In the moments before she begins to dance, performer and instructor Daniela Zermeño-Sanchez always closes her eyes. “I let go of the audience, and the kids, what I’m wearing, how much I’m sweating, and how tired I am,” said the 28-year-old of her process. “I just really try to put myself into that moment of the music and the emotion, and that’s what brings out a performance in me.” On the morning of Sunday, July 23, Zermeño-Sanchez did just that to the cante of Jesus Montoya, the Grammy-winning Spanish gypsy flamenco singer and composer, as his powerful voice modulated through emotion.
Zermeño-Sanchez, along with the 26 young women who make up Zermeño Dance Academy’s Live Music program, were rehearsing with Montoya’s band live for the first time this year, having prepared intensively since school let out and the so-called Fiesta season began in June. Later that day, they danced for a sold-out audience during Fiesta in the Grove, which took place at Elings Park and raised funds to help defray the cost of hiring Montoya’s group of world-renowned musicians, which includes Japanese flamenco guitarist José Tanaka, Venezuelan percussionist Diego Alvarez Muñoz, and American flamenco dancer and palmera Misuda Cohen. The band will accompany the Live Music program and the Zermeño Dance Academy Company as they perform three to four times every day of the Old Spanish Days Fiesta.
Dancing since she was a toddler, Zermeño-Sanchez was only 3 years old when she took her first flamenco class at Cruz Dance & Entertainment. Within five years, she was traveling to Los Angeles to study the classical Spanish dance form more intensively, and by 9, she and her older brother, Ryan Zermeño, were touring professionally as a child prodigy duo, charming audiences in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Texas, and Mexico.
When she was 12, Zermeño-Sanchez told her mom she wanted to teach. Thus, in her parents’ basement, she gave her first dance class, kicking off what has become a 16-year career as a flamenco instructor to hundreds of youngsters in Santa Barbara. In 2008, when Zermeño-Sanchez was just 19, her dancers performed at the Santa Barbara Mission, inaugurating the Zermeño Dance Academy, which she now co-runs with her husband, Danny Sanchez, in Old Town Goleta. In 2009, she was named the Spirit of Fiesta.
“I’m a teacher at heart. At the end of the day, that’s where I belong,” said Zermeño-Sanchez, whose upbeat energy does not hide her innate intensity. She has personally trained all seven of the academy’s dance instructors, who give classes in flamenco, hip-hop, lyrical, and jazz to 130 students, and her dancers were three of four finalists for the 2017 Santa Barbara Teen Dance Star Awards, with Santa Barbara High School freshman Sophia Cordero taking the title. Zermeño-Sanchez dances alongside students in her classes and on stage, as well as in master classes with visiting teachers because, she explained earnestly, “to remain an instructor, you have to still be a student always.”
To Zermeño-Sanchez, the popular Spanish dance form is all about storytelling and creativity, and in this way, flamenco is constantly renewed and made relevant by the performer. She tells her dancers to draw emotion from “your story” and share that with the audience. Despite her youth, Zermeño-Sanchez’s own story is riddled with tragedy. Having survived the deaths of many family members and a best friend, she has found healing through the emotional catharsis of performing the expressive dance form. Historically rooted in the painful laments of Gypsies facing persecution in southern Spain, flamenco was not a group dance, but rather a solo style in which the dancer and musicians riffed off of each other. “It isn’t so much about the technique,” she explained. “It’s so raw and in the moment. You can go in as a soloist with a little bit of a set structure, but it always changes because it’s really about what you’re feeling in the moment.”
As the emotional life of a dancer grows and deepens, like the grooves on her hand, so too does the quality and depth of her performance. “You get better and better as you get older because you have more to draw from,” said Zermeño-Sanchez, citing flamenco dancers in Spain who perform into their sixties and seventies.
In addition to Zermeño-Sanchez’s busy schedule as a studio director and instructor, her professional career has also had a resurgence since reuniting to perform with her brother and their childhood instructor Domingo Ortega, a world-famous flamenco dancer from Spain. Still two years shy of 30, Daniela Zermeño-Sanchez is just getting started.