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About 450 enthusiastic community members turned out for the Spirit of Fiesta auditions on Saturday afternoon at La Cumbre Junior High School on Santa Barbara’s Westside.
The crowd was treated to incredible performances by the 12 finalists for the Spirit of Fiesta and the 11 finalists for the Junior Spirit of Fiesta.
Alexis Simentales was named the 2016 Spirit of Fiesta and Sarah Naretto the Junior Spirit. The runners-up were Alexia Olivares and Reese Danhauer, respectively.
The Spirit and Junior Spirit represent the charm and beauty of the culture of Old Spanish Days, and they perform at many official Old Spanish Days events as well as at receptions held by area civic organizations. Most events take place during the week of July 31-Aug. 7.
Denise Sanford, segunda vice presidente of Old Spanish Days, extended a warm welcome to the crowd and introduced Father Larry Gosselin, associate pastor of St. Barbara Parish at the Santa Barbara Mission, who delivered a blessing.
A promenade of all the participants was followed by individual dance presentations. Every dancer enthralled the crowd, with each receiving huge screams and cheers from their fans.
Simentales, an 18-year-old Santa Barbara native, exuded beauty, grace and stunning talent. She has been dancing since she was 2½ years old and has participated in every Fiesta since.
She is a full-time student at Santa Barbara City College, where she is studying to be a neonatal registered nurse. She also works as a behavioral aide at Hillside House and volunteers at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, in addition to putting in long hours of dance practice.
In becoming this year’s Spirit, Simentales is upholding a family tradition — there are five past Spirits of Fiesta in her extended family.
While laughing softly and taking my arm, she assured me that there was no pressure. This is her third time auditioning, and she told me with the sweetest smile that “the third time is very much the charm.”
Simentales related that the best part about being the Spirit is the opportunity to “represent the community with all the passion and love that we have here in Santa Barbara.”
She has studied dance at three studios, including at Zermeno Dance Academy for the past five years.
Naretto, 10, also a Santa Barbara native, is a fifth-grader at La Patera School in Goleta. She has been dancing since she was 6 and currently studies at Zermeno.
With the most contagious of smiles, a true warmth of spirit and polished dancing skills, she, along with Simentales, will be delighting crowds at every performance.
Both Simentales and Naretto performed Flamenco dances, as did nearly all of the other dancers. Simentales danced in Alegrias style to “Los Lirios” music while Naretto performed in the Columbiana style to “Amor de España” music.
Nearly as emotionally charged as the announcement of this year’s winners were the eloquent and straight-from-the-heart farewell speeches made by last year’s Junior Spirit, Ysabella Yturralde, and Spirit Alexandra Freres.
Yturralde related that her “favorite performance was gazing out to the moon, stars, ocean and the people of our community gathered around the Mission steps. I watched everyone’s heart being touched by the beautiful Spanish culture. This was a moment I will love and cherish forever.”
The speeches were followed by final beautiful dance performances by Yturralde and then by Freres.
The auditions were followed by Las Artistas, a reception at Cielito Restaurant where all the participants and audience members were invited to meet the new Spirit and Junior Spirit, as well as past Spirits, and enjoy a buffet reception.
Dancers and guests mingled on the La Arcada patio in the warm sun with live guitar music in the background as well as inside in a private dining area.
The finalists, hailing from the many local dance schools that teach the dances of Spain, Mexico and early California, spent long hours rehearsing for this day. Pre-auditions were held in January when 23 dancers auditioned for the Junior Spirit title and 12 for the Spirit title.
The Spirit must be between 16 and 20 years old at the time of Old Spanish Days and the Junior Spirit between 8 and 10 years old.
The selection of the Spirit and Junior Spirit is based on a personal interview and the dance performance. The three judges, whose identities are not disclosed, are selected each year by Old Spanish Days in Santa Barbara Inc., the nonprofit organization that runs Old Spanish Days.
The next event is the April 30 Spirit Luncheon followed by La Primavera on May 14.
Click here for a complete list of Old Spanish Days events and other information.
— Noozhawk contributing writer Gail Arnold can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.