WESLEY CHAPEL — Jesse Viens sat in the middle of the Wesley Chapel High School Center for the Arts, awaiting his chance to perform.
"I dance and sing a lot," said Viens, 21, who attends a special-education program for 18- to 22-year-olds at Pasco County's Moore-Mickens Education Center. "It makes me feel like I'm having fun."
All around him, students with physical and intellectual disabilities readied themselves to take the stage Wednesday in the district's fifth annual Showcase for Exceptional Talent. They had prepared for months.
Twenty-two acts from seven schools participated.
"They normally practice all year long, or at least six months," said Ridgewood High teacher Patty Linard, who had two students in the talent show and brought 17 others to watch. "They get up there and they are so brave. It's a beautiful thing."
The audience enthusiastically cheered each performer, whether channeling the new wave sounds of the Fixx, as Wesley Chapel High student Chris Hudson did, or creating freehand drawings without ever looking to the crowd, as Weightman Middle student Grant Sumter did.
Tasha Spitler, who attends Wesley Chapel High, earned the only standing ovation for her performance. Audience members would shout out a date and year, and Tasha would say what day of the week it fell on.
A computer display projected on a screen behind her showed whether Tasha got it right. She did, each time.
Tiffany Peeks, a ninth-grader with Noonan syndrome who attends Wesley Chapel High special-education classes, said she was nervous when the lights first shone on her. As the music pulsed through the auditorium, Tiffany and her partners looked to one another, as if trying to get someone else to begin their dance, the Wobble.
The beat soon took over, and the foursome let loose, with Tiffany moving lithely at the forefront, a giant smile on her face.
"I love it. It's fun," she said after leaving the stage.
Fivay High student Briana Borja, 20, said she had a great time dancing ballet in a pink leotard and tutu while her classmates sang Do You Want to Build a Snowman? from the movie Frozen. She said she never worried about stage fright.
"I'm doing what I'm doing," she said. "I like it."
Superintendent Kurt Browning attended the full 90-minute show. He called the event one of his favorite programs of the year.
"It's a great opportunity for these kids to be showcased," he said. "They're all special kids, and they come with a unique set of talents. It's incredible."
Viens, who participated in the first talent show five years ago, proved a crowd favorite. Wesley Chapel High principal Carin Nettles and assistant principal Tim Light even jumped on stage to dance with him near the end of his high-energy effort.
He didn't miss a beat as he finished.
"Thank you, everybody," Viens said, taking a bow. He saluted the crowd as he walked off the stage. "A man gets thirsty," he said. "Farewell."
He hoped to be back next year, even though he's graduating.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.