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Rehearsing for the big event, the young women in high heels, red T-shirts and assorted shorts and sweatpants swung, stepped and spun in near unison to a soaring Broadway tune, "Impossible, It's Possible."

Emma DelMonte, 16, from Analy High School, turned to her right, then realized she should have gone left, wobbled briefly and reversed course.

"I usually struggle with everything," she said a few minutes later, before skipping off with a smile across a Petaluma dance studio, carrying with her a passel of evolving dreams that includes careers in engineering or architecture.

DelMonte is one of 10 Sonoma County high school junior girls competing Saturday in Rohnert Park as part of a 54-year-old national scholarship program that until recently was called Junior Miss.

It's an entirely separate entity from last week's Miss Sonoma County contest. That event, though it also offers scholarships, is tied to the Miss America beauty pageant and is for young women 17 to 24.

The name Junior Miss evoked the era of the program's founding, one of bobby-socks, pin-curl hairdos and, for girls, more limited aspirations. Though rich in fond memories, the name had become as dusty as the dance studio's old record player, and so it was changed this year to Distinguished Young Women.

Any high school junior can enter the contest, which judges girls in categories ranging from scholastics to self-expression. They vie for scholarships worth about $3,000 locally and thousands more at the state and national levels. And they often harbor sky-high ambitions.

Still, the moniker Junior Miss -- even organizers and contestants often still call it that -- has long echoes.

Many people she knows confuse the event with a beauty pageant, said Maria Carrillo High School's Brynna Thigpen, 16, whose sights are set on a future involving biology.

"I keep having to set them straight," Thigpen said, after rehearsing a dance choreographed to "The Hand Jive," a song from the hit film and musical "Grease."

Such perceptions appear to have dampened interest in the event, even at a time when r?um?burnishing recognition and college scholarships are especially sought after, said Traci Carrillo, winner of the 1989 Humboldt County Junior Miss title.

"It's been a struggle," said Carrillo, now a Sonoma County deputy district attorney and an official with the local Distinguished Young Women program. "A lot of the schools have misperceptions of what the program is. They don't want to allow us to come in to explain what it is."

The new name is meant to better characterize a rigorous, though friendly, contest that attracts students driven to excel.

"These are the kids aspiring to be the top of their class . . . your classic over-achievers," Carrillo said.

Former participants have gone on to schools including Harvard, Yale and Oxford. They describe it as a program that can lead to lifelong friendships while helping them articulate their goals early in life.

"I think Junior Miss really pushes young women to do that, when they might not otherwise be thinking that far in advance," said Celina Yong.

A 1998 Rancho Cotate High graduate, Yong won the local contest, went on to become Junior Miss California, competed nationally, and was awarded about $25,000 in scholarships.

Now a cardiologist at Stanford University Hospital, Yong said she and her family were hesitant about the program at first, despite the financial opportunities it offered.

They thought it was, well, a beauty pageant, before learning it was not that at all.

"My dad had concerns about that," she said, "and now, for about the last 10 years, he's been helping out as a volunteer."

Saturday's program will feature performances with the girls in evening dresses and high heels, a presentation that may call up visions of beauty contests. But those portions of the show, Carrillo said, are simply fun and also provide a lesson.

"It's showing the grace and the poise," she said. "It does have a pageanty feel. But if you think about it, I'm a DA, I wear heels every day, I have to be poised in front of a judge every day."

At a four-hour rehearsal on Sunday, the girls practiced their opening dance number, a complex routine of overlapping, fast-moving circles.

"Six, seven, eight and -- bam!" shouted dance teacher Kacie Lesky, producer of Saturday's show and a 2008 contestant. "I didn't win anything," Lesky said later, "but it gave me such a sense of confidence, I felt like there was no stopping me.'"

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.