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S.L.-area girls hope to dance way to Games dreams

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Doug Jack was hopping and head-popping his way across the stage, chattering the official Five-Six-Seven-Eight language of dancers the world over.

"Energy. Lots of energy. Gimme Disney hands — fingers, fingers, fingers like Mickey Mouse. Perky-perky. Now drag-step, you're the Music Man, big parade — yeah!" Jack's voice thumped big-bass-drum commands into his head-mike, leading Salt Lake area high school girls Friday through beginning auditions for opening and closing ceremonies of the 2002 Olympics.

Kenny Ortega, show director for both ceremonies, stood to one side of the gymnasium floor at Alta High School, patiently answering questions about his showbiz lineage.

Directed Disney's "Newsies." Choreographed Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in "Dirty Dancing." Three times directed Michael Jackson world tours. Co-directed Barbra Streisand's farewell "Timeless" tour.

Ortega began his choreographic career in "Xanadu," helping put Gene Kelly through the legendary hoofer's last film paces, for Pete's sake.

Just this week, Ortega earned an Emmy nomination for the TV series, "Grounded for Life."

And yet the man's words, eyes and heart weren't into a long soliloquy reciting his creative chops.

"Wheee-ooooo!" he hooted toward the floor, watching Jack, head of the 2002 opening/closing choreography team, urging a dance team from Spanish Fork High School through its routine — the first of 149 area dance teams and thousands of girls to be evaluated by the time auditions end July 28.

"Sorry," Ortega said, beaming the smile of a doting parent, keeping time to the rhythm with the coffee cup in his hand. "You just can't stand here and watch this without getting caught up in the magic ."

He's been all over the world with the Thriller Man and Babs and the Singin' in the Rain Man and now he's tripping the light fandango with Emmy, herself — and this is what excites him, watching a bunch of kids he doesn't know from Adam or Eve, high-stepping and low-shaking across a slab of hardwood in Sandy?

Ortega turned from the music and movement and grew dreamily serious.

"I've been blessed with doing some things in the business, yes, but I can honestly say absolutely nothing has touched me or moved me like the Olympic Games," the San Francisco Bay area-raised, now Los Angeles-based Ortega said of his Games baptismal, directing the 1996 ceremonies in Atlanta.

"And the dancers out on this floor today are absolutely the heart of our 2002 show," Ortega continued. "That's because they are Salt Lake City. They are Utah. We can come up with amazing dance routines, but it will be the ideas and ideals, the spirit and character of the people here that will make these performances happen for the rest of the world."

In another part of Alta High, individual musicians, acrobats and street performers strutted their stuff for a chance to perform at 2002 venues and live sites. Whether it was auditioning for street scenes or the world stage of the ceremonies, you had to concentrate on love of your craft to tune out potentially mind-numbing, limb-stumbling nerves.

"You do think some about the once-in-a-lifetime thing. Omigosh. Millions will be watching. You might be part of it," said Rachel Llewellyn, 17, of the Spanish Fork troupe, who's been dancing since age 3. "The thing is, you never can let that rule your thoughts in this audition or any other."

Did she know Ortega had all that Kelly-Jackson-Swayze-Emmy juice lighting up the neon signs in his background?

"I'm glad I didn't, actually," Llewellyn said. "Otherwise I might not've just been myself. Get right down to it, that's the most important thing you want him or the whole world to see."

E-mail: gtwyman@desnews.com