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New London — Youths took the stage Saturday night at the Garde Arts Center with tap dance routines, hip-hop ensembles and songs - from the upbeat to the soulful - that echoed through the theater.
The audience clapped and cheered as participants showed off their talents, from the catchy singing of "Wagon Wheel" by Patrick Strout, 16, to a robotic dance by the Fitch High School Dance Team.
The fourth annual New London Youth Talent Show was the culmination of several confidence-building months that brought together about 30 students from the region. The two-act show encompassed 17 performances, from a soulful solo by Joseph Salcedo, 12, to a spoken-word performance by Naomi Jones, 14.
Downstairs at the Garde before the show began, the excitement was palpable as the performers awaited their turn on stage, chatting with friends, strumming their guitar or touching up their stage makeup.
"It's really a good experience for the youths," said Brian Johnson, who goes by "Brian J," a junior from Montville who crafted an original song for the show. "We can come together as a team."
Aspiring musicians and sound engineers Carlos Rosario, 18, and Jonas Picinich, 16, both of Waterford, said their coaches from the youth show helped build their skills and instilled in them the importance of practice.
"When you need encouragement, they're always there," Rosario said of his coaches.
Dressed in a silver-and-black costume with glittery shoes for a dance routine, Calynn Herrera, a freshman from Robert E. Fitch High School in Groton, said she was excited to perform Saturday after having practiced at least three times a week since March.
"We have progressed a lot since the beginning," she said. "It also makes me confident that I can do anything I want as long as I work hard."
The talent show was organized after the 2010 fatal stabbing of Matthew Chew, 25, who worked downtown at 2Wives Brick Oven Pizza. Six teenagers assaulted Chew as he was walking home from work.
The stabbing sparked a discussion about youths in the community.
"We created this show four years ago because we wanted to show our city, our region and its citizens that our youth would not be defined by the response, but by the response to it," coordinator Jessica Hill said to the Garde audience at the beginning of the show. "Our youth responded well: with passion and fervor for their talent and craft, with hard work and dedication to perfect their performances."
The Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School Chorus struck a message of hope as the chorus members sang "Shed a Little Light" by James Taylor.
"Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King and recognize that there are ties between us, all men and women living on the earth," they sang. "Ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood, that we are bound together in our desire to see the world become a place in which our children can grow free and strong."
New London police Officer Anthony Nolan, also a city councilor and one of the talent show's emcees, said the teens came together from different parts of the state but ended up spending extra time rehearsing and became friends.
Ambar Negron, 13, said the show is an opportunity for youths to express themselves. "I like how you can show other people how you feel," she said.