Fiesta, or, more accurately, Old Spanish Days, in Santa Barbara is many things to many people. To some it is a commemoration of a period of our town’s history. To others it is a good excuse to drink lots of tequila and dance in the streets. To legions of young dancers, however, it is the culmination of the year’s hard work and a chance to dance. And for their teachers, it is a time of pride. Linda Vega, Rosemarie Cruz, Antoinette Lopez, and Kathy Cota, among others, have been teaching here for decades and have seen thousands of their students up on Fiesta stages.
“Santa Barbara is a gem,” Vega said. “To have this yearly festival where children can perform, develop their skills and their confidence on a stage-I have seen lives change because of what can happen in this journey. I don’t know of anywhere else in this country where children can start dancing at age three and perform all over the city.”
According to Erin Graffy de Garcia, Fiesta historian, Old Spanish Days started in 1924 with one of the goals to preserve the songs and dances of the previous century. Termed the “Spanish California” songs and dances, they were unique to California during the “rancho period” but with many versions specific to Santa Barbara. In 1952, the King of Spain honored the city with an award for preserving the culture and history of his country.
While many Fiesta fans come for the flamenco, there are other dance styles with roots that go back even further. Wednesday’s opening show at the Old Mission this year has a “Fiesta traditional” theme and will return Spanish classical (see box below) to its historic venue. In addition, Friday’s Noches de Ronda at the Courthouse will be preceded by “Flor y Canto,” a presentation of the original Spanish California songs and dances, in authentic costume, and performed to music played on authentic acoustic instruments, just as it was done 150 years ago.
“S.B. is just extraordinary because most of the dance studios here are extremely well-versed in the classical dances,” Graffy de Garcia said. “Many places elsewhere, they just know flamenco, but here, so many of our teachers were trained classically their whole lives, and later on incorporated the flamenco.”
Then there are younger teachers, the up-and-coming next generation. Daniela Zerme±o has appeared at Fiesta every one of her 19 years, first as a babe-in-arms in the parade, then performing starting at age four. At 12 she began teaching, and this year she and 40 students from her studio will perform throughout Fiesta.
“Daniela is just a remarkable young lady,” Graffy de Garcia said. “I remember when she was seven or eight years old, dancing at the Courthouse with her older brother and sister. She had so much poise and presence, it seemed like she was 42. And now she has a studio of her own.”
Jessica Marquez, 18, holds the Spirit of Fiesta title this year. A native of the area, she started dancing at age three. In addition to studying with area teachers, she has trained in Spain and done some teaching herself. At this year’s Fiesta, she will dance Classical Spanish and flamenco, her passion.
“When I was 11 or 12, I was infatuated with flamenco, but as I got older I started to understand it more deeply. And then once I went to Spain, I was like, ‘Oh, now I get it.’ For us it’s a hobby, while there it’s a lifestyle. The amount of passion behind it is amazing, especially when you’re dancing with a live singer. That’s the best.”
Ashley Almada, 12, is this year’s Junior Spirit of Fiesta. She started ballet at three and flamenco at five, and still studies both seriously. “To me, being Junior Spirit is about having the honor of that title, not about how well you dance,” she said. “It’s about bringing the spirit of Fiesta out into the audience and getting everyone happy and jumped up.”
“The first time I saw flamenco, I started crying,” Vega said. “There are some things in life that just take your insides and grab ‘em. And that’s what flamenco did to me. I think what appeals to people about it is that it’s a very passionate art form, and everyone wants passion in their lives, in one way or another.”
She took her first flamenco class at age 21 in Santa Barbara with Juan Talavera. After six months of studying with him, she felt moved to go to Spain, where she studied and performed for 10 years, as well as all over Europe. “The roots of flamenco come out of oppression against the Gypsies,” she said. “Singing their hearts out around a campfire about the tragedies of life. That’s what it’s all based on, even the lighter forms.”
She had a studio and professional company in L.A. for many years, but now lives in Santa Barbara, where she has taught for 21 years. A dancer from her studio won the Spirit of Fiesta title in 1987, and Vega’s studio has been home to 25 Spirits and Junior Spirits since then.
While Vega finds teaching and mentoring these young dancers incredibly gratifying, it is unmistakably hard work, especially at this time of year. “In preparation for Fiesta, I do about 30 choreographies, choose all the fabrics and accessories-both from L.A. and from Spain-make many, many trips to L.A. to find just the right fabrics, design all the costumes, and work with all the seamstresses. You have to have a passion for it!”
In her studio’s 38th year, Rosemarie Cruz remembers Fiesta from her childhood as a great variety of entertainment: musicians, singers, Mexican folkloric dances, Indian dances from Mexico, the paso doble with castanets, cape twirling, Ravel’s Bolero, Bizet’s Carmen, the Mexican hat dance. Flamenco was a very small part of it, mainly only seen when an adult touring company would come to perform.
“I want to keep the tradition going, because since day one, Fiesta has been a part of my life. In my studio we do a few flamenco numbers, but I’m very happy to continue to offer this array of styles. It’s important to have the variety, too, because if you focus only on flamenco, it is very difficult for the young children to maintain concentration on the footwork.”
Cruz described her gentle and understanding manner when teaching young children. Her eyes sparkled and her smile was radiant. In speaking to her older students incidentally during this interview, she was calm and soft-spoken, but firm when necessary. No wonder kids love her, and past students call her on Mother’s Day with good wishes for their “Mama Cruz.”
Antoinette Lopez is celebrating the 35th anniversary of her studio this year. She mainly teaches flamenco and Spanish regional dances, with some classical Spanish. Native to Santa Barbara, she started studying at age four with legendary dancer Juan Manero. “He passed away when I was 11,” she said. “And I loved the art form so much that I would go to the library and check out albums and try to imitate the footwork.”
Lopez studied in Spain, and when she returned, she started teaching at age 14 in her living room, often to neighbors. At 16, she was selected as Spirit of Fiesta and has continued to teach and perform since then. A couple years ago, she started a nonprofit organization called FlamencOle Dance Theatre.
“I started it because I saw a lot of youths who wanted to take dance but whose families were unable to afford it,” Lopez said. “We provide scholarships, workshops, and educational programs for them. Eventually I hope to open a dance center where kids can come and hang out and do their homework and take dance classes. I continue to perform and hope I will continue to inspire many future dancers, the youth-that’s the important thing. They’re the ones who will carry it on.”
Old Spanish Days runs from Wednesday, July 30, through Sunday, August 3, at various venues. For schedule and more information, call 962-8101 or visit oldspanishdays-fiesta.org.
The Four Main Types of Dance at Fiesta
Classical Spanish Dance
Originally performed in the courts of Spain for royalty. Has roots in ballet, very lyrical, with lots of turns and kicks. Like flamenco, is done in heeled shoes and ruffled dresses and uses footwork, but not as intensely. Music is orchestrated, melodic. Uses castanets, whereas flamenco doesn’t. More ethereal than earthy.
Not originally a large part of Fiesta, but popularized during the last several decades by Jose Greco, Juan Talavera, Roberto Amarral, and others who performed here. Many S.B. natives studied with them and embraced this fiery, passionate dance form. By the mid ‘90s, it had all but eclipsed Classical Spanish dance as the people’s choice. Rhythmic and intense, flamenco is a gypsy dance, focusing on sharp footwork and done to guitar, caja (box drum), palmas (handclapping), and vocals.
Became popular at Fiesta after WWII, when there was a new interest in different lands and cultures. Danced in colorful costumes specific to the various regions of Mexico, often with elaborate, looping braided hairdos for the girls. Generally done in groups, or groups of couples. The Mexican Hat Dance is probably the most widely known of this type.
Spanish Regional Folk Dance
Every region of Spain also has its own folk dance. Jotas, Sevillanas, and paso dobles are all examples of this style. Jotas, which use lots of light, jumping steps, are often danced in espadrilles with a rope and rubber sole that tie at the ankle. Castanets are sometimes played, but in a more open-palmed style than Spanish Classical. Originally in Basque folk dances, large shells were used instead.