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For some, it takes decades to find that thing they’re passionate about; for others, it’s something they discover before they’ve even lived a decade.

Three young, local artists have been lucky enough to discover their passions early in life, and whether it be acting, dancing or singing — or a little of each — these teens have spent much of their young lives pursuing those passions.

For all three it’s paying off so far, as they’ve each made it to the semifinals of the The Music Center’s 33rd annual Spotlight program, along with some of Southern California’s most talented high school students in seven categories: acting, ballet, dance, classical voice, non-classical voice, classical instrumental and jazz instrumental.

The free program offers teens performance opportunities, audition experiences and mentorship through technical and artistic insight given at each round, along with more than $100,000 in scholarships.

“We want students to apply who have a passion for the arts … and a love of the art form,” said Jeri Gaile, director of Spotlight.

It’s exactly that artistic passion that all three local teens exemplified, as they continued through two rounds of virtual auditions to the semifinals.

Andrew Bond performs as Dodger from Oliver! The Musical. Courtesy

A natural-born love of the stage

From a young age, Santa Clarita resident Andrew Bond, 16, realized he loved to perform.

“Anytime I’d have birthday parties, I’d put on a show,” Bond said. “I knew I wanted to be on stage and perform and make people laugh. … No matter what it is, I love singing, dancing, acting, creating — anything like that where I make something and I get a reaction.”

So, when he started acting in musicals in junior high, he knew almost immediately he wanted to continue to pursue it, and soon, found himself in acting lessons and attending Los Angeles County High School for the Arts.

With many performances unable to occur due to the pandemic, Bond thought Spotlight would be the perfect opportunity to continue to hone his skills.

“I think I really wanted to do it because the experience you get from auditioning is amazing, and any opportunity to perform is incredible — especially during the pandemic,” Bond said.

While virtual, Bond was excited to perform and be presented with the opportunity to learning how to adapt to the digital medium, including setting up lighting and adjusting the camera to find the right angle.

Andrew Bond, left, performs during Los Angeles County High School for the Arts’ musical theater showcase. Courtesy

A love for the thrill of performing

Similarly, Francine Mae Peji, a 17-year-old Valencia High School senior, found herself hooked on dance after her first performance.

“Having that audience reception to my performance was something that I really loved,” Peji said. “It gives you a really big thrill and a rush.”

Now, she’s been dancing for 13 years both at Dance Studio 84 in Valencia and more recently with Reverb Tap Company, both of which she credits for her success thus far. 

“I just always felt like there’s so much to learn that I always just wanted to keep growing within my craft and I think I realized that as I started getting older and getting more mature,” she said, adding that she now trains 15-20 hours per week, nine of which are dedicated to tap.

Francine Mae Peji dances for Reverb Tap Company, and director, Leah Silva. Courtesy of Vince Trupsin

For Peji, Spotlight not only helped her through college auditions, but also to develop self-confidence, as the judges saw potential in her, which, in turn, reaffirmed her passion.

“You’re not going to please everybody, but it did feel nice to have that reassurance that there were people who liked what I did,” she added. “It made me want to continue to get better and keep going.”

While unsure of what the future holds, Peji knows she wants to continue doing whatever she can to keep dancing for the rest of her life, as she can’t imagine her life without it.

Francine Mae Peji performs at the dance convention/competition Dancemakers. Courtesy

Finding her voice

Emma Reed, a 17-year-old senior at Canyon High School, remembers always being surrounded by musical theater, and enjoying it.

“I grew up in a family that did musical theater … so I kind of was born into it,” Reed said. “I really enjoyed doing it, and it was a really great outlet for me.”

For Reed, who was also in the midst of college auditions while participating in Spotlight, the program gave her fresh feedback from complete strangers, but also helped her to learn more about herself. 

Emma Reed, a senior at Canyon High School. Courtesy

“I’ve been on this mental journey for about a year now, trying to find myself,” Reed said. “I was so caught up with trying to sing like this person and trying to act like this person does in this movie, when in reality we’re two completely different people.”

The program focused on artists being their true selves, both in the art form and outside of it, which Reed said is exactly what she needed in that moment.

“It’s really easy to compare yourself to other people and trying to go on your own path is hard sometimes. They really made us aware of that and taught us that it’s OK to feel that way,” Reed added. “It was really refreshing.”

Emma Reed plays Ronette in “Little Shop of Horrors.” Courtesy

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