"THAT'S WHERE all the freaks go, that's where all the freaks go," says one junior, mimicking what she's heard kids from other high schools say about the students at Ellington. "Ever since 'Fame' came out, everybody thinks we're weird."
Washington's Ellington High School for the Arts is the school you choose if you have a bag of dreams, a bundle of talent and don't mind being thrown in with a few hundred no-name hopefuls who have brought along the same. It's where visions of stardom start as a glint in a freshman's eye and become a consuming passion by senior year. And it's where 500 students this year willingly devote most of their time to physically and emotionally grueling training. All in hopes of getting a shot at the top.
The odds are that only a few of them will. Most will not. They all know that. But within each there is a dream of fame. Why Not the Best
"There's nothing else I want to do now. Nothing else but perform," Andre Proctor insists. "You've heard of Pavarotti? I want to be like that. I want to be the most outstanding make singer in the world.
"My teacher, Mrs. Young, says I have the potential to be one of the best tenors of the future. She says, 'I think you can make it if you keep it up, Andre.' I say 'Yeah, okay.' He nods, signaling teen-age approval. At Ellington, Pavarotti is cool.
Proctor is a school star, a superior vocal talent in a place where even the average voices are really outstanding. Midway into his first year at Ellington, however, he wasn't sure he would be. mSo he transferred back to his regular high school because "I wanted to go back and show off what I'd learned."
"Can you believe that?" he says now, appalled at the thought and glad he returned after two months. "I realized that while I was showing off, my friends at Ellington were getting better than me."
At 17 his voice is still light but masculine and controlled, although sometimes there's a singsong hint of the way is used to be. He was a boy soprano when he first auditioned at Ellington: A 14-year-old kid with a Commodores album under his arm. The accompanist asked for sheet music. He handed her the album. Like many of the 400 young hopefuls who audition at Ellington every year, he was quite unprepared.
"Every time I think about it I laugh," Proctor chuckles, smiling with embarrassment. His voice had squeaked through the scales, settling nowhere near any standard vocal part. Keep growing and come back next year, they told him.
But a month later he was back at Ellington, this time with the music and lyrics to a pop ballard called "Feelings" -- and with the low notes and high notes well rehearsed. He was in.
Walking toward the baby grand piano in the tiny rehearsal room on the top floor, he strokes the yellowing ivories. A simple melody tinkles out. "This is the piano I auditioned with, right in this room," he says, lovingly running his fingers along the keys and hitting a high C. His signature tenor can reach it also.
Soon he will audition for both the Manhattan School of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music, two of the top schools in the country. But he says he won't audition for the Juilliard School, which he believes is the best.
"Oh, I'm not gonna apply there for a few years, maybe not until graduate school. I don't think I'm ready," Proctor says, although he admits he is more than qualified. His explanation? "I don't want to go to Juilliard until I can be on top there."
He smiles, then shrugs. "That's just the way I am." 6 O'Clock Legs
"You have dancers that'll cut your throat, rip your costume, break your leg and drop a safe on you just to get your part," Sandra Holloway whispers, her voice iced with paranoia. At 17, she's already convinced that professional dance is a world of dog-eat-dog rivalry in which friendships last only as long as there are enough good parts to go around. She's seen that at Ellington.
Take The Case of the Ripped Costume -- a school legend she recounts step by step as if relating a crime.
Last year, as she tells it, two students argued over who would dance at a recital on the night when noted choreographer Mike Malone would be in the audience. There was only one costume for two dancers -- alternates who were to perform every other night. The first alternate, although she had danced the preceding night, had no intention of missing this opportunity. She refused to hand over the costume. The two argued.The second finally gave in. Later, when the first dancer stepped into the costume, it peeled off, floating to the floor like a handful of ribbons. It had been ripped to shreds.
Still, Holloway wants to be a professional dancer. She's a senior and among Ellington's 95 dance students, she is one of the most talented, inspired and enthusiastic. But she know that a career as a dancer is a longshot even for the best, and the odds may be higher for her.
For one thing, her body is not the traditional graceful silhouette defined by a svelte torso and long, thin legs. She is a short 5-foot-1, and after losing 19 pounds she weighs 128. She knows she has a way to go.
Ellington is a school with high standards and a reputation for strict artistic discipline. To Holloway, the discipline often seemed almost unbearable. She remembers comments shouted at her and others in Ellington's basement dance studio: "Fifteen more pounds, Holloway" or "Oh, you'll never be a dancer, Holloway."
"If I didn't point my foot right, I'd cry. If I couldn't get my leg up to 6 o'clock, I'd cry about that too. I used to hate going down to dance. I would go down those steps and want to throw up."
Today the remarks still shouted across Ellington's dance floor seem a bit cruel to an outsider. But to Holloway -- well, not anymore. "I realize they were only preparing me for the professional world. So now, instead of being angry and discouraged, I put that energy into working harder."
She is the co-founder and director of "Hot," a popular teen dance troupe that, combined with school, keeps her going on weekdays from 7 in the morning till 9 at night. Her dream is a spot in the Alvin Ailey dance troupe "cause modern is fierce." It's a well known fact at Ellington that Holloway hates point work. But she has a secret ambition: to be a ballerina in the Dance Theater of Harlem.
Her immediate plans, however, reflect a cautious attitude. Eighty percent of Ellington's graduates go on to college for more training and that's what she plans to do. "It would be wonderful to go to New York University," she says, her face suddenly aglow and then just as suddenly dulled by doubt. "I just don't know about the money."
Short pause. (There is a lot of spirit in her: She once pulled a hamstring doing a split at the end of a dance routine, and smiled through the pain until the final curtain).
"Forget it," she says. "I'm gonna apply anyway." Practice Makes Perfect
Wilpert Brown's lower lip was swollen so badly that he could hardly talk. "Probably from too much practice," he explained. But in a few days the swelling is down and his embouchure is back to normal. So is his life: Brown lives to play the clarinet.
He is Ellington's top instrumentalist, the one orchestra director William Clark chooses when he wants the rest of the ensemble to know what a piece should sound like.
"Absolutely perfect, Ab-so-lute -ly," Clark says after Brown demonstrates a difficult staccato passage.
"Wilpert the machine," someone yells from the brass section. "He can do anything." Brown is the school's first clarinetist and concertmaster for the band. He is second-chair clarinetist in the D.C. Youth Symphony but plans to take first chair by January.
He is a quiet boy and, true to character, softly denies that he's Ellington's best. But in no other way is he modest about his playing. "I want to be the principal clarinetist in the Philadelphia Orchestra. Why? Because it's the best in the country. The National Symphony is okay, but it's young. Maybe I shouldn't say that. I just got accepted into their fellowship program."
Brown, 17, is one of 10 musicians picked last month for a coveted NSO fellowship. It promises him a year of study with the principal clarinetist, rehearsals with the orchestra and an NSO performance. Meanwhile, he commutes between home and Philadelphia monthly for private master classes with Anthony Giggliotti, the Philadelphia Orchestra's principal clarinetist -- the holder of the job Brown wants.
"After he's finished with it, of course." He smiles smugly."He's been there 30 years and you have to retire when you're 65. I figure his time is coming."
Brown knows he's good, but not how good. He doesn't know enough about music, he says, to make that judgment. He's only been playing for three years. In fact, he probably wouldn't know which end of the clarinet to blow into if it hadn't been for his music teacher at Hine Junior High. The teacher asked ninth-grader Brown to pick an instrument he'd like to learn. He asked for the "black saxophone," meaning the bass clarinet.
He auditioned at Ellington and then began progressing at a whirlwind pace. After two months of clarinet instruction, he was placed in the advanced instrumental music class among students with years of training. Meanwhile, he took free Saturday classes offered by the D.C. Youth Symphony, where in one year he went from playing with 6-year-olds to performing with the senior orchestra, one of the best of its kind nationally and internationally.
"I did it by practicing too much," Brown says, his lip still puffy. "I was so excited about playing the clarinet, I couldn't help but practice."
He is glued to that clarinet: There is youth symphony practice Saturday from 9 to 1, and music classes, ensemble rehearsal and private lessons at Ellington daily from 1 to 5, not to mention practice on his own after school and on weekends. Then there's the school lunch hour during which the hourly youngster says he'd rather practice than eat.
"Some kids don't like the rigorous rehearsal schedule at Ellington. I used to wonder why." His eyes squint with confusion. "I love to practice." The Nucleus of My Life'
Michaela Davis' sandy red hair is bushy, making her look much taller than most of the boys in her theater class. She wears black and white geometric earrings, a blue top with a black leopard print, black jeans and sneakers with black tiger stripes painted on them. She swears it's a normal school outfit, not a costume.
"I got fitted for a uniform at Georgetown Visitation once. Then I saw all these girls with the same skirt . . . the same blouse . . . the same sweater." Davis whispers the final astonishment, "And none of them were even dirty." That's the point at which she decided to go to Ellington instead, she says.
She is a 16-year-old junior theater major with visions of Broadway, though she's putting off until next year decisions about how she'll get there. But for now -- no agent, no resume, no subscription to Variety. None of the starry-eyed plans one expects from an aspiring actress. She's not into all that, she says.
And yet: "I'm dropping Davis when I turn 18. Michaela Angela . . . that sounds more like a stage name. More dramatic." Besides, she says, her mother was always inspired by the Sistine Chapel.
Davis can be a comedic genius on stage, according to her theater coach, Donal Lease. But seated just below the stage of a theater department rehearsal room her conversation is serious. "The nucleus of my life is in this building," she says, arms extended and palms upward as if in an embrace with the room. Like any good actress, she uses her body a lot.
"If you're in the building from 8 to 8, there's not much left. You can't be totally committed to everything you do. You have to have priorities." So Davis (who averages 3.8 in her acdemic subjects) says she will spend 15 minutes on English homework and an hour going over a script. There isn't much time left for parties, football, horror movies, pizza or boyfriends.
"There are very few relationships at Ellington. Well, maybe during the summer, but even then we hardly have the time. At least I don't."
Ellington's theater department is her second family. Although only a junior, theater chairman Lease already sees her as one of the strongest theater majors in the school -- a talented actress, competent director, proficient playwright and hardworking crew member.
"You can't be a loner here," Davis says with conviction. "You need to feed from other people."
She personifies the energy that flows down the theater department's electric-blue corridors. It is a force different from the rest of the school, restless and enigmatic. Loud wails and moans float out of a classroom one minute and laughter bursts out the next. Kids walk around in a fog of self-conversation. "Sometimes you don't know if they're spaced out or what," a teacher confesses. But the truth usually is that they're going over the lines of last night's homework assignment or dreaming up ideas for improvisation class.
Davis feels that special energy at Ellington. She can't count many friends who don't go to the school or aren't involved in the arts. She and a childhood pal are close, but she notes there's even a difference in that friendship. "A barrier between me and a civilian," as she puts it.
"Sometimes people do stereotype us," she says. "But I guess it's true."