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Fiesta Californio Canto-Baile Education Program Teaches History with Song, Dance

Local fourth-graders learn about California tradition, culture dating to the 1800s

The torch of California history, custom and tradition from Old Spanish Days Fiesta was passed along to more than 150 local fourth-graders who participated in the Californio Canto-Baile program Wednesday at the Carriage and Western Art Museum.

Children from Harding University Partnership School, Notre Dame School and Peabody Charter School assembled to perform La Jota Vieja, a traditional dance that originated from California’s unique Rancho period.

“The songs and dances of this time period were not simply historical songs and dances to the children,” said Erin Graffy, historian for Old Spanish Days Fiesta. “They became a vehicle to learn and understand the culture of the Spanish Arcadia time period.”

The Californio Canto-Baile History-Arts Education Program is a new program designed to teach fourth-graders the history, songs and dances of Spanish California from 1828 to 1864. The curriculum is modeled after ArtsBridge America, utilizing proven methods for assessing student learning through enhanced movement, music and social skills, pre- and post-vocabulary testing, writing assignments and project evaluations.

More than 200 students are enrolled in Canto-Baile, which is scheduled to resume in the fall and continue into next year. The program, funded by grants from the Santa Barbara Bowl Education Outreach Program, the Target Foundation and Ralphs Funds, provides children the opportunity to establish physical, artistic and social connections to early California heritage.

“During the 19th century and through the end of the century, Santa Barbara was the one place where the history of these songs and dances was preserved,” Graffy said. “This also becomes a means to preserve those songs, dances and history.”

Thea Vandervoort, left, director of the Californio Canto-Baile History-Arts Education Program, with Marianne Partridge, chairwoman of the Santa Barbara Bowl Education Outreach Program, and Erin Graffy, historian for Old Spanish Days Fiesta.
Thea Vandervoort, left, director of the Californio Canto-Baile History-Arts Education Program, with Marianne Partridge, chairwoman of the Santa Barbara Bowl Education Outreach Program, and Erin Graffy, historian for Old Spanish Days Fiesta. (Melissa Walker / Noozhawk photo)

According to Graffy, the curriculum aims to cover the five defining elements that summed up the era: hides, horses, hacienda, hospitality and La Jota.

Patricia Alvarez came to the event to support her daughter, Giovanna, 9, a student at Notre Dame School.

“My daughter was born in Santa Barbara, and so it’s very important for her to learn about her ancestry,” Alvarez said.

Californio Canto-Baile History-Arts Education program director Thea Vandervoort has worked extensively with the students since March to prepare them for the dance presentation.

“The students have studied the Rancho period in depth.” she said. “They have really brought history alive and utilized the dance movements to experience the tangible representation of history that they’re studying in their textbooks, so it’s an alternative approach to learning.”

Notre Dame School students also worked on a cattle branding activity, and with the assistance of Vandervoort created their own cattle brands that were on display at the event.

“They learned the principal of developing a stamp backward, and when it is stamped on paper the brand will come out the right way,” Vandervoot said.

Additionally, the students are working on research reports about three ranches in Santa Barbara County that are still in use today, enabling the students to connect the past with the present.

“It’s pretty interesting because earlier we learned about native Indians, and now we’ve moved back on the time line and just learned about the Ranchos and what they did,” said 9-year-old Dominic Tuttle, a student at Peabody Charter School.

“None of these schools has an arts program anymore, and we are really fulfilling a need in terms of providing some kind of arts in schools,” Vandervoot said. “They are getting a well-rounded experience, and it’s at no cost to the schools.”

The students will perform Flor y Canto at the annual Fiesta celebration, where they will dance and sing songs showcasing early California history and culture to educate the community about its cultural traditions and past.

“It’s extremely fulfilling for me and extremely enriching for the children.” Vandervoot said. “I know they are really enjoying it.”

Noozhawk contributing writer Melissa Walker can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews, and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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