Jack Harwood Makes History as First Male Spirit of Fiesta in Santa Barbara

Olivia Nelson Is the 2023 Junior Spirit of Fiesta

El Presidente David Bolton, Junior Spirit Olivia Nelson and Spirit Jack Harwood | Credit: Fitz Olenberger | Credit: Fritz Olenberger

The final auditions for the title of Junior Spirit of Fiesta and Spirit of Fiesta that took place last weekend unfolded into an afternoon of fiesta, flamenco, and firsts as those lucky enough to be in the audience witnessed history in the making. 

2022 Spirit of Fiesta Tara Mata congratulates Jack Harwood the 2023 Spirit of Fiesta | Credit: Fitz Olenberger

For the first time in Fiesta history, a male dancer was crowned Spirit. After a stunning performance, Jack Harwood was chosen out of the 12 finalist competitors to be this year’s Spirit of Fiesta, and in doing so, he accepted not only the position as Spirit, but as a trailblazer for male dancers watching him break barriers and accept this honor. 

Olivia Nelson accepted her winning title as Junior Spirit of Fiesta in a visible state of gratitude for her title-winning, stellar performance. 

The final auditions, which were an impressive show for all in attendance, began with 10 Junior Spirit finalist performances, followed by an intermission, and then 12 Spirit finalist performances. Each solo routine was a final audition to be crowned Junior Spirit and Spirit, but as explained before the performances began, the finalists had to undergo preliminary auditions and interviews before being chosen to compete in the final (yet amicable) showdown. 

Olivia Nelson finds out she is named Junior Spirit of Fiesta | Credit: Fitz Olenberger

As each dancer performed, the excitement and cheers from the audience quite literally set the stage, and the tone of the afternoon was immensely supportive and enthusiastic. Dancers and dance moms alike, as well as proud dance teachers and other supporters in the audience set the Lobero Theatre ablaze with their passion for the art, craftsmanship, hard work, and dedication that was being demonstrated. The final performances were a true culmination of so many victories, and to make it thus far was a testament to the talent of each and every one of the Spirit finalists.

Following the dancers’ performances, the 2022 Junior Spirit of Fiesta, Layla Gocong; and the outgoing Spirit, Tara Mata, came out individually to recite their farewell speeches and perform individual dances as Spirits for one last time. Their legacy was evident as tears were shed amongst both the Spirits and the crowd. Amid their final words and performances as Spirits, they offered a hopeful glimpse into the future of Fiesta as they warmed up the stage for the new Spirits to take their place in the spotlight. 

This year’s El Presidente, David Bolton had the honor of announcing the winners. With much anticipation, the Junior Spirit of Fiesta was revealed, and the audience roared as Layla Gocong proceeded to congratulate the new Junior Spirit, Olivia Nelson, with flowers. When speaking with Olivia, she expressed that one of the things she is most looking forward to during Fiesta is “to see all the crowds of people so happy to watch me dance.”

Junior Spirit Olivia Nelson and Spirit Jack Harwood | Credit: Fitz Olenberger

What was to come afterward was a remarkable and historical win. Bolton steadily opened the card containing the long-awaited results, paused, and then smiled as he knew what was about to be announced would change the course of Fiesta history forever. The winner was trumpeted, and the audience, in a state of enthrallment, took to a standing ovation as Harwood, the first male to win this title, was announced the 2023 Spirit of Fiesta. The excitement floating around the room was impenetrable. Amid the buzz around Harwood after his win was announced, he explained the process behind this “longtime dream” of his. Dancing from the age of 4 and growing up around the Fiesta, the representation that the Spirit of Fiesta brings to this annual celebration “has always been something that is close to me,” said Harwood. He also stated that “the process leading up to [winning Spirit], putting all the work in and getting to learn from other people, that’s the part that I really take as the reward for it.”

As Bolton noted, “This is a really special moment for Old Spanish Days. This is the first time we have ever had a male Spirit,” showcasing just how groundbreaking this win was for the community of Santa Barbara, and more importantly, the community of dancers watching this hallmark of Fiesta tradition. 


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