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Thinking big: Local entertainers make an impact

As Linda Lee Cunningham walked out of her office Monday at State Street Dance Studio in Geneva, she paused to check out a scene bursting with activity.

Pointing to room after room of students decked out in their dance gear, from the very young to the very accomplished, she described the instruction taking place in each session, beaming with pride about what she, as founder, created.

She flashed a big smile as she thought of the prized pupils who had just joined her in her office for an interview session, and she can't hide her high hopes for their future.

"You were in the presence of some real talent," she said. "You really should have asked for their autographs."

An autograph that's in demand might be a standard, but the concept of "making it" as an entertainer isn't the same for all. For Cunningham's students, there is the opportunity to become professional dancers. For Suzanne Positano of St. Charles, it's the creation of her 4Titude Entertainment agency and the potential of those she promotes. For St. Charles guitarist Dennis O'Brien, it's a nearly 35-year career of getting paid to do what he loves, for crowds large and small.

The dancers

Cunningham, 51, says she started dancing when she was 3 and began teaching at age 14. She opened the Geneva studio nine years ago, and she has watched it grow to the point where she can quickly rattle off dozens of programs and high-profile endeavors in which her students can participate.

There is State Street's signature event – "The Nutcracker" – which takes place Dec. 18-19 at the Norris Cultural Arts Center. There are annual appearances on WGN-TV. There are events such as Geneva's "Dancing with the Stars," the Fox Valley Dance Showcase, the Miss Illinois Pageant, local festivals, Shakespeare in the Park events and seminars in Chicago. And, Cunningham said, that list is always growing.

"The Nutcracker" will feature some dancers with lofty aspirations. Michael Fitzgerald, 13, a Winfield resident, recently won his division in the Youth America Grand Prix in Houston. Annie Mushrush, 17, a student at St. Charles East High School, is looking at colleges and hoping to dance professionally and eventually become a dance teacher. And there is Geneva resident Taryn Christy, 10, who is joined by her mother, Deborah, 43, in the production.

Cunningham says the youths are on the track to becoming professionals, and that Deborah Christy is "incredible." Each will spend hours in classes at the studio, in addition to the performances in which they will appear. At some point, it becomes a major commitment.

"I don't think I ever made a conscious effort to become serious," Mushrush said. "It was just something I loved, so I wanted to keep doing it, and I kept adding more and more classes. It wasn't because I told myself that I have to do this to become a professional dancer."

Instead, Mushrush said, it's the idea that this would be a career option.

"There's always that saying that if you do what you love, you're never working," she said. "Well, hey, I love dance, and I don't want to work."

Fitzgerald started as an aspiring gymnast, tagging along to the studio with his brother, who was taking classes. A teacher suggested he should try ballet because it would help his gymnastics. He liked it so much that gymnastics no longer is in the picture.

He'll play the prince in "The Nutcracker," a production that he greatly enjoys.

"The performance is always so big," he said. "It's just like performing professionally. It's a really good experience, and it's just kind of a tradition."

"The Nutcracker" is especially important to the Christys. Taryn Christy has been dancing since she was 2, and she said she has been serious since age 6 or 7. Deborah Christy says her daughter has "a natural grace about her."

Cunningham sees strong potential in Taryn Christy, and Deborah Christy said one of the key challenges is making certain not to push too hard. In fact, she said, Taryn once did back away from dance, but she missed it and came back stronger.

"It's hard as a parent," Deborah Christy said. "It is a very taxing schedule, even at her age. There's only one day a week that she's not here. She'll say she's tired, or 'I don't feel well,' and then I have to judge – do I push her to go, is she just hungry, is she really overburdened – and we've figured out, for the most part, when to push and when to pull back."

The talent agency

Suzanne Positano, 42, launched 4Titude Entertainment earlier this year after years of helping stage school talent shows and local battle of the bands competitions and "American Idol" events at The Arcada Theatre in St. Charles.

She enjoyed a significant moment when one of the performers on her roster, 12-year-old singer Shealeigh Voitl of Bartlett, appeared on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." She's helped develop Voitl and fellow singer Joshua Welton through shows throughout the area. They'll headline other shows she'll put on.

She's a big believer in the local scene and says there is a lot of potential in those who perform in and around the Tri-Cities.

"Why not bring it here?" she said. "Shealeigh went from The Arcada to "Ellen." Why not inspire these kids in St. Charles, in art, in singing, in dancing, in modeling. This is what they love to do."

Positano was a performer growing up, something she put on hold when she got married at age 20. She has four children ranging in age from 7 to 16. She would help her kids perform, which led her to shows put on at their schools – St. Patrick and Thompson Middle School.

"The shows got so big that we had to do them at The Arcada," she said. "And we do them at [St. Charles] North [High School], too."

As she started finding more opportunities – at an "American Idol" competition, at the battle of the bands shows – she started seeing more and more talent. She first saw Voitl at a local "American Idol" show.

Ron Onesti, who owns The Arcada, where many such shows are staged, said hosting local performers is something he genuinely enjoys.

"That was part of my plan when I assumed the theater five years ago," he said. "To provide a place where the local talent can be showcased, and also to provide opportunities for local entertainers they possibly might not have ... between just appearing on a historic stage like The Arcada and trying to get local entertainers to open for big stars."

The local rock star

St. Charles' Dennis O'Brien, 55, has been singing and playing guitar in the area for 35 years. He is among the local musicians that Onesti spoke of – Onesti had O'Brien's group, Avalanche, open for America in October. O'Brien says the music he plays ranges from rock to blues to folk.

It wasn't a unique opportunity for O'Brien, though. He's been in bands that have opened for the likes of the Eagles, Three Dog Night, Koko Taylor, the Buckinghams and the Turtles. In Avalanche, he teams with Charlie Prazma, and they maintain a busy schedule, as he does with the Fundamentals as well. While some things haven't changed in the 35 years he's performed, he said some things certainly have.

"Ironically, I'm playing a lot of the same material I played 35 years ago, to the same crowd I played to 35 years ago," he said. "The only difference is they're older, and they have more money."

The venues have changed, too. He said he'd play at a lot of bars when he was younger, and now it's places such as The Arcada, Baker Hotel and the Steel Beam Theatre. A show is coming up at Pheasant Run. There are festivals in the summer. His schedule includes corporate events at upscale restaurants.

And though his bands might not headline huge stadium shows, O'Brien figures that he has "made it" – he gets paid to do what he loves.

"Some guys go out and play golf," he said. "Some guys go hunting. I love to play music, and I'm playing it exactly the way I want to do it. I'm blessed to be able to play with the guys I'm playing with. They are all professional musicians. I can pick and choose the venues that I want to play, with the people that I want to play with. I'm doing everything I want to do."

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