Dance Festival Turns Seven

by Elizabeth Schwyzer

This Saturday, the grandniece of one of history’s most revered
flamenco dancers takes the stage at the Lobero to open Santa
Barbara’s seventh Flamenco Arts Festival (FAF), California’s
original annual celebration of the powerful Latin art form.
Miami-based flamenco bailaora Omayra Amaya carries with
her the legacy of Carmen Amaya, the electrifying performer of
Spanish gypsy heritage who traveled worldwide with her extended
family, bringing the pride and passion of flamenco to Hollywood and
Broadway in the 1930s and ’40s. On the second Saturday of the
festival, Sevilla’s Israel and Pastora Galván, two representatives
of another internationally renowned flamenco family, join forces in
a performance that illustrates the divergent styles of contemporary
flamenco. This chance to see such world-class flamenco artists on
America’s West Coast comes thanks to yet another family with a
passion for flamenco that spans generations. Festival founder and
artistic director Vibiana Pizano Smith credits her entire family
for the support and the vision that have made FAF an ongoing

Family has always been at the heart of flamenco. The folk art
form of music and dance emerged in southern Spain in the early part
of the 19th century as an expression of the passionate emotionalism
and rebel spirit of Andalusian gypsy culture, with regional
variations developing around the traditions of particular families
or castas, each of which developed and preserved its own
distinctive style.

Santa Barbara’s Pizano family understands the powerful ties that
bind a flamenco family together. Vibiana Pizano grew up in Los
Angeles dancing Mexican folklórico and began dancing flamenco as a
teenager, discovering a passion that has directed her family’s life
ever since. So close were her ties to her parents that when her
father’s employer moved him to Santa Barbara in 1978, she followed
with her own children. When I met with the local flamenco promoter
last week to discuss the festival, she came accompanied by her
father, Alberto, and her daughter, Jaclyn. Her son Pablo, 26, is
one of the performers in this year’s festival and a rising star in
the flamenco world. Alberto is cofounder of the city’s Mariachi
Festival. A lifelong supporter of the performing arts, he’s eager
to discuss the prominence of the Latin arts in this community.
“Spanish culture is part and parcel of Santa Barbara — the city was
founded by the Spanish, and Spanish dance and music have always
been part of the cultural agenda here,” he pointed out. Interest in
the Latin arts is far from new, but Al believes we’ve reached a
tipping point. “Flamenco is essentially a Latino function,” he
said. “When the Latino community is more affluent, they can develop
their art form.” The FAF has proved that the audience for flamenco
exists in Santa Barbara alongside a solid core of performers — when
Vibiana moved to Santa Barbara, she found three flamenco studios.
Today there are more than 10.

Over the years, Vibiana has aimed to expose Santa Barbarans to
the surprising variety of flamenco styles. Past festival programs
have included 30-member companies and solo performers, puro
flamenco artists and modernists. This year’s brother/sister team
Israel and Pastora Galván represent two sides of a divide. Pastora
has stuck close to pure flamenco tradition, while Israel has
achieved celebrity status as a radical innovator by fusing modern
dance choreography with more familiar forms. The debate over
whether or not innovation belongs in the world of flamenco is
nowhere more charged than in Sevilla, Spain — the true heart of
flamenco culture and home of the Bienal de Flamenco where
the Pizanos regularly travel to see the world’s greatest dancers.
In hosting the Flamenco Arts Festival half the world away from
Sevilla, the Pizanos hope to expose U.S. dance companies and local
performers to many of the finest flamenco artists in the world who
represent the entire range of styles, infusing American flamenco in
general — and this community in particular — with excitement and
renewed commitment to the art form. Their goal is to develop Santa
Barbara into a strong base for flamenco training, from which
dancers can attain professional levels of performance and go on to
tour internationally. “When people ask me whether I think American
dancers will ever dance like the Spanish,” Al said, “I say that
unless Spaniards have an extra bone or a muscle we don’t have,
there’s no reason we can’t do it just as well.” Cultivating an
environment that can nurture talent is vital, and as Vibiana noted,
“that exposure and training is what we’re all about.”

The festival isn’t only for aspiring flamenco artists, of
course; the program includes a children’s show; master classes for
dancers and guitarists of all backgrounds; and a class in the
popular Spanish dance form sevillanas, open to everyone
including those with no prior dance experience.

Jaclyn Pizano’s experience as a flamenco dancer and as an
observer sums up her family’s attitude toward their chosen art.
“When I dance, I feel like I’m taken to another place,” she said.
“The passion, the lack of inhibition, the ability to express
powerful emotions — it’s very moving. When I went to Spain, I
saw it. It’s hard to explain. People need to see it.”

4•1•1 The Flamenco Arts
takes place Saturday, September 23-Sunday,
October 1 at various locations. For info visit; for
tickets call 963-0761 or visit


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