The Dance of Life

A Mother’s Story of Fiesta, Flamenco, and Her Daughter’s Spirit

The author (right) and Joan Newton, dressed for Fiesta 1950.
Courtesy Photo

Since I was a child ​— ​some 60 years ago ​— ​my mom would dress me up in a homemade Fiesta costume, complete with a cardboard mantilla and a big red rose. My mom was Edna Newton, founder of La Vista Club for the Blind. That organization was the first ever to be given permission to have a concession stand during Fiesta right near the big arch at the S.B. Courthouse.

I looked forward to Fiesta each year and loved working at the stand ​— ​making hot dogs, popping popcorn, and serving up icy raspadas. The highlight of each year was when the Spirit of Fiesta would appear onstage and dance her intricate solo to the delight of the crowd. I would sneak out from behind the stand and watch her, amazed and envious of this slender, talented young señorita as she tapped out the staccato rhythms of the flamenco music. I knew that I would never be there, not with my sturdy size-18 clothes and no knowledge of dance. But I was envious, nonetheless.

The author's grandchildren Nico Haas and Marissa Urzua get ready for the festivities.
Courtesy Photo

I eventually married and had three beautiful daughters. I painstakingly sewed beautiful Fiesta dresses for them each year and proudly paraded them up and down State Street. One day, I asked my middle daughter, Laura Garcia, if she was at all interested in learning flamenco dance, and she enthusiastically said, “Yes!” At that time, my husband and I were divorced, and it was rough going financially to raise three girls on my own. In order to pay for her lessons (at Antoinette Lopez Studio) and all the other expenses of running a home, I took on four jobs and worked seven days a week.

When Laura was 15, she became a varsity cheerleader at Santa Barbara High School. At that point, I had to ask her to decide between dance and cheerleading ​— ​I couldn’t pay for both. She reluctantly chose cheerleading, but for the next six months, she continued to practice her dance steps, stomping out the footwork on the kitchen floor. That summer, she got a job at the concession stand at the drive-in and took on every babysitting gig she could find. Then she announced to me that she wanted to put her whole paychecks into dance lessons. I knew how much she missed dancing, so I agreed to have her start the lessons again.

The author and her grandaughter Marissa Urzua, age 12, Jr. Spirit of Fiesta 2003.
Courtesy Photo

In 1986, when she was 17, Laura said that she wanted to try out for Spirit of Fiesta. My heart skipped a beat. The girls who tried out for this coveted position have taken every kind of dance imaginable ​— ​some even studied in Spain. But I encouraged her to follow her dreams. On the night of auditions, there just happened to be more girls trying out than ever before. I sat nervously in the audience as the contestants gave elaborate speeches and performed their intricate dances. And I prayed ​— ​not so much for Laura to win, but for the words I would need to console her if she didn’t.

Then she was onstage (in her borrowed dress), and she was giving her speech. She was talking too fast; her speech sounded so much less impressive than the others: No foreign dance academies, no ballet lessons. But she had her dazzling smile and her spirit, and when her music started, she captivated the audience the same way I remembered seeing those Spirits at the courthouse so many years before. Much of that night is a blur, but I do remember thinking, “If they want someone with poise and maturity, they’ll choose one of the others. But if they want a true Spirit of Fiesta, they’ll choose my Laura.” And they did!

Twenty-six years have passed since that amazing night. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Garcia Dance Studio. Laura started her studio at Vandenberg Air Force Base, with six neighbors learning flamenco dance in her garage. Today, her studio has three locations ​— ​Lompoc, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Maria ​— ​and she has 175 students ranging in age from 2 to over 50.

Her students have performed in our Fiesta for most of those years ​— ​dancing at the Mission, the courthouse, and numerous other venues throughout the city. And Laura always makes a point to entertain at convalescent hospitals. For 11 years, Garcia Dance Studio has had a float in the big parade. (And if you stopped at the float yard, you would see me wielding a hammer and using the SkilSaw as I helped build it.) I am so proud of her achievements.

The author’s family has been involved in Fiesta for generations. Her daughters Laura and Debbie were decked out in 1971.
Courtesy Photo

This year will be an especially sentimental one for us. In 2010, I was diagnosed with cancer, and last month, Laura was diagnosed with breast cancer. The doctors say she must have surgery as soon as possible, but she refuses to even consider it until after she dances at Fiesta. Dance is her life ​— ​along with her daughter, Marissa; son, Nicko; and husband, Geoff. She told me that she doesn’t think she could stand it if doctors tell her she can’t continue to dance. So, stubbornly, she scheduled her surgery for the week after Fiesta. (The doctors say that is okay, since they caught the cancer early on.)

For years, the Garcia Dance Studio has performed at the Cancer Relays for Life in Lompoc, Santa Maria, and Santa Barbara. For the past two years, she has told the audience about me and my diagnosis. Next time, she will announce herself as a “cancer survivor.”

My daughter and I are going through this together, and we are both fighters. We will be around for many more Fiestas. A little grayer and a few dozen more wrinkles, but we’ll make it.

¡Viva la Fiesta y Viva la Vida!


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