Now that Danza Viva & Wednesday Journal Talent Search 2006 has reached the semifinals, qualifying words like “but” and “however” have crept into the judges’ critiques. The competitors in Youth Dance and Youth Vocals were not just hearing words of praise. They received astute criticism to help them shape their next performance.

For example, Elizabeth Healy, a 16-year-old from Forest Park, was told to “open up more” when she “pops up to her pretty little breathy notes.” Healy sang “I’m Not That Girl” in the crowded confines of The Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor in Forest Park. She followed it up with another ballad, “Fields of Gold,” at Park National Bank in Oak Park.

The bank was packed on the evening of May 11 with 140 spectators. Healy was instantly recognizable in the crowd with her trademark red hair. “I love the contest,” she said, “I love the feedback from the judges, and I’ve made friends with the other singers.”

The sophomore from Trinity High School also loves Forest Park. “It’s not too big and everyone knows each other.” Healy’s singing career began in Forest Park, when she belted out “Leader of the Pack” at a first grade talent show. She continues to perform in her hometown, appearing in a number of Circle Theatre productions.

Now that she’s one of the three surviving singers in Youth Vocals, she’s not sure what she’s going to sing next. “I’ve already done three ballads,” Healy said, “so I’m going to bust it out with a faster song.” Healy has won an hour of recording studio time by getting to the finals although she’s not planning a life on the stage. She’s already working with mentally challenged children and hopes to make that her career.

Annie Weinheimer, who is also among the three finalists in youth vocals, is thoroughly enjoying Talent Search 2006. “The other singers want to win, but they’re good sports,” Weinheimer said. “They’ve been cheering for the other performers.” Weinheimer identified the chief cheerleader as none other than Elizabeth Healy.

Weinheimer, an 11-year-old from River Forest, won over judges and competitors alike with her rendition of “Journey to the Past” from Anastasia. Before appearing at the bank, Weinheimer had given an equally powerful performance at the Buzz CafĂ©. Her sustained notes on “At Last” gave at least one judge goose bumps.

“I’ve been in all my school plays and two talent contests,” Weinheimer said. But those contests were not as large-scale as Talent Search 2006. “The criticisms and complements from the judges have actually helped me.”

As for her musical tastes, Weinheimer prefers old standards”upbeat, jazzy songs like “Get Happy” which she will sing in the finals at FitzGerald’s on May 25. “I like listening to pop songs but they don’t really show off my talent.” An alto who can also reach the high notes, she’ll get a chance to show her stuff in a studio, as she, too, has already won an hour of recording time.

The six surviving youth dancers assembled at Francesca’s Fiore, in Forest Park. A small but enthusiastic crowd was treated to some great dancing, enhanced by the delicious aroma of roasted garlic. Danza Viva director Rebecca Huntman said the contest was “planting a seed in the hearts” of the young dancers. She hopes they can continue to grow that seed through hard work.

Nazarij Blagyy demonstrated that, pound for pound, he’s the hardest worker in show business. Dancing in front of his delighted parents, Blagyy commanded the floor with his break-dancing, backflips and handstands. As usual, he incorporated difficult gymnastic moves into his hip-hop dance.

According to the appreciative judges, Blagyy “hit the big moves at precisely the right moment.” They also commented on his “great smoothness of movement.” Another judge confessed that she could watch him dance all day long. Blagyy may be pint-sized but there’s a fierce power to his dancing. He works so hard at it, he’s acquired muscles and a “six pack” just from dancing.

Isabella Diaz got the crowd revved up with her fiery tap-dance to “Born to Boogie.” Dressed in an equally fiery red costume, Diaz nailed her tap steps to the honky-tonk song. She had the whole crowd clapping along, as she cavorted around the floor.

Diaz used a folding chair and her hat as props. She started the number in an unusual way”seated with her back to the judges. Then she danced around the chair, as if it were a game of “musical chairs.” Her moves were sharp and her flying feet made their own music.

Judges acknowledged it was a “stretch” to use a country song for a tap number. But they described Diaz’s performance as a “triumph” because her “country persona made it believable.” One judge admitted that tap was her least favorite dance but she loved the number. Diaz is the only female among the three finalists.

If starting a dance with your back to the judges is different, Marcus Coleman’s opening was completely outside the box. The 12-year-old from Oak Park began his dance stretched out on the floor, apparently slumbering on a pillow. As the strains of “Run It” started. Coleman did a realistic rendition of a 12-year-old boy reluctantly rising from his bed. That’s because he has daily practice.

“It’s hard for me to get up in the morning,” the lanky dancer confessed. He decided to internalize that feeling and sell it to the judges. Coleman was all action once he was awake. He used the whole floor during the hip-hop routine, including a “reach out” to his mom.

At the end of his exhausting exercise, Coleman’s head landed perfectly back on the pillow. The judges commented on how far Coleman has come since auditions. They included “but” and “however,” though, pointing out that Coleman could add break-dancing and improve his interaction with the audience.

When you ascend to the finals, you have to be ready for some criticism.

This weekend

The second round of semifinals (adults this time) will be held this weekend with Adult Dance at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, May 19 at Danza Viva, 46 Lake St. Adult Vocals will be held at La Piazza, 410 Circle Ave. in Forest Park on Sunday, May 21 at 4 p.m. The public is invited to attend.

The finals will be held at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn on Thursday, May 25 at 7 p.m.

Youth Vocal finalists :

Alyssa Allgood, Elizabeth Healy, Annie Weinheimer

Youth Dance finalists :

Nazariiy Blaggy, Marcus Coleman, Isabella Diaz

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.