Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Dance teacher cultivates thriving flamenco scene


At the end of an alley on West Victoria Street, stamping feet, clapping hands and a fast-paced guitar tune resound through the neighborhood.
It’s like this most days here, especially in July, as the 120 or so dancers that make up the Linda Vega Dance Studio feverishly work to fine-tune their routines before Old Spanish Days Fiesta kicks off on July 30.

During the five-day stretch of Old Spanish Days, which concludes Aug. 3, Vega’s dancers will perform nearly 30 times at scattered venues throughout Santa Barbara. Most performances will showcase flamenco, a dance and music genre that was born in the Andalusia region of Spain.
In Santa Barbara, the trademark feet stomping, rhythmic music, castanets and other props that define flamenco have become a mainstay of the Fiesta celebration. And for Vega, the dance’s popularity in this city with its trademark-whitewashed walls, red-tile roofs and abundant sunshine, couldn’t be more fitting.
“It’s the closed thing in the U.S. to Spain that I’ve found,” Vega said of the Old Spanish Days celebration during an interview at her studio yesterday. “The city loves flamenco. I have the City of Santa Barbara behind me.”
For the past 21 years, Vega has been teaching flamenco to local students of all ages. During this time, she said 25 of her students have gone on to be named Junior Spirit of Fiesta or Spirit of Fiesta — titles that make the two lucky girls celebrities of sorts during the city’s raucous celebration.
For Vega, flamenco has consumed much of her life and hopes it will continue to do so long into the future.
When she saw her first flamenco performance as a college student at UC Santa Barbara decades ago, she said she wept and knew immediately she wanted to dance and teach the genre.
“I just knew it’s what I wanted to do forever,” she said.
Not long after taking her first flamenco class in Santa Barbara, Vega went to Spain to study the dance — a journey that turned into 10 years abroad. When she returned to the U.S., she started a professional flamenco dance company called Danzas De Espana in Los Angeles. About this same time, two families in Santa Barbara asked Vega to teach their daughters a flamenco routine for the Fiesta celebration.
The rest, Vega said, is history.
While Vega’s students perform throughout the year, the primary focus is Fiesta. Like any extracurricular activity, she said flamenco helps keep children busy and out of trouble. And though Fiesta is generally a high point, Vega said this year has been the most difficult yet due to a number of new rules made by Old Spanish Day’s organizers.
One new rule that was especially troubling to Vega would have prevented Junior Spirit of Fiesta, 12-year-old Ashley Almada, from performing during La Fiesta Pequena, Old Spanish Day’s opening night celebration held on the steps of the Santa Barbara Mission. The rule prevented anyone under the age of 14 from performing during the event and was apparently drafted in an effort to reconnect to older La Fiesta Pequena programs, which were void of children.
But last week, Old Spanish Day’s officials rescinded the rule and said they would allow Almada to perform.
Another new rule restricted the number of dancers from each company to try out for Junior Spirit and Spirit to five. Vega said during any given year she has at least 13 girls try out.
As a result of the rule, Vega said it was up to her to eliminate a number of girls and select five she felt should try out — a task she said not only kills the dreams of some to become the Spirit of Fiesta, but unnecessarily hampers what she called a girl’s “journey” to reach a goal. That goal is the stage the Marjorie Luke Theatre where the tryout is held. And win or lose, it’s a climax where a dancer’s entire year of training comes to a head in a single dance.
“The thing that’s so difficult is it’s all about the journey to getting up on that stage,” Vega said. “It’s truly life-changing for the little kids and to take those goals and dreams away from young children is sad.”
Beyond that, Vega may not make the correct choice. In 2007, the girl who was named Junior Spirit danced for Vega, who said prior to the tryouts, she wouldn’t have selected this girl as one of the five.
Vega said she and many parents protested the new rule, but it stuck.
Yet another new rule Vega isn’t happy about banned flamenco from La Fiesta Pequena, which is often a crowd favorite.
Instead of flamenco, Vega said her dancers will perform a more traditional Spanish dance called the jota, which involves a series of jumps.
But despite the lack of flamenco at one of Fiesta’s main events, it will be seen at other venues around town. And where there’s flamenco, Vega believes passion will follow.
“I think people love flamenco because everyone loves passion in their life,” she said. “I just cried when I [first] saw it.”

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