As the show begins, 9-year-old Amanda Bory's small hands are folded in prayer. Suddenly, hymnlike piano and voice give way to rockin' R&B;, and those hands are sweeping and circling and jabbing.
Her hands are singing. Her hands are signing.
She's part of Children Around the World, a group of Baltimore-area children who perform to recorded music, signing the lyrics with hand signals that speak to the deaf.
Their act has played on Broadway and at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., to the hearing and to the hearing-impaired. Now, Children Around the World is heading for its widest audience yet, an international crowd at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
"We're going to meet different people and see the Olympic Games," says Ezi Ogbonna, 11, hardly able to digest the excitement of the adventure. "It's so cool."
Animated and expressive, Ezi is clearly one of the stars of the troupe. She kicked off a recent show at White Marsh Mall with her take on Whoopi Goldberg's character in the movie "Sister Act."
The opening was solemn, as Amanda and more than a dozen girls in nuns' habits stood quietly, as if in prayer. When the tempo picked up, Ezi pranced to center stage, gyrating, signing and mouthing the words to "I Will Follow Him." The others formed a backup group, swaying and signing.
That was just one skit. For nearly an hour, children ages 3 to 18 took the stage for a series of songs.
The youngest were dressed as dalmatians, signing to "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" For another song, the stage was filled with girls dressed in native costumes from Africa, Europe and the Far East. The show ended with a Father's Day tribute by girls in frilly white dresses and boys in tuxedos.
The group is the creation of Kellie Caruso, 20, a Loyola College student. As a youngster, she read a book about Helen Keller -- and became fascinated with sign language. She learned to sign and as a high school student taught the skill at elementary schools in Perry Hall.
And she noticed something: Signing the words to songs made practicing fun. It also made for a type of theater. "It's an art in itself," she said.
Since Caruso formed the group in 1988, members have performed at Opening Day for the Orioles, at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York and at last year's papal Mass at Camden Yards. The group has put on three shows at the White House. A few months ago, it performed an Easter show at Walt Disney World.
Caruso pitched the group's talents in a letter to organizers of the Olympics and received an invitation. The group will head south July 19 and likely will perform in the Olympic Village, the athletes' temporary home.
Like Caruso, most of the children in the group and their families do not have hearing problems. Many are simply curious, eager to learn a new talent and a new way to speak.
"It makes me feel like I know another language without knowing French or Spanish," Amanda said.
But for her and others in the group, learning to sign carries practical benefits, too.
Amanda suffers from a rare, progressive disease that leaves her bones weakened and brittle. Her mother, Mary Jayne Bory, said that signing and performing are Amanda's favorite pursuits.
"While other children are going out and playing soccer and baseball and those kinds of things, we're signing with Amanda," she said, adding that Amanda's condition carries the risk of deafness.
For children in the group, the show is a lesson in accepting and celebrating diversity.
"It teaches them that there are all different kinds of kids out there," said Dawn Miskiel, enjoying the show at the mall. Miskiel, whose best friend has a daughter in the group, added, "These kids don't necessarily have a handicap, and they can communicate with kids that do."
Miskiel's friend, Carie Hanley, said, "When you sit and watch them, your heart just swells. The innocence and sweetness of children -- they just learn so quickly."
She said her daughter has used sign language skills to communicate with a young cousin who recently was found to be nearly deaf.
Similarly, Charles Saylor, 8, has grown comfortable with signing. Charles, whose sister, Catharine, 10, is also in the group, won't be going to Atlanta because he just recently joined the troupe.
But he played Huck Finn in the show at the mall. His grandparents, who are deaf, watched. Later, grandmother Joan Brown, who was born deaf and cannot speak, described the happiness she derived from the performance.
"I'm glad they joined the group. I think they were a little embarrassed that their grandparents are deaf, but now they will always sing to me in public," she said later, by typing onto a telephone service for the deaf. To Brown, the show was better than a school play because she could follow the songs through sign language.
"This is my way of communication," she added. "I feel like I should have a front-row seat."
Members of Children Around the World are selling candy bars, pizza and cookbooks, and are hoping for donations to help finance their trip to the Olympics. Information: 661-1780.
Pub Date: 7/02/96