Love Thy Neighborhood Festival

The Multicultural Dance and Music Festival Turns Five

by Elizabeth Schwyzer

15-Hula-Anyone-dmc.jpgOak 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.


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