From Johnny Mathis to Grammy songs, East Bay High show choir celebrates decades of success
GIBSONTON — As Jerry Skora watched Johnny Mathis and the Young Americans perform in Tampa back in 1967, an idea blossomed in his mind.
The then-choral director for East Bay High School marveled at how the group of singers and dancers performed with Mathis, and wondered why his students couldn't do the same.
Skora, now retired and living in Tampa, started with a small ensemble that did a little choreography while they sang arrangements of popular tunes with a live band accompaniment.
The approach caught on with students, and the community embraced the unique performances, believed to be a first for a Florida high school.
Now, the East Bay Show Choir, looks forward to celebrating its 50th anniversary next year while preparing for an upcoming performance at the Sun City Center United Methodist Church.
It's not exactly what is portrayed on the popular TV show Glee, but today's students — wowing audiences with their singing and dancing — are fulfilling the dream Skora crafted back then.
"It's hard to believe that 1967 was the first time somebody said let's do pop music for a change," current director Brian NeSmith said. "And it worked. It has survived for 50 years."
Show choir distinguishes itself from a regular chorus or glee club with its choreography. In a show choir, students are paired into dancing couples and sing as they perform intricate choreography.
The East Bay group now consists of 17 couples and annually performs as many as 36 shows, including appearances at civic organizations, benefits, elementary schools as well as their own school performances.
The talent and hard work the students have put into the performances has helped build their strong reputation in the SouthShore community, but becoming part of the troupe requires more than just signing up for a class.
First, a student must pass a rather rigorous audition: an American Idol-like vocal solo sung a cappella; sight-reading, which is singing a piece of music they've never seen before and finally, performing a bit of choreography that they learn on the spot.
The students are judged by a panel consisting of NeSmith, East Bay band director Evan Neidringhaus and NeSmith's wife, Theresa, who holds show choir experience.
The audition process allows NeSmith to be selective in his choice of choir members, adding to the excellence of the group and enhancing the experience for students.
"We're just a big family," said senior Sarah Taylor, 18. "We start the year off at a camp where we get to know each other and then we spend a lot of time together at school."
Fellow senior Sara Evans echoed the sentiments about the show choir's family feel.
"This class is so different than any of my other classes," said Evans, 17. "Everyone in here can act themselves; they don't need to pretend to be someone they're not. There's no judging.
"We're all working for the same thing."
NeSmith avoids a lot of competitive venues as he wants the focus of the group to be the enrichment of the student musically and vocally.
"If winning becomes the only goal of competition, then you're hurting the kids," NeSmith said. "The most important thing is that we care about one another, treat each other with respect, like family should be. These things are more important to us. That's more of our focus."
The Show Choir does participate in the Florida Music Association's Vocal District Music Performance Assessment, formerly known as the FMA Festival. The festival now includes a special category for show choirs.
Over the years, East Bay has consistently received superior ratings.
"My approach is to try to expose the kids to a lot of different kinds of music," NeSmith said. "I want to make sure the students are still doing quality music and performing in a way that is healthy for them.
"Being in this group does more to unlock the confidence of students than anything else I do. This is why I do it."
Senior choir member Cat Borovich, confirmed NeSmith's assertion.
"Being in this group has really helped me come out of my shell so much."
Contact Kathy Straub at [email protected]
East Bay High Show Choir
The East Bay High Show Choir performs at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the sanctuary at the United Methodist Church of Sun City Center, 1210 Del Webb Blvd. S. It also will have a year-end performance at the school on May 19 featuring Grammy songs.