A few days a week, an outdoor stage in Santa Barbara’s Oak Park, nestled between West Junipero Street and Calle Real, is transformed into a dance studio.
Donning face masks and closed-toe shoes, a group of community members stood ready to learn salsa dance moves shortly before sunset on a recent Monday afternoon.
Dancers mimicked their instructor’s footwork as they crossed their left foot in front of their right.
“One, two, three, four and five,” Marco Aguilar told the participants. “From here, my hips should be in this direction. Use your torso and unwind.”
He repeated the directions.
Aguilar and Erika Martin del Campo, directors and owners of Santa Barbara-based ME Sabor Dance Studio, are uniting the community through the art of dance and helping participants grow their dance skills amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The studio is embracing outdoor dance classes at the Oak Park stage, 600 W. Junipero St. in Santa Barbara. It provides hourlong salsa and bachata classes on Mondays and Fridays. The classes are designed for all levels and ages, and cost $15 per class or $120 for 10 classes.
From 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursdays at the park, the dance studio offers an outdoor salsa team for children ages 6 to 10, and the practice covers the basics of salsa and other genres such as bachata and merengue.
Dancers pre-register for classes online and RSVP to attend as well as wear face masks and keep their distance while dancing.
“All you have to do is show up,” said del Campo, who was crowned the 2010 Old Spanish Days Spirit of Fiesta. “Wear whatever you are comfortable in.”
ME Sabor Dance Studio provides two levels of salsa and bachata classes to accommodate all students, and classes are separated into the introductory to beginner level on one side of the stage and the intermediate and more advance level on the other side. Attendees have the opportunity to participate in their desired level.
“We play the same music, and each side dances facing away from each other,” del Campo said. “At the end of class, we all perform for each other.”
The outdoor stage was illuminated by the park lighting and portable lighting in red, blue and pink for extra flare during a recent salsa class. The group began dancing in unison to the music played through a portable speaker.
“We try to create as fun of an environment as we can, especially because for most people, we have been indoors now for a year, and this is kind of the only bit of outdoors that a lot of people get,” del Campo said.
As a result of the pandemic, many local businesses face an uncertain future and acted quickly to stay afloat during the coronavirus shutdowns. The original coronavirus shutdown in March 2020 elongated into weeks and months because COVID-19 spread across Santa Barbara County.
ME Sabor Dance Studio is approaching the anniversary of when it had to close in-studio classes.
“We officially shut down March 14 for what we thought was going to be two weeks,” del Campo said. “That day is ingrained in my head.”
When the state-ordered restrictions brought on by the pandemic prevented in-studio classes, ME Sabor Dance Studio in Santa Barbara switched to online dance classes and safe-distancing outdoor lessons at Oak Park to ensure everyone’s safety.
The dance studio quickly adapted to the challenges by offering remote dance lessons on Zoom about three weeks into the pandemic-related shutdown last spring.
When the opportunity arose, ME Sabor Dance Studio started hosting outdoor classes at Oak Park. The first class took place in September 2020.
“It has been wonderful to dance at the park,” del Campo said.
Through its classes in the park, the studio has reached more people beyond the traditional in-studio setting.
“We have had people join us who may have never gone into a studio,” del Campo said. “There has been something so liberating about being outside. It is beautiful, and it has brought people together.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the number of requests to use public spaces, such as parks, for outdoor fitness and commercial activities, according to the Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department.
The department began issuing outdoor fitness and commercial activity permits in August 2020, recreation coordinator Kelsey Hamilton said. Hamilton estimated that about 20 providers have been served through the permit process, and those are just the monthly outdoor fitness and commercial activity permits.
The Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department also offers an hourly permit option for providers who wish to have a little more flexibility in their times and locations, or are offering a couple of classes a week, Hamilton said.
Some equipment that dancers are familiar with cannot be provided outside the dance studio, such as large glass mirrors.
ME Sabor Dance Studio classes now focus on footwork instead of dancing with a partner since close-contact activities have been halted by the pandemic. The choreography is adjusted to accommodate COVID-19-related precautionary measures involving social distancing.
Classes at ME Sabor Dance Studio focused on partner work before the pandemic.
“We do have to adjust choreography and dance steps, but the No. 1 question we have is partner work,” del Campo said. “We went from having partner work every single day in the studio to now we don’t offer it.”
Meredith Lyons said she enjoys dancing outside under the stars and surrounded by the trees and colorful lights in the park.
“They (Marco and Erika) make this so much fun,” Lyons said. “They welcome everybody and do such an amazing job teaching.”
Lyons said she has been attending the outdoor dance classes during the past several months, and she noted a deep sense of community within the ME Sabor Dance Studio participants.
“Dance isn’t happening right now,” said Lyons, who also is a former dance professor. “It’s only happening inside people’s homes, in their kitchens, living rooms and yards, and this is an opportunity to be on what feels like a stage, be outside and in a safe manner.”
Looking ahead, ME Sabor Dance Studio plans to continue offering classes in the park and expanding its offerings.
“We want to continue a summer series and stay out in the park even once we are all allowed to be indoor,” del Campo said. “It has become a special thing for us.”
Click here for more information about ME Sabor Dance Studio, including how to sign up for classes, class pricing, dance workshops, private lessons and group classes.
“We are thankful for everyone who has come out to the park for our classes. … It does fuel our soul,” del Campo said. “Feeling that community sense of everybody still coming out and supporting dancers in an industry that has been hit hard — we continue to be grateful for everybody who shows up.”