“My goal is to open a door that doesn’t exist,” says Monica Dabos poignantly. “There’s no place anywhere to socially dance without drinking. I don’t care if people drink. But if society doesn’t have options, we don’t have options.”
Monica has an artful way of speaking at once very literally and yet deeply about life themes. She is the founder of Yes Dance, a nonprofit whose goal is to provide an alcohol-free, healthy, and mainstream experience to the Santa Barbara community through Latin salsa, mambo, and other dances.
Her studio at 705 Paseo Nuevo provides weekly group and private classes, and on Tuesday evenings, enthusiasts congregate for a big dance and get together. The cover charge is kept to a minimum, and the evening starts with a beginner’s class followed by an intermediate class, culminating with open dancing until 11 p.m. In so doing, Yes Dance creates a safe and vital community that uses dance is an outlet for inclusivity and respect, regardless of age, gender, or origin.
Monica sees it as a way to socialize without drinking. “Most people think they need a drink to get on the dance floor,” she says. “We buck that trend. People are transformed. They find community. We break stereotypes.”
Of the organization’s roughly 2,400 members, about 500 attend each month, with ages averaging between 18 and 34 years old. Yes Dance has one of the best dance instructors in town, Victor Contreras, and they are collaborating with Greens and Roots to start serving non-alcoholic beverages at their social events.
Monica, who describes herself as a mathematics teacher by trade and a dancer by heart, is a force of nature. “I’m a crazy mix of statistics and dancing,” she tells me laughing. “If you’re math oriented — a nerd — they don’t expect you to be able to dance.”
Unconventional life choices have instilled in her a deep desire for fostering social inclusion at all levels. “My life never goes on a straight line,” she admits. “When I went to get my green card, the immigration officer told me that my life didn’t make sense.”
She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina but grew up in Mar Del Plata. Her family was of humble beginnings: dad a fisherman, mom raising the children. In 1975, while still in elementary school, Monica started teaching high school neighbors and friends about mathematics. For being so smart, she was teased and called names. “I didn’t care,” she says.
When she finished high school, she went to Buenos Aires to study mathematics for six months and then joined the Hare Krishna movement. For 15 years, she was a monk traveling through Argentina, Uruguay, India, and, ultimately, the United States.
“I loved it,” she explains. “I was looking for something from within, so I was in bliss. My feet couldn’t touch the ground. Their philosophy captured my mind and I loved the dancing. I dropped everything. Nothing else made sense.”
She married a man from Uruguay in a marriage arranged by Hare Krishna. “We moved a lot together,” she says. In 1993, she came to Gainesville, Florida. Then the Guru Hridayananda das Goswami (Howard J. Resnick, Ph.D.) brought her to Santa Barbara, where she worked as his chef while he finished his dissertation on Sanskrit for Harvard University.
Monica went to SBCC’s Wake Center to learn English. Her guru told her and her husband to go back to school, so they returned to Florida. Monica studied education at Tallahassee Community College, then graduated from Florida State University in 1999. They moved back to Santa Barbara, where Monica tallied up a number of post-graduate degrees in statistics and education from UCSB. Today, she teaches statistics at the California State University-Channel Islands and part time at SBCC. She’s been teaching for 18 years now.
She and her husband divorced in 2000, soon after moving back to Santa Barbara. She was depressed, and dance helped her emerge, particularly ballroom dancing with Ken Ota. “I wasn’t going to take up drugs,” she says, “so I took up dancing.”
Dance was always part of her family’s life, and she recalls going dancing every weekend in high school. “Dancing saved me,” she acknowledges. “I had lost a lot of pounds after my divorce. I was very depressed.”
While studying at UCSB, Monica attended student-run salsa dances held every Monday from 9 p.m. to midnight at Hillel. “I loved the atmosphere,” she explains, noting it was one of the few alcohol-free events in Isla Vista. “There was a huge diversity. It was so amazing to watch!”
When the student who was running the program, Melissa Zaragoza, embarked on a field trip, the salsa dances stopped. When Melissa returned, she entrusted Monica with the future of this beautiful tradition and handed her $500 to keep it alive. “After I finished my Ph.D. dissertation at UCSB, I decided to put energy into honoring Melissa’s work, dedication, and honesty,” says Monica. She went on to replicate the atmosphere where 150 young people could dance for three hours without a drop of alcohol — Yes Dance was born.
On Saturday, January 26, Yes Dance will be host its Six Year Anniversary Celebration, featuring a full day of classes that will lead to social dancing until 1:30 a.m. The cost is just $10.
Monica Dabos answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What do you most like about your job?
Whether teaching statistics at the university, or salsa at my Yes Dance Studio, what I love the most is to see the transformations that people experience. The moving from fear of “I can’t do it” to the excitement of “this is fun.” Seeing their smiles and happiness, the sense of confidence and their excitement makes my job enjoyable every day.
What is your greatest fear?
I don’t know! Fear and I have a weird relationship. For most of my life I have denied its existence, but many times I am confronted with the reality that fear is a big part of my life as it is for everyone else. It’s just that fear is not the first thing that comes to mind when I try to do things.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Enthusiasm! Determination! Hard work!
Where would you most like to live?
Where I am most in the present! Which is Santa Barbara now. I feel at home anywhere as long I have a bit of space to meditate. I have been meditating for 37 years.
What is your current state of mind?
Peaceful, happy, and satisfied with a few unanswered questions. Like, what will I do when I grow up?
Which talent would you most like to have?
To sing! I love peoples’ voices and the ability to express and project their soul fully through their voice. I have zero skill when it comes to singing.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Peace, peace, peace! Internal peace, peace of nature, peace of society! The last two I have little control over. Internal peace is all I need! With that I can stand most of the challenges life throws at me and keep smiling and stay happy.
Who do you admire most?
So many have inspired me along the way. There’s not one single person who takes all the credit but for different stages of my life different people have shown up to inspire me to take the next step. My mother, my father, my siblings, aunts and uncles, friends, and babies. Celebrities? Gandhi himself. Nipun Mehta who started Gandhi 3.0! Hugh Evans who started Global Citizens! Mark Johnson who started Playing for a Change! Mostly revolutionaries for the good of society inspire me.
What is your greatest extravagance?
“Work without getting paid” but I may have overdone it. I have volunteered the last six years of all my free time to develop a venue for social dance without drinking.
What quality do you like in people?
Transparency, honesty, drive, enthusiasm, uniqueness.
What quality do you dislike in people?
Falsehood — when their words and actions do not go hand in hand. Betrayal.
What qualities do you value in your friends?
Their unique personalities, the kindness of their hearts, their love for what they do. Their dedication to their goals, dreams, and aspirations
Which words or phrases do you overuse?
“Super” which I spell “supper” because extra good should have an extra p in my dictionary! I know the difference in the dictionary and I get corrected all the time, but I like super to be really super so I spell it supper! Do exclamation points count?! I over use them too.
What would you change about yourself?
I live on the clouds with so much idealism that I sometime forget I live on the earth and need be more realistic! I don’t want to abandon the clouds but I have yet to figure out how to keep more connected to the earth and the realities needed to navigate it!
What is your greatest achievement?
I’m proud of unexpected achievements. I have achieved things that could be considered impossible. I started learning English as a second language at the age of 32 and since then I have earned five degrees including two masters and a Ph.D.! And six years of philanthropic work to try to open a door in society that do not exist! But the greatest achievement has been to be true to myself regardless of circumstance or other people’s opinions.
What is your most treasured possession?
My meditation, a practice that has been part of me for the last 37 years! I have been meditating with the mantra Hare Krishna since 1982 — it gives me the peace and clarity to traverse this multifaceted ocean called life.
Who makes you laugh?
A lot of people, friends, family, even strangers, make me laugh! Laughing is a big part of my life. One of my dearest friends Antonio Iacopino has the ability to make me laugh to tears! Paolo Pintus from my dance community always makes laugh. My brother and his daughters Sofia and Rocio have a contagious laugh. Kids of my friends, like Benicio and Willoughby and many more.
What is your motto?
“Life is a dance, follow its rhythm.” I created this one. And “Live and let live”
Which historical figure do you identify with?
Gandhi? Revolution based on peace and internal transformation! It all starts from within!
When do you lie?
When I say, “I am almost there.”