Ashtyn Steele knelt on the ground over a coffee table inside the Dance Carousel studio in Plant City on a Wednesday night last month, trying to fit in some algebra homework before rehearsal.
Steele, 14, is a member of NRG (Next Radical Generation), a performing group that includes eight of her closest friends. They're in eighth grade and have known each other since preschool.
NRG is performing Saturday at the Florida Strawberry Festival in the Sweetbay Supermarket Showcase Tent. Shows are at 7 and 9 p.m. with a meet-and-greet at 8:30 p.m.
They've performed at the festival before as part of a multigroup show. This year they're taking over the 1,200-seat tent for their own show.
But first they have to finish their homework.
They attend Tomlin Middle School and most of them are involved in other clubs and activities. But they come together each week to practice for shows like the Strawberry Festival.
NRG started in 2011, when the kids were in sixth grade. They played Munchkins in a Plant City High School production of The Wizard of Oz. NRG producer Yvonne Fry's son, Arie, 14, was in the show. She got the other parents together to help the kids start their own performing group so they didn't have to go all the way to Tampa for lessons and chorus groups every week.
Now, two years later, they're performing at big events like the Strawberry Festival and the Florida State Fair, and sang the national anthem at Little League opening day. NRG Junior, with kids ages 5-10 including Fry's 7-year-old daughter Barie, began in August.
"Being able to sing on all these incredible stages is fun," said Bryson Keel, 14. "I love seeing the audience's reaction and communicating with them on a different level than speaking."
They perform mostly pop songs, and some country. Musical director Andrew Rafalski tries and sometimes fails to get them to sing some older songs. Journey's Don't Stop Believin' made it into one of their mashups, but he says that's just because the chorus kids on the Fox show Glee made it popular again. They pick songs with positive messages, and they also wrote and choreographed an original song.
"We were all close but after these last couple years we've just grown so much closer," Keel said. "We goof around and have fun with it, but we make sure we get the job done, too."
"We treat each other like we're family," Steele said. "I just love hanging out with them."
They've also performed for community groups like food banks, Rotary clubs, and domestic violence centers.
"They've learned about what it takes to make a community work, and how we support each other," Fry said.
They have a band made up of four teens. Jourdain Cole, 14, is the group's business manager and captain of NRG's Relay for Life team. Jacob Cothren, 14, and Steven Watchoskey, 14, are the tech managers. They run all the sound equipment.
"The performers are no better, no more important than the tech crew, the band, the business manager," Fry said. "This is not about making the kids famous."
Their friendships come first, and they learn how to work together.
"They want to work hard, but to them, that's what's fun," Fry said. "They love the thrill of walking into a new situation and figuring it out."
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected]