Spirit of Fiesta and Junior Spirit of Fiesta talk about their dances tonight
Tara Mata wasn’t sure about flamenco when her parents suggested she try it.
“I was very resistant at first,” Ms. Mata, 19, told the News-Press this week, recalling when she was 4 years old. She started flamenco classes after her older sister, Marie Nurmi, started classes. “I always thought I was going to be a ballerina, but look at me now!”
Yes, look at her now.
The Santa Barbara resident and native is the Spirit of Fiesta, a dream-come-true for this young woman who found she loved flamenco the moment she stepped into her first class.
And Ms. Mata recently has been dancing two to five hours a day, every single day, to get ready for tonight. As the Spirit of Fiesta, she will perform her dance above the steps outside the Santa Barbara Mission for La Fiesta Pequeña.
A large crowd will gather outside as Santa Barbara embraces its first full-fledged Old Spanish Days Fiesta since 2019.
Also performing tonight is Layla Gocong, the 9-year-old Junior Spirit, who shares Ms. Mata’s enthusiasm for flamenco.
The Spirit and Junior Spirit, both of whom have taken classes at Zermeño Dance Academy in Goleta, talked to the News-Press during back-to-back interviews this week outside the Santa Barbara Mission.
“I love seeing everybody dance. I love going around town, seeing the crowds’ faces when I dance,” Layla said.
“My favorite part about dancing — I love the footwork,” said Layla, a Santa Barbara resident and native who’s going into the fourth grade at Crane Country Day School. “I’ve been dancing for five years, since I was 4 years old.
“My babysitter was dancing before me. My mom asked me if I wanted to start dancing (flamenco),” Layla said. “I used to do ballet.”
Layla is excited about dancing and getting to wear two white dresses and several color dresses as the Junior Spirit.
Her mother, Mandy Gocong, talked to the News-Press about her daughter.
“I think that she was born with a spark,” Mrs. Gocong said, explaining that with flamenco, “she found something that incorporates both emotions and her dance skills.”
Layla, whose father is Tom Gocong, will be cheered on by her family and friends. The Junior Spirit added she’s excited to ride a float in the Historical Parade and to be the dancer leading the Children’s Parade.
By the way, Layla plans to become a veterinarian someday. “I love animals.”
Of course, there will be a big “fan club” of family members and friends for Ms. Mata as well.
Ms. Mata, a 2020 Santa Barbara High School graduate who recently earned four associate degrees at Santa Barbara City College, said she feels really connected to flamenco. “I love that you’re doing footwork while moving your whole body. It’s a head-to-toe experience.”
“I love doing shawl dances,” added Ms. Mata, who plans to earn a biology degree at San Francisco State University and go into medical research or become a physician’s assistant.
“I’ve grown up watching the Spirits on the mission, and knowing that’s going to be me is just a dream come true,” said Ms. Mata.
The Spirit is the daughter of office manager Renee Mata and Tom Mata, a supply manager at Northrop Grumman.
Mrs. Mata is, of course, proud of her daughter.
“I think she dances with beauty, grace, passion,” Mrs. Mata told the News-Press, adding strangers have told her how impressed they are with the beauty of her daughter’s dances.
“She puts 100% effort in every dance she does,” Mrs. Mata said.
Her daughter said she’s excited that as the Spirit, she will lead the first Fiesta Historical Parade since 2019, on Friday down a new route on Cabrillo Boulevard.
She will dance the entire way.
“I’m not sure how far it is,” Ms. Mata said, chuckling.
“I don’t think I want to know!” said Ms. Mata, who plans to wrap her feet beforehand to keep them safe.
Actually, she doesn’t mind going the distance for Santa Barbara.
“You just have to look at people’s faces and remember this is for them,” she said. “You’re gifting them a special moment.
“I’ve always felt like dancing is my form of expression,” she said. “I really feel I’m able to be my truest self when I dance.”
She added she realizes there’s more to being the Spirit than dancing.
“Growing up watching the Spirit, I knew they weren’t just dancers. They were a role model,” she said. “That’s something I take with me, and I try to remember to be a role model, to always bring joy and kindness to the community wherever I go.
“I think Fiesta is just a wonderful celebration of history,” she said. “I like that we always have a historical element to everything that we do here. There’s always a meaning behind it. Also, it embraces the future of Santa Barbara and the amazing things we do today.”