Distinguished Young Women Preliminaries

Originally posted on June 26, 2015 by Michelle Matthews

After the first six performances by the Distinguished Young Women in the first of two preliminary competitions Thursday night, co-host Amy Goodman – a journalist and former nationalWINNER of the program – proclaimed, “As a parent myself, I have chills watching these young women perform onstage.”

The first half of the 50 competitors took theMOBILE Civic Center Theater stage in downtown Mobile to perform for the very vocal crowd, who yelled for their favorites and held signs with their favorites’ names and photos on them.

Brooke Rucker, the 2014 Distinguished Young Woman of America, started the show at 7 p.m. with a dance that was reminiscent of “Peter Pan” – Rucker, in a white costume, seemed to throw stars, Tinkerbell style, with her shadow behind her, her own voice providing a narrativeBACKGROUND for her dance routine.

And then, she pulled down a panel of white fabric to reveal the 50 Distinguished Young Women onstage, all wearing the same multi-colored tops paired with white, pink, blue or green jeans. They shook their hips and did a little dance to “I Just Want to Celebrate,” as, one by one, they introduced themselves to shouts from the appreciative audience.

Co-hosting with Goodman was actor David Weincek, who has worked with Distinguished Young Women for a decade and is in his eighth year as host of the finals. Together, they teased Rucker about the selfies and other photos she’s taken in recent days in Mobile, which she referred to as “a second home now.”

Goodman, who said she’s returned to Mobile on and off since she won the program in 1991, said that “each participant in this program is already aWINNER in her own right.”

The hosts reminded the audience that the show is being live-streamed atdistinguishedyw.org.

The difficult task of choosing aWINNER from the 50 recent high school graduates goes to the four judges, who were introduced to the crowd: Dr. Doretha Walker, an assistant professor, activist and author; Matt Vinson, a composer, pianist and musical director; Laura Asiala, a former Michigan Distinguished Young Woman; Jenny Hamilton, another alumna who is the executive director of the New Orleans Ballet Association; and actor Eric Dysart.

The judging criteria is 20 percent scholastic (a review panel evaluated the girls’ high school transcripts and grades); 25 percent interview (a 10-minute, one-on-one conversation that hasALREADY taken place); 25 percent talent; 15 percent fitness; and 15 percent self-expression, the hosts explained.

The average ACT score of the young women, by the way, is 31.

And so, at the Thursday nightEVENT, the audience would see the pink and green group do their talents, and the orange and purple groups do fitness and self-expression. The hosts kept things going quickly, and the fast-paced show took about two-and-a-half hours from start to finish.

Among the highlights in the 90-second talent portion of thePROGRAM was the Bollywood dancing number by Vermont’s Neerja Patel; a “Candide” operetta by Nevada’s Kaylyn Taylor; Arizona’s Joanna Gurr’s dynamic violin performance of V. Monti’s “Csardas”;  New Jersey’s Madison Beumee singing and dancing to “I Wanna Be a Rockette” – and, with her long legs and high kicks, she definitely looks the part of a Rockette; Maine’s Antonella Oms doing a hip-hop dance, dressed Michael Jackson-style, to Chris Brown’s “Turn Up the Music”; Oregon’s Melory Mirashrafi singing “Blow Gabriel Blow” from Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” in a fringe-trimmed flapper dress; and a fierce, passionate dance to Beyonce’s “I Was Here” by North Carolina’s Kadee Beasley.

The most unique performance of the night had to be that of Hawaii’s Tianzhen Nie who started out on the Chinese zither and segued into a spoken-word piece, “Made in China,” that lamented being a second-generation immigrant. “The mother language is a trail of breadcrumbs that will always follow you,” she said.

A touching moment occurred when the hosts introduced a Distinguished Young Woman who, when she was born with a cleft palate, wasn’t expected ever to be able to talk. Not only can she talk, but Connecticut’s Emily Everlith sang, like an angel, to “Sebben Crudele” by Antonio Caldara. (She wants to be a maxillofacial surgeon.)

For the fitness part of the show, the young women performed a lengthy, high-energy routine to will.i.am’s “That Power,” which included a solo for each one to do the same series of tricky moves while the rest of the group did squats and jumping jacks in theBACKGROUND.

In the self-expression portion, the young women came out in two groups wearingSHORT cocktail dresses and paraded around in a choreographed walk in which they had to avoid walking into each other while gazing out at the audience with a smile on their faces. The first set had to go to the microphone and talk about the biggest challenge she’ll face in college this fall.

Ohio’s Claire Coder got laughs for her answer that included “keeping earrings intact.” West Virginia’s Kristiana Sklioutovskaya-Lopez  gave a philosophical answer aboutSTEPPING outside her comfort zone and speaking up “because I don’t want to hold on to that pile of regret,” she said. And South Carolina’s Caitlyn Penter said that her hometown, Myrtle Beach, has been her identity, so she’s challenged with “discovering my new identity, the new me.”

The second set in the self-expression group had to say what a book about their life would be called. Their answers were, for the most part, thoughtful and revealing of their personalities. New Hampshire’s Katherine Smith answered honestly that her book would be entitled “Fearless in Five-Inch Heels.” “I’m 6 feet tall, but I’m not afraid to put heels on,” she said. She plans to go to a college that’s 70 percent male, she said, and she plans toSTUDY engineering.

When half of the Class of 2015 had finished, the “Has Beens” from 2014 received a couple of community awards. Local businesses then awarded the Distinguished Young Women of 2015 with Bel Air Mall’s Community Service Award for $1,500 to Pennsylvania’s Catherine Zhang; the Wintzell’s “My Town” award for $2,000 to New Mexico’s Natalie Benson; the Daily Journal Award of $1,500 from AL.com and the Press-Register to Tennessee’s Ashley Stevens; and two awards from Reggie Copeland, a founder of thePROGRAM, of $1,000 each for Colorado’s Isabel Brown and Arizona’s Joanna Gurr.

The second half of the preliminaries will be held Friday night at 7 p.m. Watch as the show is streamed live at www.distinguishedyw.org.

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