Photo by Jay Paul
The New Dimensions choir rehearses “A Piece of Sky” from the movie Yentl.
Sandi Thomas prowls the front of the stage as the 46 members of Clover Hill High School’s New Dimensions show choir get in place for their Wednesday afternoon rehearsal. This January session is more chaotic than usual, however, because they are having their first rehearsal with costumes. Snaps are missing on some girls’ skirts; Velcro is missing on some boys’ jackets. Still, Thomas corrals them into their positions to keep things moving.
They dive in to the first number, a gospel medley of “He Turned It” and “Nobody.” Their voices fill the auditorium, backed by a recorded soundtrack, and then Thomas stops them. “Let’s do it again,” she calls. “Take it from the top!” This happens a lot, but the students don’t seem to mind.
When they move into the second number, “Never Close Your Eyes,” the tempo picks up. They break into fast-paced choreography — and stop again. This time, it’s the vocal coach, Joseph Clarke, who brings them to a halt. “You have to remember to sing and dance at the same time. That’s show choir,” he says.
A 17-year veteran of show choirs and vocal coaching, Clarke was hired by Thomas to work with New Dimensions through the spring. He is just one part of the team she has put together to take the choir through the Show Choir Nationals at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, from March 26 to 28.
Thomas herself began working with show choirs in the late 1980s in Miami. A classically trained singer who had performed with the Virginia Opera, she was a student at Eastern Carolina University when she auditioned for and was cast in a Busch Gardens Broadway revue summer series. “I was a classical music snob,” she says, “and I was surprised how much I loved it.” Teaching show choirs gave her a way to follow the passion for singing and dancing that had been sparked. After moving back to Virginia in 1994, she taught at Chesterfield County’s Thomas Dale High School until landing at Clover Hill in 2005. Since then, she has built a program that has ranked as high as fourth in the nation in recent years, and she holds a show choir summer day camp attended by middle school and high school students from the region and beyond.
Asked about the influence of the Fox series Glee on perceptions about show choirs, Thomas chuckles. “I live Glee,” she says. “I don’t need to watch a TV show.”
But like the character Will Schuester, she finds inspiration in her students — and vice versa. “Seeing them transform from being really awkward freshmen to being confident senior dance captains is just an amazing experience,” she says. “They see me eat, sleep and breathe the music and the passion, and they get really excited.”
That excitement is even more evident at the rehearsal on the following Monday. This time, they have the complete band behind them — a 20-piece ensemble coordinated by Stefan Demetriadis of No BS! Brass Band. The work they’ve done over the weekend shows, as does the added verve of the live band. The dance numbers crackle, and the voices have more vibrance. The ensemble works through the numbers again and again, the students coaching each other and giving feedback to Thomas on what is working and what isn’t.
They push through the final number — a medley of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” and Michael Jackson’s “Slave to the Rhythm” — stopping and starting until they get the complicated choreography down. Antwon Chavis, the choreographer, reworks some of the moves, the students following his lead. When I comment on how hard they are working, senior David Kritzer says, “We sweat a lot.” Other students underline Thomas’ comments about gaining confidence. As senior Rachel Melling says, “I was really shy and reserved as a freshman, but show choir has helped me come out of my shell a lot.” Fellow senior Georgia Olivier was elevated to dance captain, a position in which she and another girl coach the female choir members through their dance moves. “Being in that position and with that close bond means more than anything. It’s the best thing that’s happened to me in show choir,” she says.
Being a dance captain can also be nerve-wracking. Brian Maloney, another senior dance captain, loses sleep as they get closer to the big performances. “It’s kind of crazy trying not to have a nervous breakdown,” he says, joking. Still, as a senior, he says it’s remarkable to “get to step back and see where the group is compared to previous years.”
That’s the kind of sentiment that makes Thomas proud as they gear up for Nationals. New Dimensions is the only participating mixed division high school choir from Virginia, while Clover Hill’s Iridescence is the only one in the women’s division. In 2013, New Dimensions was fourth runner-up, while Iridescence finished in third place. This year, Thomas is determined to land at the top. Judging from the talent and determination on stage, it’s not a stretch to imagine them getting there.