"WHEN I was 6 or 7 I thought, `Okay, I'll be the first female major league baseball player,' " says 16-year-old Herndon singing sensation Katy Benko. "Then I thought I'd be a lawyer, but then I knew I wanted to sing. Now I can't imagine anything but being a singer."
Good for us she came to that conclusion, because Katy Benko is one major league talent, if not in professional baseball then in the realm of popular song. The Oakton High School senior was mind-boggling last month at Sylvana's, a little restaurant and bar in Herndon that is her home base -- whenshe's not jetting to vocal competitions or recording sessions.
"Sylvana's is a great place for me to sing," says Benko, unsettlingly poised when talking about her career. "My dad and I stopped by one time after a softball game, and we played them the CD and asked if we could do some shows there. They said sure, and so we've been doing it every couple of months. It's so relaxed, so much fun, and it's pretty intimate."
Last month at Sylvana's, Benko was accompanied by just a guitarist, Jim Horton, who also is writing some of the songs Benko sings. While the sound system could have been better, it's hard to see how her voice could have been. Benko's got a powerful set of pipes and shows admirable restraint, not over-emoting during songs that truthfully sound a little odd coming from someone still in braces.
"My Heart Will Go On," "I Will Survive," "Independence Day." But Benko makes them work, and she's not just pulling some decent karaoke trick. She's interpreting the songs. Giving them meaning. Even the trite pop stuff.
In between songs she's telling the crowd very matter of factly about her extraordinary achievements this past August at the World Championships of Performing Arts, a kind of musical Olympics for teenagers. For her vocal performances, Benko won a total of three gold medals (in Gospel, Broadway and Original), one silver medal (Country) and two bronze medals (Pop and Variety). Her haul garnered her the title of Overall World Champion Vocalist, and the amazing thing is, she walked away with that title last year as well. Clearly big things are in store.
With her father, John Benko, by her side advising her, Katy has just signed a management deal with Glen Campbell's Nashville-based company, GC Management ("Country is my real musical love," she says), and she's looking at a William Morris Agency contract for representation. Asked if she was at all scared about her future, Benko seems almost surprised. "Scared? No, not at all. I'm not even impatient for it all to get started. It's just tremendously exciting. I know this is my big chance, the one I've been waiting for."
If she doesn't seem to want to rush things for now, it's because she's known what she's wanted for years. "I used to dress up and perform on the coffee table for everyone in the house," she says laughing. "I'd sing something by the Supremes or Lesley Gore, or maybe from `Singin' in the Rain.' Gene Kelly was always my favorite."
But after outgrowing the coffee table and still wanting to perform, one day it hit her. "I turned to my dad when I was 13, I think it was, and I said, `I want to go for it,' " Benko says. "But now that all this is happening, I feel like I can wait a little. I want to finish school so I can have one more year of playing softball. That's one of the big reasons for staying in school. I know I'll be singing the rest of my life, but I know I can't play softball all my life."
Benko will perform Friday at the Reston Community Center at 8 p.m. (2310 Colts Neck Road; 703/476-1111 or 703/476-4500) and Oct. 29 at Sylvana's (180 Station St., Herndon; 703/471-7878).
* To hear a free Sound Bite from Katy Benko, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8133. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
If you're swinging your partner across the dance floor, why not have that dance floor be the stage of one of the most beautiful theaters around?
Every Monday night on the stage of the Lincoln Theatre, the National Hand Dance Association holds classes from 7 to 9 p.m. Even though the music comes from CDs on a boombox, let your mind run free and imagine a full orchestra in the pit below you. In that romantic setting, instructors Michele Tibbs and William Alexander will show you the moves to a dance that Cassandra Newsome is hoping to save from fading into obscurity. Newsome, a vice president with the NHDA, says her mission is to "preserve this dance and educate people about it. It's part of our cultural heritage, not just in the District but in black communities all over the county. We teach the dance, but we also teach its historical roots."
Newsome says the dance that Tibbs and Alexander are teaching is the District's own variation on a theme. "This dance is particular to D.C. People don't dance like this anywhere else. It's not like the Philly Bop, not like Stepping. There are lots of intricate turns to this one, so people always say `Oh no, I couldn't do that!' But it's a beautiful dance, and they should really come out and try it."
Monday's session will be the third of an eight-week class, but Newsome wants to assure prospective students that it's not too late to jump in. And if this class gets a good response, she'd like to continue with another eight-week class in the beautifully restored theater. "What I was trying to do is get the lessons out of a club atmosphere and into another venue so children could come, too, if they wanted to," Newsome says. "I'd love to get it into D.C. Department of Recreation or into public schools. I don't see any reason why this couldn't be part of gym class. It would be a lot more interesting than most of what goes on, and it would be great for the kids to learn some of what their parents and their grandmas did."
For more information on the classes, call Newsome at 202/882-5002, or the NHDA at 202/479-1080. There's an NHDA Web site in the works that Newsome says will be up and running soon: www.nhda.org.
HIP-HOPPING TO THE TOP
Big things are happening in Brookeville, the little town just north of Olney. In a small brick house on five acres of land, the Crownsayers are mapping out their strategy for world domination. The band signed a record contract two months ago with Elektra, one of the labels under the vast Warner umbrella. The members are in the midst of planning the CD they'll be recording in their basement and then in some big-name studios in California. "It was definitely an A-level deal," says Sharkey, the band's onstage DJ. "We were personally signed by Sylvia Rhone, the president of Elektra, and what we heard was that the last band she got involved with personally was Third Eye Blind, so we're pretty optimistic about getting a lot of attention from the label."
Papa Zooks, who describes his role in the band as "rhyming, singing and jumping around a lot," says he knows the band is lucky, because "not a lot of bands are getting signed these days, and we were able to get good tour support and equipment budgets into the contract."
The Crownsayers have hit this rarefied level pretty quickly, having formed only two years ago from the ashes of two other bands, General Elevator and the Cavemen. "Those two bands used to play together all the time," says former Caveman Zooks. "We got along with Sharkey in General Elevator and so we [Zooks and fellow singing Caveman Mr. Kyte] ended up getting together when the bands broke up. We played together for almost a year before playing out. We wanted to hone what we were doing, so that live, it would be exactly what we wanted it to be."
The band's first show, Dec. 6, 1997, was a sold-out affair at the Metro Cafe, and it was the kind of performance that gets a scene buzzing. The music immediately caught the ears of the folks at local label DCide, who released a self-produced Crownsayers debut. "The best way to describe the music is hip-hop meets the Beatles," says Zooks. "The backbone can be described as hip-hop, but at the same time we incorporate strong melodies and singing." As for being suburban white guys playing hip-hop, he says that's a moot point. "How can anyone tell me that I don't feel hip-hop? We grew up with it. It's a huge part of who we are. I'm surprised that people even feel the need to talk about that issue anymore."
DCide records (along with local production company Gadfly Communications) shopped the Crownsayers to bigger labels, and after a particularly smoking show at L.A.'s notorious Viper Room, Elektra stepped up with a contract. "Honestly, I think they liked the fact that we have a lot of fun doing what we're doing, and that really comes across in our live shows," Zooks says. "We give our heart and soul up there, and people recognize that."
DCide has done an admirable job promoting local bands besides the Crownsayers. It recently released a two-CD set of 40 local bands, called "The 40." The Crownsayers kick off one of the discs, but the entire thing is worth a listen. Find it in stores (DCCD, Smash and Tower) or at www. dcide.com.
* To hear a free Sound Bite from the Crownsayers, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8134. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)