That dance — Fiesta Pequeña — is what Santa Barbara High School senior Talia Ortega Vestal is most looking forward to as this year’s Spirit of Fiesta. After all, she’s had the dream of dancing it since she started flamenco dancing at the age of 4.
“I started ballet when I was 2, and was introduced to flamenco at the age of 4,” Vestal told Noozhawk. “My parents’ office is right in De la Guerra Plaza, so we were always at the center of Fiesta.
“I was able to watch the dancers every year and decided I had to be up there.”
The process of earning the Spirit of Fiesta title is long and challenging. The honor has been bestowed on one talented flamenco dancer every year since 1949. Today, it involves a rigorous selection process.
“Initially, there was a preliminary round in November,” Vestal explained. “The dancers auditioning try out with a minute-and-a-half piece and the video is sent to judges. The judges are usually out of state, people who are totally anonymous, and have nothing to do with Fiesta or Old Spanish Days. They are only looking at your dance ability.
“I got a letter back from Old Spanish Days in December, and then started working on my 3½-minute piece for the Spirit auditions in April.”
The undertaking was not unfamiliar to Vestal. In 2009, she was selected as Junior Spirit of Fiesta.
“With the process of trying out, there’s so much that goes into it,” she said. “There are countless hours practicing in the studio, and then there’s everything from your accessories, to what you’re going to wear in your hair, to your shoes, to your colors, to your props …
“Knowing the ropes of how the whole tryout process goes made it a lot easier. And I knew what I was getting into before I started.”
Vestal doesn’t take her responsibility lightly.
“I feel like the biggest difference is now, as Spirit, I have the responsibility of looking out for my Junior Spirit,” she said. “It was really weird at first, when I was chosen because I had always been the little one …
“Now, Natalie Mowers, the Junior Spirit, and I have been going to all of the same events and I am the one who has to be mature and really look out for her. It’s kind of weird being in the other position, but fun.”
Vestal, 16, dances flamenco year-round. She attended Marymount of Santa Barbara from kindergarten through eighth grade, and since enrolling at Santa Barbara High, has been elected as the ASB vice president for the upcoming school year. She’s on the cheer team and has maintained a 4.4 grade-point average.
“I make school a priority, and then dance, and then cheer,” she said.
Given all her accomplishments, Vestal is quite modest, and is quick to share credit with mentors and teachers.
“There are a lot of people I look up to when it comes to dance and to life in general,” she said. “But I think my two mentors — Linda Vega and Maria Bermudez — have really shaped my dancing and my life in a lot of ways. They have taught me most to not take myself too seriously, especially when it comes to dance.
“It’s really easy to critique and be really hard on yourself, but at the end of the day it’s more about enjoying the art of flamenco. We are so lucky to be able to do what we love all the time. And so if we are lucky enough to do that, then we should just let go of anything that’s holding us back from it …”
Vestal noted that the two women have been there for her at each step of the way, from Junior Spirit and now Spirit of Fiesta.
“They have really helped me grow as a person,” she said.
Vestal plans to keep dancing after Fiesta. She hopes to take a gap year or enroll in a study-abroad program in college so she can immerse herself in Spain’s flamenco culture.
“I do love flamenco and I think that it’s going to be a huge part of my life forever,” she said. “I don’t want to just leave it behind once I leave Santa Barbara.”
Vestal is full of anticipation about all of her appearances during Fiesta, which is fully under way Wednesday through Sunday. She says she’s most excited about her Fiesta Pequeña dance, choreographed by Bermudez, a professional flamenco dancer.
“I can’t wait to walk out of the mission doors at Fiesta Pequeña,” Vestal said. “I had that experience when I was Junior Spirit, but I feel like this time it’s going to be different and even more emotional and overwhelming.
“This year I have a really special piece that I’m working on for Fiesta Pequeña. I feel like once I’m up there the people in the audience, the lights, the bells ringing, and the scenery looking over Santa Barbara is going to be so overwhelming, but presenting yourself in your white dress is going to be amazing.
“I’ve talked to past Spirits, and one dancer still gets the chills every time she hears the mission bells.”