Cecilia Barnes, 73, has nine children, 24 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, but she's still light on her feet and glad for any chance to show it.
"You live this long, you keep on moving as long as God lets you," says Barnes, who lives in Northeast Washington. Barnes will get her chance to dance at the first Metro Talent Search Grand Finale when the curtain goes up Saturday night at Constitution Hall on 28 amateur acts from the District, Maryland and Virginia.
For Barnes, dancing is more important than any award. "I love to dance," she says simply. "A thousand dollar prize? I never thought about the money."
But fame and a small fortune are on the minds of many contestants who've made it to the grand finale. In the process, they've bested 1,300 others during six weeks of preliminary competitions. They want to win.
"If I win, it would be the best thing that ever happened to me," says Diego Cortes Escobar, 27, a classical pianist from Bethesda. Usually soft-spoken, his voice has taken on an aggressive edge.
"Everybody'll be a winner," says Kitty Herndon, the Metro Talent Search coordinator. Winners in each of 14 categories will receive trophies, and the overall winner will take home a $1,000 cash prize.
In addition, Herndon says, Talent Search is trying to provide "incentive prizes" that will give contestants the chance to learn and perform beyond Saturday's competition. Herndon wants to arrange performances at the Kennedy Center for contestants in the classical categories, and would like to see the two actresses in the dramatic reading competition perform at Arena Stage.
"That's what we think is substantially more important than the thousand dollars," she said.
Talent Search has been bringing dreams closer to reality for local talent since 1977, when Councilman William R. Spaulding started it for his Ward 5 constituents. "The program got a lot of notoriety in the community and the question was, 'How come there's nothing like that in the entire District of Columbia?'" says Herndon, a member of Spaulding's staff now on leave to organize Talent Search.
"Well, it didn't take much for Bill Spaulding to say, 'Let's do this on a bigger scale.'" Since then, Talent Search has grown steadily: from a neighborhood contest, to three citywide competitions at Howard University's Cramton Auditorium to this year's gala. For the first time, the competition includes Maryland and Virginia residents.
"Last year we had 400 calls from Maryland, about 700 from Virginia," says Herndon, "but more importantly we got 90 applications when very clearly (the application) said District of Columbia residents only."
This year 1,503 groups and individuals applied. Twenty-eight acts made it to the finals. Ten are from the District, 13 are from Maryland and four are from Virginia. Triad Trio, a gospel singing group, includes residents from the District and Maryland.
Supported by a grant from Mobil and technical support from the D.C. Recreation Department, Catholic University and the public relations firm of Ofield Dukes and Associates, the grand finale has blossomed into a full-scale extravaganza show with 70 contestants in 28 acts, plus 30 dancers in the chorus line and an extra chorus of singers, in addition to stage and lighting crews, coaches, judges and musicians.
"Boy, do I get excited talking about the kids," Herndon bubbles, even though it's 9 a.m. and work is still piled high on her desk during the week before the grand finale. "This is the best talent that we've seen," she says. "It was diversity that was missing in previous shows which is going to make this one outstanding."
That diversity embraces classical pop, rock, jazz and gospel music, drama, mime and dance classics.
Representing the District are baritone John LeSane, aspiring actress Shirley Price, percussion soloist Lawrence Bradley, "T.E.A.K. Tumblers" and the vocal trio "Ladies of D.C." along with funk/rock bands "World Logic" and "East Force." "TNT Poppers" and "Hot," jazz and modern dance groups, are composed of students from Ellington School for the Performing Arts.
"Dance groups, that's going to be a stiff competition. I would not want to sit in the judges' seats that night," Herndon says.
"It's frightening to know that there are this many young, talented people out here," she says, shaking her head in amazement. "Maybe after this, some folks will realize we don't have to import talent. We can sit here and cultivate our own."