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Baltimore schoolchildren audition for a spot in free School for the Arts classes

She sat alone with her sheet music, silently mouthing the words to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” as she twirled a beaded braid.

“Number 15!” someone called out. So 10-year-old Zoe McFadden stood and slowly walked to the audition room.

She was a little apprehensive, but mostly excited, to be among the 1,000 Baltimore children auditioning throughout this week for a spot in the TWIGS program.

Run by the Baltimore School for the Arts, a public high school, TWIGS provides students in second through eighth grades with free after-school classes in music, theater, dance and other arts. It’s a potentially life-changing opportunity for some of the city’s most artistically gifted kids. (The acronym is for To Work In Gaining Skills.)

On Saturday, they came in droves to audition for one of the coveted spots. TWIGS can likely accept only 300 to 400 new charges from the roughly 1,000 kids who try.

Little girls in black leotards and tightly wrapped buns twirled around the school’s main hall in anticipation. Some students seemed to be preparing for their audition by blocking out distractions, reading books or playing games on their parents’ phones.

Zoe, a fifth-grader at Mount Washington, focused on her sheet music in the minutes before her name was called.

“I’m feeling a little bit nervous, but I get over stage fright quickly,” she said. “I have spent a decade singing.”

Zoe’s dad, Wayne McFadden, says he’s hopeful his daughter will be among the students chosen for the program. It seems like the perfect way for Zoe, who has autism, to strengthen her craft and develop discipline around her passion for the arts, he said.

TWIGS director Becky Mossing, a BSA alumna, said the program aims to expand the creative minds of young children. The ones who come to audition already have a “bubbling excitement inside them” — and teachers want to nurture that. Nearly 700 students are taking part in the program this year. Many of them will go on to be accepted as freshmen into the BSA.

Colleen Hanley, who volunteered to run the auditions Saturday, has a daughter in her junior year at BSA. She first joined TWIGS as a third-grader, after being turned down the year before. After the initial rejection, Hanley didn’t want her daughter to try again. But she eventually relented.

“She didn't care about rejection,” Hanley said. “She just wanted to dance.”

Those years in TWIGS helped her daughter sharpen her skills and learn to balance dance with academics. If it weren’t for the program, Hanley said, her daughter probably would’ve had to quit long ago. At her level, it can cost hundreds of dollars a month for private studio classes.

“I couldn't see myself paying all those years for dance,” Hanley said. With TWIGS, all that dance training was free. The program serves kids from every corner of Baltimore.

Mossing said the program is planning to send out acceptance letters by the end of the month. Narrowing the incoming TWIGS class down is “the hardest part of what we do.”

“Every child,” she says, “has some wonderful, amazing thing to offer.”

Zoe is eagerly awaiting the day her letter arrives in the mail.

One day, perhaps she’ll tap into her training as she pursues her dream role on Broadway: Angelica Schuyler in the hit show “Hamilton.”

trichman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/TaliRichman

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