Gurney's Inn
March 21, 2007

Dylan Jenet Collins: Young Star On The Rise

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Like many nine-year-old girls, Dylan Jenet Collins is a fan of Disney's The Lion King, and has seen the Broadway production many times. But, unlike most of her pre-teen peers, Collins isn't just a rapt spectator of the show. As the magic unfolds onstage, the young actress is busy absorbing the experience, one she will soon recreate for audiences across the country: Collins, a Sag Harbor resident, was recently cast to play the role of Young Nala, the lion cub, in Disney's Gazelle National Tour of The Lion King.

Although she is only in fourth grade at the Ross School in East Hampton, Collins already sports a resume studded with credits that far more seasoned actresses would be thrilled to call their own.

Collins, who has been singing, dancing and playing the violin for years, has performed with Danse Arts in The Nutcracker, as well as with the Bay Street Theatre's Main Stage production of Once On This Island, and with Stages, where she appeared in Frankenstein Follies at the Bay Street Theater.

And that's not all: the petite Collins packs a powerhouse voice and recently completed her debut CD, Thankful, which is scheduled for release soon and showcases her smooth, yet versatile, vocal range.

Collins has danced with Studio 3 in Bridgehampton and currently studies tap, ballet, jazz and hip hop with Redancers in Riverhead.

A role model for other young girls, Collins was crowned Miss New York Jr. Pre-Teen in 2005 and performed around the state. Collins's talent has been seen on television, too, in both K-Mart's national winter campaign and during a performance at Showtime At the Apollo.

With such a long string of accolades under her belt, Collins was chosen as the recipient of the 2006 Apollo Theater's Star of Tomorrow Award, where she shared the legendary stage with entertainment icons Chaka Kahn, Ruby Dee, Chris Tucker, Courtney Vance, Angela Bassett, Gladys Knight, Bubba Knight and Little Richard, among others.

The experience, said her father, Andre, "was incredible. She was talking to Bubba Knight, Gladys Knight's brother, for a half hour. He was telling her about his little sister, that when she sang at the Apollo for the first time, she was also eight years old, the same as Dylan. Then Gladys Knight came out and he introduced her to his little sister, and they spoke for another 15 minutes." Sharing the stage with music legends at The Apollo, said Collins, "was fun." And, she added, the experience was helpful to her career.

But for Collins, mingling with music legends is something she's always known she was meant to do. She has wanted to perform ever since "the first time I saw somebody walk on the red carpet."

Collins' role models include Raven Simone and Dakota Fanning, stars "close to my age," as well as Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Halle Berry, Jim Carrey and Jack Black.

For a nine-year-old, Collins displays a rare work ethic and dedication to her craft. "Sometimes my younger siblings are outside playing and I have to stay inside — say, if I had an audition tomorrow and I needed to memorize a script. First I have to finish my homework and memorize the lines." Although the work is hard, Collins said in the end, "it's all worth it, because it's fun. Most of the time I get the part, because I'm gooood," she giggles.

It's almost difficult to believe that such a self-possessed, mature voice and demeanor could possibly be that of a nine-year-old child. But Andre and his wife, Felicia, have strived to keep their girl's childlike wonder alive.

"One of the things that Andrew Baker [Collins' teacher at Harbor Music] always says is that it's such a blessing to teach her. She's like a little lady, and then after her lesson she goes out to the treasure chest to get her little toy.

That's the important part, right there," Andre said.

From the time she was a tiny girl, Collins had that certain something, the "it" factor that catapults young performers into the stratosphere of celebrity. "When she first did the Main Stage Theater at Bay Street when she was six, professional people who were involved with the production were very excited about her potential," said her dad.

But, as a father, Collins, who is the president and founder of Suffolk Minorities Involved in Law Enforcement, worries about his little girl. "Since she was very young, she has always loved to speak to people. And at that age, it's kind of scary because, as parents in law enforcement, you teach your children to be leery of strangers. On the other hand, it kind of prohibits their growth as being free-spirited."

Although she was home-schooled for some time, Collins, whose favorite subjects are math and art, now attends the Ross School.

Despite her burgeoning career, Collins' parents keep it real, making sure their daughter helps out around the house with chores.

Another role that Collins is proud to play is that of big sister to her new siblings, ages two, three and five, whom the family adopted through Suffolk County last year.

Collins, who also loves tennis, yoga and swimming, credits her parents for giving her the wings to fly. "They've let me get to where I am right now. I'm very thankful to them."

And for other kids who'd like to follow in her headed-for-stardom path, Collins has some sage advice: "Just have fun. It's not really that hard. Go in, say a few words, and say it like you mean it."

About winning the coveted Lion King role, Collins giggled: "That's really cool. My family and I celebrated at Dave & Busters."

The role was something the young actress put her whole heart into winning. "Let me put it this way: It felt like 1000 times that I had to audition."

But now the part belongs to Collins. Rehearsals begin on April 24, with the first show slated for May 22. During the show's run across America through the end of the year, her parents plan to take turns accompanying their daughter on the trip; Disney provides tutoring in conjunction with Collins' teachers at the Ross School.

With a life so full, Collins has bright dreams for her future. When she grows up, she'd like to pursue a career as a singer, dancer and comedienne.

And, like so many little girls, Collins would love, one day, to be on "American Idol."

But there is another role Collins embraces, as first Vice President of the SMILE youth club.

Helping Suffolk minorities, she believes, is critical. "It's important because we help other children," she said. "More people should be involved."

Her father believes art has the capacity to transcend boundaries and create unity in society. "It doesn't matter how you look or who you are, as long as you're beautiful inside."

And his daughter's experiences, he said, will give her a strong foundation for whatever path she chooses in life.

"The number one fear people have is speaking in front of others. If you can conquer that fear at three years old, the world is yours."

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