Whether it’s the lengthening summer days or the latest COVID surge that has you itching to exercise outside again, Zumba classes in Santa Barbara’s iconic Oak Park present the perfect opportunity to get your groove on al fresco.
When I took the class for the first time in February, decades of patches had left the wooden surface of the nearly century-old dance stage uneven and full of gaps. Moving laterally, turning, and pivoting all felt rather perilous.
Originally built in 1926 on the occasion of a visit by Britain’s Prince George (great-great uncle of a certain prince who now resides in Montecito), the dance stage recently underwent a $100,000 renovation. According to Justin Van Mullem of Santa Barbara City Parks & Recreation, the project involved ripping up the old plywood, shoring up the supporting structure to promote drainage, having dancers vote on which top coat they thought best for the surface, and then applying enough TUFFLEX waterproofing to get 30 years of use from the new stage.
Now with Zumba offered three times a week, you don’t have to wait for one of the park’s many ethnic festivals to dance on the new floor.
Taught by the charismatic Lauren Macioce, whose full-time gig is as a dance teacher at Adelante Charter School, the classes follow the familiar Zumba format: hand cues from the instructor and lots of Latin music as well as other pop on the playlist (Daddy Yankee, Pitbull, Megan Trainor). Macioce moves around the stage the whole time interacting with the dancers: forming conga lines, engaging in playful pretend-spanking, having us dance in a woefully lopsided circle. For some songs, she also invites one or two regular students to come to the front and dance by her side.
The class has attracted many veterans of various Santa Barbara dance classes — some seeking a COVID-safe workout, others just excited about a great dance class. Zumba beginners are welcome too. Between Macioce’s constant movement and the added presence of the backup dancers, it’s generally easy to follow the steps. And if you come regularly, you’ll learn the routines.
Most of those attending the class are women, but there are also several men; the age of attendees tends toward forties and up. Since it’s outdoors, nobody wears a mask, and it’s easy to keep your distance from other dancers if that feels safer for you.
Sign up for Indy Today to receive fresh news from Independent.com, in your inbox, every morning.
Macioce plays up the sexiness of Zumba moves — hands skimming the body, pelvic thrusts, shaking the booty and various other parts of the anatomy, and I mentioned the pretend-spanking, right? But it’s all in fun, and nobody has to do anything that would make them feel uncomfortable.
Macioce also manages to sneak some serious workout moves into her choreography, like squats, high knees, and lots of lateral moves for the oblique muscles. Chalk this up to her training in capoeira, the Brazilian martial art that she describes as “beautiful, full of acrobatics, kicks, and dodges.”
Of course, all of these moves are much safer — and easier on the joints — on the new floor. Although one dancer I talked to expressed disappointment that the dance surface is not simply wood, she acknowledged that it’s a huge improvement over both the old stage and the nearby concrete surface the class danced on during the months the stage was being renovated.
Dancing in the park makes you feel like part of a larger creative community. On one recent Monday in the parking lot near the dance stage, a trio of women draped in veils in vivid shades of violet and emerald rehearsed Middle Eastern dance, while a couple of other women played their djembe drums. On another evening, a group that was headed to Burning Man gathered to practice twirling (unignited) batons and hoops, in preparation for a flaming performance at the desert festival.
“Dancing just brings me so much joy,” says Macioce. “I love to share that in Zumba!”
Oak Park Zumba classes are at Mon. and Wed., 5:30 p.m., and Sat., 10:30 a.m. Donation recommended (cash or Venmo). Wear sunscreen and a hat.