The Multicultural Dance and Music Festival Turns Five
by Elizabeth Schwyzer
Oak Park’s ethnic festivals have become a Santa Barbara institution during the past few decades. The first was the Greek Festival in 1974 (still going strong), which was followed by the Italian and German festivals (neither of which has survived to the present). Then, each July, there came the French Festival, where thousands congregate each year to don brightly colored berets and nosh on baguettes as they admire the poodle parade and the can-can chorus lines. But it wasn’t until 2000 that Santa Barbara Dance Alliance’s Multicultural Dance and Music Festival, having outgrown its Elings Park base, decided to join the rest of the ethnic revelers in town at the Oak Park location. From its early days as a handful of performances organized by ethnic dance aficionados Alexandra King and John Chapman, the Multicultural Festival has grown to become the Dance Alliance’s biggest annual event: A two-day long extravaganza featuring more than 200 performers from more than 40 performance groups representing not just one, but dozens of cultural groups. It’s an international shindig — a world tour of movement and song. It’s also one of the few places where you can get away with wearing a grass skirt, a corset, or a burqa (or all three), where English country dancers share a stage with hip hop lessons, where Israeli and Middle Eastern culture come together in harmony. The festival’s panoptic approach has an absolute appeal; organizers of this year’s festival anticipate more than 3,000 visitors.
According to Dance Alliance’s Executive Director Julie McLeod, the festival exists to serve Santa Barbara’s diverse performing arts community. In a town with sophisticated artistic tastes, tickets to the symphony and the ballet sell quickly, while folk dance and world music tend to get overlooked. Despite the fact that the Alliance has yet to break even on the festival — rising permit costs and free admission add up to a financial challenge — they remain committed to honoring the traditional art forms of Santa Barbara’s ethnic subgroups. Profits are limited to the income generated by participating vendors. (Hint: Go for the belly dancing; stay for the belly filling, or buy yourself some bangles.) Were it not for the Multicultural Festival, the songs and dances of countless national and regional cultures represented in our community would go virtually unnoticed by the general public, despite the fact that hundreds of Santa Barbarans are involved with traditional dance and music groups. For McLeod, the festival is about more than just token exposure. “We’re honoring the vast variety of cultures in Santa Barbara,” she said. “In this time of religious and ethnic division, it’s so important that we find ways we can honor and love each other.” From the opening Chumash ceremony and blessing Saturday morning, to the closing dance party with Cuban salsa band Somos Son on Sunday night, Oak Park will pulse with the drumbeats and the rhythms of disparate cultures sharing that same urge to dance. I can guarantee it will be hard to sit still — last time I showed up to watch the salsa party, I found myself whirled across the dance floor by one Latin dance expert after another. In addition to performances of flamenco and Balinese masked dance, authentic cuisine from Thailand and the Caribbean, and crafts from Afghanistan and Africa, the festival offers free dance lessons — this year’s lineup includes Mexican folkloric, Balkan, English country, Brazilian, Tahitian, Russian, and West African dance, among others. You’ll find me on the main stage dancing the weekend away — after I’ve located the baklava.
4•1•1 The Multicultural Dance and Music Festival takes place Saturday and Sunday, August 19 and 20 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. in Santa Barbara’s Oak Park.