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Performers shine at annual ConnectAbility Night of Stars Talent Show
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Rion Paige was joined onstage by many of the performers during her performance of her song “Home” for the talent show’s big finale. - photo by Jessica Taylor

The applause was loud and the smiles were big in Dawson County Friday night as hundreds of people gathered at the Performing Arts Center to watch an incredible display of talent.

The 8th annual ConnectAbility Night of Stars Talent Show was a massive success that brought many first-time performers up on stage for a night they won’t soon forget.

From tumbling and cheerleading to dancing and sword fighting to singing and poetry, there was something for everyone to enjoy.

“It was a magical night,” said Edith Banta, whose Exceptional students participated in the show by performing and handing out coffee at the concessions table. “Each act was a testimony to the many gifts each person has and the ability to showcase them on stage was very moving.”

ConnectAbility, a nonprofit started in 2001 by Jacqueline Daniel, aims to create communities where people of all abilities are valued, included and empowered.

“I think that what we are seeing on this stage tonight is that mission statement being lived out,” said Daniel, who addressed the audience at intermission. “We believe that every life has value and every person has a gift to give and something to contribute to us and we are so thankful that everyone gets a chance to come up on this stage this evening.”

The show was hosted by Tommy Pirone, “the Ryan Seacrest of Dahlonega,” and the night’s special guest, Rion Paige.

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Rion Paige, who was a finalist on the X Factor in 2013, was the special guest at the 8th annual ConnectAbility Night of Stars Talent Show. The 17-year-old sang five original songs throughout the night and cohosted the show with Tommy Pirone. - photo by Jessica Taylor

Paige was a finalist on season three of the X Factor in 2013 and has continued to pursue her music career since then. The bubbly 17-year-old traveled from Nashville to host and perform at the talent show and could not contain her excitement before the show.

“The purpose for the event, making it about people with differences being able to showcase their talents is just something I genuinely have a heart for so I am really excited to be a part of it,” said Paige.

The teenage singer, who has a rare condition called arthrogryposis multiplex congenital, was thrilled to be part of the show that displayed local talent from children and adults of all abilities and would love to come back next year.

“Any chance to be a part of an amazing event like this I’m in, for sure,” she said.

The show featured 23 acts and approximately half of them were first time performers.

“There are honestly a lot of people here who have never had the opportunity to be on stage before,” said Daniel. “That’s one of our goals for the event is to help people of all abilities to share their talents and be in the spotlight.”

 This year’s show was dedicated to Clifford Hudson, who Daniel said was a dear friend of the ConnectAbility organization.

“Clifford left the earth last spring and he’s in heaven now but every time that we have our talent show we’re always going to remember Clifford and his enthusiasm, his love for music, his awesome friendship,” said Daniel.

As of Friday afternoon, just hours before the event, Daniel said nearly 400 attendees had registered on the ConnectAbility website, which was a dramatic increase from last year’s audience of 150.

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Hannah Pruett, one of Dawson County’s Exceptional students, danced during the ConnectAbility Talent Show. - photo by Jessica Taylor

Music from classic Disney movies was a popular theme throughout the night with Julianne Howell singing “I See the Light” from “Tangled,” CJ Brown performing “Friends on the Other Side” from “Princess and the Frog,” Sria Maitra channeling her Queen Elsa with “Let It Go” and the Dawson County Exceptional Singers singing and signing “You’re Welcome” from “Moana.”

Of course the show wasn’t all about the singing. There were gymnastics performances by the Lumpkin Tumble Tigers from Lumpkin County Parks and Recreation, who tumbled to “God Bless the USA,” and a cheer routine from the TKO Sparklers, a special needs team of children and adults based in north Georgia.

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The TKO Sparklers performed a cheer routine for the 8th annual ConnectAbility Talent Show. - photo by Jessica Taylor

Plenty of dancers made their way onto the stage as well. Wanda Truitt danced passionately to “Chain Breaker” while Emilie Scott clogged to Lauren Alaina’s “Georgia Peaches.” Hannah Pruett, one of Dawson County High School’s Exceptional students, performed a solo dance routine with ribbons and Fiona and Friends glided around the stage to “Day by Day” from the musical “Godspell.”

There was also literal magic in the air: Amazing Jackson Cheatham had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand after performing his magic tricks.

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The Amazing Jackson Cheatham was the night’s only magician and performed several dazzling tricks for the audience like pulling a toy dog from his magician’s hat. - photo by Jessica Taylor

Being confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak didn’t stop James Hearn’s voice from being heard. Through the use of his personalized computer, James wrote several poems that were read during the show. He says he was inspired to write his poetry again because of the ConnectAbility “A Thousand Words” Photography Project.

“Genuinely each and every one of you make this amazing,” said Paige, who took a moment to talk to the audience and performers. “From the bottom of my heart this is what it’s about. This is what life is about, that is people coming together to support people of all abilities.”

Throughout the show, Paige performed five original songs, many of which came from her self-titled debut EP.

“I’ve actually written some of them and then there’s also a couple in there that I just really felt like fit the event and that the kids would love,” Paige said.

The big finale of the show was Paige’s performance of her song “Home.” The curtain opened and the night’s performers surrounded Paige on stage to sing with her.

It was pure magic.