Angel Villalpando is only 15 but already has found something he wants to do for a lifetime: dance.
“You can really express yourself through music and dance,” the San Marcos High School student said.
On Santa Barbara’s Eastside, young people are dancing.
He is one of about 20 youths involved in an after-school camp led by Me Sabor Dance Studio. The camp is held at the St. George Community Center, across the street from Franklin Elementary School on East Mason Street.
It’s a three-hour daily camp that teaches a variety of dances, including merengue, bachata and salsa. This camp, though, teaches much more.
Studio owner Marco Aguilar focuses on a warmup that could rival any youth club basketball routine — with the kids flying across the floor, touching cones and dashing back, for several minutes of drills. They also run laps inside the center to get ready for the dances to come.
“They go about 15 laps for them to get going,” Aguilar said. “I make them lead it. I tell one of them to take it, that way it makes them feel like leaders.”
In addition to the dance and the fitness, the program is about creating community, bonding, and instilling belief and confidence in one’s self.
“It’s been nice having our Latino community have this space,” said Aguilar, who grew up in Mexico City and came to the United States when he was 16 years old.
Aguilar said his love for dance began in an informal way.
“Family gatherings,” he said with a chuckle. “That’s your first school.”
He joined a dance team in college. His wife, Erika Martin del Campo, also is an owner of the studio. She dances flamenco, and is a former Spirit of Fiesta.
Aguilar works closely with the kids and admits that he is inspired by them.
“The reason I opened this studio in the first place is I wanted to give the Latino community a sense of belonging,” Aguilar said. “When I opened the studio, my biggest thing was I wanted to be able to have a Latino girl or boy walk in and see a Latino doing their thing, dancing, inspiring them.”
He has watched the evolution of the kids. When they first come in, they are tentative, but their confidence builds daily. He talks to the kids first, to gain their trust.
“That’s one of the biggest things, gaining their trust, and then showing them that it’s fun,” Aguilar said. “We have to inspire the kids to want to do this instead of being on their tablets all day long.”
The camp offers an even mix of boys and girls. The building is not a traditional dance studio — there are no mirrors on the walls. Aguilar often breaks the group into two, and they perform in front of each other to see what they look like.
On a recent day, a few mothers sat on chairs against the wall, observing their children dance and exercise.
“This type of dance is something new,” mom Maria Aguilera said. “It’s been an amazing experience. My daughter is very happy and really enjoying it.”
Santa Barbara City Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez worked with the studio and the community to bring Me Sabor to the neighborhood.
“After-school programs are key for children’s development, and it also helps the students feel part of their community,” Gutierrez said. “This is where the prevention starts against youth violence, when we invest in our youth and our children.”
For Villalpando, dance is now part of his life. He learned bachata at the camp, and he took the studio’s teen class. In the past, Villalpando danced flamenco during the fiestas.
He said he was hesitant at first to try it, but he asked his mother what she thought. She told him to try it.
“I did,” he said, “and now I am in love with it.”