Grow In Motion studio in Forest Park. Prior to that, she took ballet, tap and tumbling lessons as a young girl. Saunders has also studied hip-hop and modern dance at Hubbard Street.

When she performs at the 19th Century Club on April 28, Saunders is determined to bring the right CD. She’ll be belly-dancing to a song by the Butthole Surfers.

Jacob Cousin, 16-year-old from Oak Park, has never taken a dance lesson. However, he was still able to impress the judges with his hip-hop dancing to “Lose Control.” The self-proclaimed freestyler, “Just wanted to see if he could pass the audition.”

Now that he’s advanced to the competitive rounds, Cousin intends to freestyle to a personal dance mix. Audiences can check out his original moves at the 19th Century Club, on April 29.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.