Since Monday, they have spent their days rehearsing at either the gym of Arnold Memorial Elementary School or the Dixon Center auditorium at Lee University, getting to know each other as they practice group dance routines, fitness routines and their individual talents.
Most days have seen the girls rehearsing from 8 a.m. to noon and again from 1 to 5:30 p.m. each day to ensure that all their dance moves are done in sync when they hit the Dixon Center stage for the preliminary and final competitions.
“It’s been really, really busy,” said Destiny Mears, the Distinguished Young Woman of Chattanooga. “But it’s a fun experience.”
After the local families that have become host families for the girls drop them off for the day, the girls have spent long days in rehearsals before ending their days with either parties or volunteering opportunities. This week, the girls have volunteered by visiting with residents of the Garden Plaza retirement community; and tonight they will distribute free water to walkers, runners and bikers on the Cleveland/Bradley County Greenway.
While many of the state program’s contestants have called their schedules “exhausting,” some have said they appreciate the fact that the rehearsals are allowing them to get to know each other and improve both together and individually.
“It’s kind of like a school day,” Savannah Stone, the Distinguished Young Woman of Cleveland, said.
She also joked that they get to “share in the pain” of the long days together.
The program’s theme this year is “Hit of Motown,” and competition co-chair Traci Dunn Fant said the audiences that show up to support the girls on Friday and Saturday nights can expect the program to be filled with the music of that era — but with a modern twist.
Twenty-four girls who will be entering their senior years of high school this fall will be judged in five different categories in order to determine who should be named the Distinguished Young Woman of Tennessee for 2015 and receive scholarships to help pay for college.
The “scholastics” category, which evaluates factors like the girls’ grade point averages and ACT scores, makes up 20 percent of the final score. An interview with the judges makes up 25 percent, while a talent performance will determine another 25 percent. The “fitness” and “self-expression” categories each count for 15 percent.
Rehearsals this week have centered on preparing for everything but the scholastics and interview portions of the competition. In addition to individual talents that range from clogging to spoken word poetry, the contestants have been preparing for “fitness” and “self-expression” as a group.
The girls take part in a choreographed fitness routine that includes skills like kicking and doing push-ups to help judges determine how fit they are. The “self-expression” category will have girls wearing their best dresses and participating in a dance to show how they carry themselves.
Many of the girls said the week of rehearsals has not gone as one might expect a competition to go.
“It’s been so good,” Stone said. “It’s not a harsh environment at all.”
Stone said she was surprised to find that some of the girls have become friends rather than just competitors as the week has continued.
Two of the contestants, Mackenzie and Michaela Guice, have found themselves in a unique position as competitors. They are the first twin sisters to ever compete in the Tennessee Distinguished Young Women competition at the same time.
While some might suspect that sibling rivalry might come into play, the twins both said they were enjoying getting to go through it together.
Mackenzie, who represents Hixson, and Michaela, who represents Middle Valley, stressed that even one of them finding success would make both of them proud.
“We’ll be happy for one another,” Mackenzie said.
Mears said she liked that the emphasis of the program has not so much been on competition but bettering oneself.
She said she really appreciated the program’s instruction to young women, “Be your best self.”
Some young women might be hesitant to take part in a program like Distinguished Young Women because they might not “fit the mold” for it, Stone said.
However, Stone pointed out the rehearsals during which she has gotten to see the other girls practice their varied talents has shown her that a “distinguished young woman” can look like a lot of different things. She said she was glad she found a way to make her own talents fit with the competition.
“I was able to ‘be my best self’ for the program.” Stone said. “It’s so much fun ... It’s what you make of it.”
The state-level Distinguished Young Women competition will take place at the Dixon Center at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. Tickets are $55 for both nights or $30 for one at Perry’s Petals.