The sturdy, vinyl-topped wooden floor in Goleta Valley Community Center’s Room 4 is taking a lot of punishment these days as scores of young dancers devote long hours to practicing for their Fiesta performances. Watching their posture in the wall-length mirror, the girls and women (primarily, for male dancers are a rare commodity) pound their feet to rhythms of classical flamenco, classical Spanish, folk, and even tap dance, as two of the area’s oldest and most esteemed dance schools prepare their students for the annual four-day event, taking place August 5-9 in Santa Barbara.

Rose Marie Cruz and Kathy Cota invited me to some of these rehearsals recently. Both of their schools have used the GVCC for practice and occasional performances since shortly after it opened as the heart of Old Town in 1978, according to longtime center employees. Cruz and Cota estimate that they have brought their students here for more than 25 years, but their individual dance careers go back farther than that.

This year, Cruz Dance and Entertainment Studio will celebrate its 36th year. Rose Marie herself, a former professional dancer with Jose Manero in the 1960s, says she has danced in Fiesta “all my life.” She attributes the birth of her own studio to “a fun afternoon” teaching Spanish dances to her daughter and some friends, and is proud that her daughter was once a Senior Spirit of Fiesta.

For Kathy, the youngest daughter of Santa Barbara dance pioneer Juan Cota, family tradition simply requires a passion for dance. “The Cotas are a dancing group,” she shrugs, noting that her father danced in the first Fiesta in 1924. “There’s been a Cota in every Fiesta since,” she says. A few years ago the Old Spanish Days organization honored the Cota family with a plaque on the 75th anniversary of its continuing dedication to Fiesta. This year her daughter will dance for Kathy Cota Dance Studio, and her granddaughter is being groomed for future Fiestas.

Watching them work with their students, it is clear that this is far more than a business for Cota and Cruz, and each has her own teaching style. Addressing nine little girls, ages four and five, in pink skirts and tops, Cruz asks them to check items in their individual makeup kits. When they comply with a minimum of fuss, she tells them, “Excellent, ladies.”

Soon the girls are watching themselves in the mirror as they stomp their heels and dance to music from a CD player. The music ends and Cruz begins to roll her arms in the air and sing “choo-choo, choo-choo.” The “ladies” fall in behind her, each grabbing the waist of the one in front. They shuffle around train-like, and end up in a more or less straight line.

It’s a costume and makeup rehearsal so the little ones stand still for inspection and Cruz, who once studied to be a costume designer, matter-of-factly lists alterations needed for each outfit. After I avert my gaze, she checks the girls’ slips and underwear, telling one to not wear plaid during performances. One girl’s mother takes notes to pass to the other mothers. It’s all remarkably organized and efficient, particularly for this age group.

But with 50 to 60 students, primarily from Goleta and Santa Barbara, in 21 classes, most of whom will be performing within two weeks, Cruz does not have time to waste. As a veteran performer and the daughter of a career U.S. Marine, she knows the value of discipline-“We average seven performances a day during Fiesta,” she explains-but she also wants her students to have fun and gain self-confidence as they learn their dances.

Cruz does not do all of this alone, though she is the studio’s chief choreographer, costume designer, and art director. She has assistance from three other studio dance instructors, a few tutors and assistants, and a small group of volunteer mothers who work with other parents on costumes, footwear, and anything else the production calls for.

The Cruz Dance and Entertainment Studio will perform its Annual Showcase at the Goleta Valley Community Center on Saturday, August 1, at 7 p.m. Admission is $12.

Kathy Cota is running a smaller operation this year, but she is no less involved with her students’ skills, costumes, and choreography. She has seven groups totaling 20 students for this Fiesta, mostly drawn from Goleta and Santa Barbara families. They will perform classical Spanish and flamenco dances four or five times a day. They have a ways to go before then.

Three young women practice a flamenco number, and Cota claps her hands vigorously to keep them in time to the flaring music. After stopping and starting the number three times, they seem to pick up the pace. “That wasn’t bad,” says Cota. A soloist dancing classic Spanish with a fan is next. Cota watches, then interrupts and shows the dancer how to inject drama into her motions. Her professional dancing background surfaces as she pivots and bends, floating her fan in a graceful arc.

Later she tells me about how, despite glitches with some of the footwear, “Our costumes for the first time are progressing better than our dances.” Part of the trouble stems from several of her older girls falling ill, throwing off rehearsal schedules that already were juggled around students’ many other activities.

Cota, too, has a small group of volunteer moms who help with the costuming and rehearsals, though she now lives in Oxnard and relies on suppliers in Los Angeles for materials. “So why do you keep doing it, year after year?” I ask. “I do it for the love of dance and for my family’s history,” she replies. “I want to see the kids happy.”

When asked the same question, Cruz says, “I’m known as a disciplinarian, but when I see these kids on stage and so happy, I get a great satisfaction from that.”

At least 16 other dance studios will also be contributing their talents to Fiesta 2009 but, unfortunately, they do not practice on my beat.


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