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To Circles patrons, singing waiter is already an idol

Published on: July 18, 2012

Mitch Traphagen Photo

Mitch Traphagen Photo


APOLLO BEACH — Dan Wood has “It”. No one really knows what “It” is, no one can define it, but people either have it or they don’t. Wood has it. At 22 years of age, his confidence and sense of direction are that of a much older man, someone with many more years of the sort of hard knocks that breed wisdom.

He isn’t afraid to put himself out there and isn’t afraid to fail. A quick learner, he doesn’t seem to even see failure — a setback is a learning experience to him. This week he left for New Orleans to try out for the fourth time to be a contestant on the Fox Television show, American Idol. By the time you read these words, he may know if his next trip will be to Hollywood. But if not, he won’t return to Florida with his head down, he’ll be back with knowledge on how he will do better next time. For Wood, it’s all about confidence and, in this case, “It” means everything from trying out for a national television program to life itself.

Last year, during a tryout in Charleston, he made it into the top 50 with the top 20 getting an invitation to appear on the show in California. For his finals tryout, he missed a single note. With more than 8,000 people trying out, a single note was enough to send him home. He plans to take what he learned in Charleston with him to New Orleans.

“I don’t feel fear,” Wood said. “I won’t lie though; the very last round was when I was actually on the American Idol set. That was the only time I got a little bit nervous. You learn so much in a year, though. All I could think about was the next tryout and trying to get over my fear of the camera. I got over my fear of singing to people. I’m definitely going to be a lot more interactive with the camera, a lot more involved.”

Wood has only been singing publicly for about five years, although he has been singing to himself since childhood. One day he was talking to a friend on the telephone and was put on hold. He started singing to himself, as he frequently did. His friend heard him and asked if it was coming from a radio. From there he began to sing in his church, getting past nervousness and building his confidence. Today, Dan Wood is all about confidence.

“I can still be very shy,” he continued. “I didn’t start getting my confidence until a year or two ago. I sang with my church for about four years. I just remember the first couple of songs I was so nervous, I would have a horrible shake in my leg. My whole upper body would shake. It would be hard to sing songs. I just told myself I have to fight this. It’s all in my head and I have to overcome this.”

A psychology major and a full-time student at the University of South Florida, Wood turned to his education for support.

“I learned in psychology that it’s all mental. I told myself I would never say no. If anyone asked me to sing, I would never turn it down or wimp out at the last minute.”

These days he is frequently asked to sing — most often “Happy Birthday” — while working as a waiter at Circles Restaurant in Apollo Beach.

“I pushed myself,” he said. “I went to karaoke bars and I would sing happy birthday to people there. I sing almost every shift that I’m here. I try to make it really special. Everyone is watching you, you get that quiet feeling at first, and then it’s time to go and I give it everything I’ve got.”

The restaurant patrons have certainly recognized his talent and confidence. It was a customer of his who notified The Observer News about his tryout this week. She was clearly excited for him and proud of his achievements.

New Orleans will be as challenging as was Charleston. An estimated 8,000 people are expected to show up for the tryouts, and that number will be quickly whittled down to 200 and then to 50, and then to the top 20. Any mistake, any sign of nervousness, even a single missed note will send most of those people home again. Wood is confident he can make it.

“The last round is basically just you, the producer, the camera,” he related. “You see people coming out that didn’t make it. You see a lot of emotion coming out in that last round. It’s about 40 percent singing and 60 percent how you are with the camera and your life story. The story part is important. Some of the people have amazing stories. I think they’ll be interested in my story.”

His story involves that of a young man with confidence and wisdom beyond his years. It involves significant ups and downs in life with family members having health problems. It involves the support of his family, including a grandmother who chose raising her children over a shot at being an opera singer with the Metropolitan Opera. It includes the staff and customers from Circles, some of who have helped him to raise money for his trip to New Orleans. Wood has taken all of the ups and downs, all of the life lessons, and has forged ahead, a better man for it — a man who is equally eager to learn, as he is to win.

“I take criticism well,” he said. “You know, most people would be offended if someone said you didn’t hit that note. I love that kind of feedback. I’ve always been my toughest critic. I always push myself that way.”

In his heart he knows he can win, but he is focused on cherishing the entire experience, not just winning.

“When I was up there waiting in that line and seeing 8,000 people sharing the same kind of dream that I do was great,” he said. “Being in that line and seeing thousands of people who can sing any song and realizing they could probably harmonize with me on the spot. Most people think waiting in line is a horrible thing. I was having a lot of fun there.”

When asked if he was prepared to win and prepared for the fame that could come with it, Wood didn’t hesitate.

“Yes. I think I am,” he stated. “I never used to be the most popular kid or anything like that, but I feel different. I can’t explain it.”

But he’s also prepared for the opposite.

“I’ll just go on,” he responded. “I’ll learn.”  He will take what the judges have to say and work to be better next time. Giving up did not come up; it doesn’t seem to be a part of Dan Wood. His degree in psychology, about a year away, is his backup plan, along with ideas for graduate school. By the time this story goes to press, Wood may well be planning a trip to Hollywood, or he may be coming home with plans to work harder next time, to incorporate what he learned to be even more successful. There is little doubt that success is waiting for him.

It is certainly possible that at some point in the not too distant future, you’ll hear him singing over your television or radio. Or perhaps he’ll someday help or even save a child’s life as a psychologist. Regardless, one way or another, Wood is going to make a difference. Given his confidence, coupled with his humility in learning from life’s stumbles, success on American Idol or success as a counselor, or even as something else, will likely just be the beginning. Besides, although he wouldn’t think in such terms, to many customers at Circles, he’s already an idol, and for good reason — there’s much to admire in this young man who is continually moving forward and always improving. Dan Wood has “It”.