Thursday, July 24, 2008

Dancers ready for Fiesta


Even as she sits watching her students practice at Oak Park for upcoming Fiesta performances, Antoinette Lopez exudes passion — something she calls the essence of flamenco.
“It’s the inner feeling, the passion,” she says.
It is evident in the way she speaks about Spanish dance, in her animated gestures and wide smiles, that Lopez has long found her calling.

For 35 years, the Santa Barbara native has taught youngsters and adults alike, building a name for Antoinette’s Rhythm & Dance Academy and enjoying every moment.
Naturally, Fiesta has been a huge part of her life. At four years old, she performed on stage at mercados and along parade routes in the early 60s.
She took on her first student at age 14. In 1975, Lopez earned the title of Spirit of Fiesta — the same year her student became Junior Spirit.
And while she still performs, Lopez said teaching has now become her true passion.
“What really inspires me is seeing a young dancer, a boy or girl, slowly develop their skills,” she says. “It’s like a rose starting to bloom.”
At the Oak Park stage, her face lights up as she watches her youngest group, including a 3-year-old girl, run through their performance.
“They will carry it on into other endeavors in their lives,” she says.
Not only does dancing give them good posture, Lopez says it improves their confidence and self-esteem, along with keeping them busy and focused. She teaches upwards of 150 students now, alongside her daughter, Amber.
Her Fiesta preparations begin in September with technique and footwork. As her students slowly progress, she starts tailoring dances to each group, giving them harder rhythms every year they remain under her stead.
“We don’t stop until the end of Fiesta,” she says.
Throughout the year, her students perform at retirement homes and hospitals — great community service as they prepare for Fiesta, Lopez says.
She choreographs all of her dances and takes biannual trips to Spain to learn and share ideas. Sometime soon, she hopes to bring along a group of her students to experience the birthplace of flamenco.
During her lifetime, Lopez says she has seen an explosion of Spanish dance locally.
“Santa Barbara has really developed; flamenco has really bloomed,” she says.
Fiesta serves as an anchor point, driving interest in learning and performing the rhythmic style.
“Do I think Santa Barbara can be a future capital of flamenco?” Lopez says. “Oh yeah, I can definitely see that.”
She is definitely doing her part to keep the passion alive. In 2004, Lopez formed FlamencOle Dance Theatre, a nonprofit organization that offers scholarships and support to young dancers.
“We wanted to be able to open the doors,” she says. “It’s just starting to bloom now.”
She hopes to attract sponsors for dancers to cover the costs of performances and outfits. But her plans don’t stop there.
Lopez has visions of a dance center where her students can hang out, learn to dance, do homework and relax in a safe atmosphere. She also envisions a small fleet of vans and buses to transport children from school or afterschool programs to the studio or home.
“I’m not done yet,” she says. “I have so many dreams and goals.”
In honor of her 35 years of teaching in Santa Barbara, Lopez has a special anniversary dance planned for the opening day of Fiesta. Her most seasoned students will join her on stage at Mercado del Norte, held at MacKenzie Park, for a special performance on July 30. The show begins at 3 p.m.
Throughout the rest of Fiesta, Lopez and her dancers will put on approximately 40 shows. She says she has a few other surprises planned, but refuses to reveal any hints.
When asked if any of her 35 years as a Spanish dance instructor have stood out more than others, she has a simple answer.
“This year is going to be the one,” she says.

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