'American Idol' grooms kids at camp

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NORTHFIELD, Mass. -- Shouting "Good, good, take it home now" from a chair in front of an outdoor stage, dance instructor Masau Dibinga directs about a dozen teenagers as they gyrate and bust hip-hop dance moves.

"Come on Crystal, you're in the spotlight now," she says to one girl over booming music. "You better pay attention," she shouts to the group. "Here we go! Here we go!"

Welcome to the first Idol Camp, a 10-day performance arts retreat run by the producers of "American Idol" for 12- to 15-year-olds with budding dreams of Hollywood fame, a zeal for being on stage and -- in many cases -- an encyclopedic knowledge of the highest-rated U.S. television show.

The creators and producers of the TV reality search for the next pop star are planning to expand their summer camp over the next few years and are filling a void left by steep budget cuts that have squeezed arts programs in U.S. public schools.

"So much funding for performing arts programs has been drying up over the last few years, so we are really just trying to fill that gap and encourage kids to extend themselves, take risks and pursue their dreams," said Felicity Carr, a director at FremantleMedia, which co-produces "American Idol."

She said the camp in northwestern Massachusetts, which costs $2,900 a week including accommodation and meals, may be expanded next year from one month to three months with a West Coast summer camp possibly added a year later.

"Ideally I would like to see our program reaching all around the U.S. and also touching kids from a whole variety of backgrounds and different cultures," Carr said, noting the camp offers scholarships for children of low-income families.

A typical day begins with workshops featuring professional tips from industry insiders -- from singers and musicians to producers and even the stylists of the hair and wardrobes of "Idol" stars.

After that, stretched through the day, are elective activities, including singing solo, performing in a band on stage, music video production, improvised acting, choreography, set-building and basic auditioning.

"I was kind of nervous at first," said Stephen Dexter, who at age 13 already has an agent in California and big ambitions to act and sing in Hollywood. "I was scared to perform in front of everyone, but it's definitely a good experience."

Jasmine Edwards, 14, who sings in a choir at a performing arts school in Boca Raton, Florida, said she discovered a hidden talent -- drumming -- during one exercise.

"I hope I can broaden my horizons," she said.

Like most of the camp's 700 kids, these two are avid "Idol" fans -- each with strong opinions about the acerbic style of judge Simon Cowell.

Edwards says Cowell is too harsh. Dexter wants to sing in front of him. "I'd like to see what he says," Dexter said.

The camp ends with a concert for the parents.

Camp director Donna Luther said the atmosphere is noncompetitive. But the camp does not shy away from links to a show known for blunt judges and harsh truths.

The camp's blue-and-white logo is designed in the mold of the one used for "American Idol" -- printed on tents and materials across the campus.

"Our kids are starting their journeys as performers and we are contributing to enriching their journeys as performers," said Luther, who has taught performance arts in Massachusetts for about 30 years.

In some ways, the camp is doing a job many U.S. schools have abandoned as budgets tighten and school districts feel pressure to perform well in standardized tests in math and English under President George W. Bush's signature No Child Left Behind education policy.

"American schools used to do everything, including music. Now they are really trying to narrow their mission and of course there are trade-offs," said Tom Loveless, an education specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"There has been a narrowing of the curriculum because of the heavy emphasis on reading and mathematics, and often one of the first things to go is music."

But Idol Camp offers something schools can never dream of matching: the "American Idol" brand and the whiff of commercial success generated by the country's most-watched TV series.

Kids who demonstrate exceptional talent on the stages under white tents around the private campus will likely get a glimpse into the art of networking, although camp officials stress that is not a goal.

"The talent ranges but I think there is a group of very elite musicians here," said Jon Peter Lewis, a singer who finished eighth on "American Idol" in 2004 and teaches singing and other performing arts at the camp.

While there are no talent scouts from music labels at the camp, he said, "there's definitely going to be some connections that these kids are going to be able to make for their benefit."

"But they are minors and all that would be dependent upon them and their families," Lewis said. "That's not an aspect to the camp that I think is emphasized, but it's there."
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