Danza Viva/Wednesday Journal Talent Search 2006 continues to spread excitement, as the adult and youth dance competitions got underway this past weekend. The audience at the 19th Century Club got to watch both age groups tear up the floor on April 28.

Over a hundred spectators crowded into the club’s ballroom to support the dancers. Danza Viva Director Rebecca Huntman told the crowd she felt right at home in the elegant setting, thanks to her background in ballroom dancing. She mentioned the club had been built in 1927 to promote youth welfare, dance and diversity. All were on display during the evening’s contest.

D.J. Mick was once again the MC, as he has been for every session of the talent search. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” said the Oak Park resident. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have a front row seat, and I’ve been blown away by the talent.” He acts as a liaison between the performers and the audience and has excelled at drawing out the contestants and putting them at ease.

Anna Whelan took the stage to perform a Latin dance that incorporated some superb skirt-whipping. Isabella Diaz, who wore an emerald green skirt, followed her.

The color of the dress was appropriate, as Diaz performed a ballet to Irish music. “It was the only green costume I had,” said the 10-year-old from Chicago. “My mom made me squeeze into it.” Diaz didn’t display any discomfort; in fact, she displayed great body control during her ballet moves and finished her number in a fury of Irish steps.

Diaz has been dancing since age 4 and studies tap, jazz, Latin and hip-hop. “I’ve met a lot of new people and I like hanging out with the other dancers,” she said. Diaz also had quite a cheering section at the club, which included immediate family, grandparents and friends.

Among the adults enthralled by Diaz’ dancing was one of the judges, Brenda Zepeda, who is operational manager at Danza Viva and also teaches classes. “It’s been great being a judge,” Zepeda said, “I’ve seen a wide variety of styles.” Zepeda noted that some of the dancers “have great talent but lack technique. It’s tough to perform solo because these dancers are used to performing with groups and companies. Some look like their face has been numbed, others enhance their performance with a personal spark.”

Few performers had more spark than Nazariy Blagyy. The 9-year-old from Chicago strutted across the stage in a white T-shirt, torn jeans and a fedora. He began his hip-hop number with a handstand and later threw in splits and break-dancing. “I like combining gymnastics with dance,” he said, “I practice gymnastics five hours a day at Lake Shore Academy.” Blagyy has only been taking dance lessons for 10 months. “My mom and dad thought I danced pretty good, so they signed me up.”

Blagyy is one of only two boys in the dance competition, not that he minds it. “I always like to be different,” he declared. The judges applauded him for his stage presence, his “awesome” facial expressions and how “passion comes out of every molecule of his body.”

They were also impressed with Bernadette Levi. The 11-year-old from Chicago is the only performer to advance in the singing and dance competitions. At the 19th Century Club, Levi wore gray sweats, a black top and a whole lot of attitude. Her hip-hop number was well choreographed and contained some excellent “robot” moves. However, the judges asked her to vary her facial expressions, no matter how much serious vibe she wanted to put out.

Levi certainly hasn’t lacked expressiveness during the vocal competition. She had the crowd clapping along during her funky take on “What Goes around Comes Around” at the Buzz Café. “I’ve been singing my whole life. When I was four years old, I sang at a fair and my mom was shocked by how good I sounded. I’ve been dancing since I was two.”

Last up at the youth dance contest was the effervescent Shannon Bell. The 11-year-old from Berwyn brought down the house with her swing dancing to “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Wearing a white dress and a big smile, Bell lit up the ballroom. Her hair, which extended below her waist, also seemed part of her costume.

“I got my last hair cut when I was four,” Bell said. By that age, Bell was already taking dance lessons. She has studied jazz, African and Latin dances, as well as tap, hip-hop and swing. She performed an African dance at her audition and chose swing because “I already did African and jazz, so I thought I’d throw in something fun.”

Bell is already having fun with the other dancers, as they’re all pulling for each other. She hopes to win a prize but doesn’t plan to make a career out of dancing. “I want to be a Supreme Court justice when I grow up,” she declared. The “supreme court” at the 19th Century Club told Bell she dances with her heart and advised her not to cut her hair, because it could never hide her dancing.

The adult contest started later that night and continued the next afternoon at Slaton’s Supper Club. About 50 spectators squeezed into the supper club to enjoy the dancing and the half-price menu. They were treated to the moves of Jasmine Collins, whose African dance provided judges with “360 degrees of enjoyment.” Theresa Cognac, with her intoxicating eyes, mesmerized them with her belly dance. Olivia Saunders, in an equally “smashing costume,” showed great flexibility as a belly dance/snake charmer, bringing to mind the movements of an “exotic bird.”

Yuriy Nartov, a ballroom dancer who had just broken up with his partner, performed solo in his black sequined shirt. He was commanding with his flamenco dancing and showed he didn’t need a partner for the rumba.

Mickey D. Smith, Jr., who journeyed all they way from the 414 Area Code, was among the most electrifying dancers. His hip-hop “floor exercise” used every square inch of Slaton’s space. His leaps and extensions were awesome.

One of the most intriguing performers was Keeley Morris, who had sported an Afro wig at the 19th Century Club. At Slaton’s she wore a baseball cap and a white sweatshirt, as she performed a routine that combined hip-hop, ballet and break-dance. The judges observed that she “hit every beat hard” with her fluid moves.

The 15-year-old sophomore from Oak Park and River Forest High School started dance lessons at age six. However, she took a few years off before resuming her training at Danza Viva. “In freshman year, I played basketball and baseball. That summer I danced in Grease, and I realized I was very comfortable dancing.”

“I used to be a really shy person but dance has helped me,” said Morris, “Way back when I was shy, I would never have gone out on stage with an Afro.” The wig was part of Morris’ jazz/African interpretation of an 80’s mix. “I decided, ‘Let’s go all out with the 80’s thing.”

Talent Search 2006 is attracting overflow crowds. At the Pasta Shoppe youth vocals on April 30, the audience numbered over 100. Some had to watch from the sidewalk, where they held signs supporting their favorite young singer.

Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor, 7314 Madison, Forest Park, May 4, 7 p.m.

Danza Viva, 46 Lake St., May 5, 7:30 p.m.

Slaton’s Supper Club, 144 S. Oak Park Ave., May 6, 1 p.m.

Scoville Square, 137 N. Oak Park Ave., May 6, 4 p.m.

Final Elimination Round contestants

Adult Vocals

Zerin Alguendez, Mara Dale, Elliot Dawson, Shannon Egan, Hillary Esqueda, Emily Goldberg, Aaron Gordon, Charles Little, Rene Matthews, Jessica McClain, Christina Meadowcroft, Anastasia Pappageorge, Simone Woods

Youth Vocals

Jesse Avila, Alyssa Allgood, Melissa Chvala, Zach Epstein, Elizabeth Healy, Maggy Kucera, Bernadette Levi, Larissa May, Marianna Oharenko, Jazmine Reynolds, Annie Weinheimer, Eliana Womack

Adult Dancers

Amanda Bell, Krystle Coleman, Theresa Cognac, Jasmine Collins, Johana Cousin, Keeley Morris, Yuri Nartov, Olivia Saunders, Mickey Smith

Youth Dancers

Shannon Bell, Nazariy Blaggy, Marcus Coleman, Isabella Diaz, Bernadette Levi, Ariana Macedo, Cameron Pilcher, Andranay Redditt, Anna Whelan


John Rice

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.