BY MELISSA MACCRAE
FOR THE WEEKLY
HERMON, Maine — “Music is the world’s language and dance is medicine for the soul.”
That is what Birdie Sawyer of Bangor learned and has taught to schoolchildren while on tour with The Young Americans that took him as far away as Japan a year ago.
“You can go anywhere in the world and communicate without saying a word,” he said.
The Young Americans organization was founded in 1962 to reflect a positive image of the nation’s youth through music and dance.
One troupe of Young Americans will teach their trademark three-day performance workshops to Hermon students from grades three through 12 at Hermon High School Sept. 28-30.
In addition, the youth will perform a special dinner theater show at the nearby Morgan Hill Event Center on Wednesday, Oct. 1.
“[The dinner theater] is such a treat,” said Morita Tapley, founder and director of Morita’s School of Dance. “We never had the time or the place to do that before. The Young Americans have touched more lives than we would have dreamed of.”
Tapley first became aware of The Young Americans in 1989 when she attended a dance festival in Hollywood, Calif., where she watched their rehearsal. It took 10 years before Maine was on their tour schedule. The group came to Maine in 1999, 2002 and 2005.
“I was in awe watching them, their energy level.” Tapley recalled recently. “It’s very exciting. I’ve seen transformations in kids who have participated in these workshops.”
Grace Livingston of Veazie is one such student. She first saw The Young Americans as an eighth-grader, although she had to wait until she was a junior in high school before she was eligible to audition.
Her mother, Jane Livingston, recalled Livingston saying, “‘This is what I’m going to do.’” The determined gal eventually enrolled in Morita’s dance school and worked diligently to fund her way to her California audition.
“She was over the moon” after that audition, her mother said. Since then, Livingston has taught workshops and performed on tours in Germany and in Japan, and she will be part of the troupe that is coming to Hermon.
“The program does magic things,” her mother said. “That workshop brings out the best in students, and the students rise to the occasion.”
Hip-hop teacher Sawyer also sings the group’s praises.
“The Young Americans are the reason for me being where I am,” said the Gainesville, Ga., native. “They’re the ones that taught me so much. It was a life-changing event.
“Now that the group is coming back to the East Coast,” he said, “some of the younger ones will get their chance.”
Sawyer, who as a young man lived a hardscrabble life, said, “I had grown up in a ghetto life, as people might say, but with The Young Americans, I figured out I can do anything I try.”
Seeds planted by The Young Americans have taken root in other former and current Young Americans from Greater Bangor, including Lindsay Bridges, Joey Cyr and Tom Cyr from Bucksport.
Shannon Dobbins and Sawyer both teach at Morita’s School of Dance.
The first Maine tour at Hampden and Newport picked up some Hampden Academy students, including Jillian Sarnacki, Lauren Wood, Nina Earley, Ross Franchi and Tyne Franchi.
“They’ve all been Young Americans,” Tapley said. “It’s a big deal.”
When they’re not on tour, some of the individual Young Americans get involved with troubled youth in the communities they visit. Both Sawyer and Livingston have shared their life-changing ways with other youth, who were down and out.
Jane Livingston recalls her daughter describing her experience working with kids in lock-up facilities. One particular youthful offender talked about how The Young Americans saved her life, how they “perform miracles.”
“We work with the hardest kids sometimes,” Sawyer said. “Their teachers don’t expect anything from them, but we were not using the same methods they’re using.”
The three-day Young Americans workshop, which begins at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28, costs $45, plus $10 for the required T-shirt. Tickets may be available to the public for the students’ show at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 30. The cost for the 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 1, dinner theater is $25, $15 age 12 and younger. Preregistration for dinner is required. To register, or to obtain information, call Tapley at 848-5083, or the event center at 848-7100.