Zumba al fresco on the new Oak Park dance stage

Whether it’s the summer days getting longer or the latest surge of COVID making you want to exercise outside again, Zumba classes at the iconic Oak Park in Santa Barbara offer the perfect opportunity for outdoor fun.

When I first took the course in February, decades of stains had left the wooden surface of the nearly century-old dance stage uneven and full of gaps. Moving sideways, twisting and pivoting was pretty perilous.

Lauren Macioce, Zumba Instructor | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Originally built in 1926 on the occasion of a visit by Prince George of Great Britain (great-great-uncle of a certain prince who now resides in Montecito), the dance stage has recently undergone a renovation of $100,000. According to Justin Van Mullem of Santa Barbara City Parks & Recreation, the project involved tearing up old plywood, reinforcing the support structure to aid drainage, having dancers vote on which topcoat they felt was best for the surface, then to apply enough TUFFLEX waterproofing to obtain 30 years of use from the new stage.

Now, with Zumba offered three times a week, you no longer have to wait for one of the park’s many ethnic festivals to dance to the new floor.

Taught by the charismatic Lauren Macioce, whose full-time position is a dance teacher at Adelante Charter School, classes follow the familiar Zumba format: instructor hand signals and lots of Latin music and other pop on the playlist (Daddy Yankee, Pitbull, Megan Trainor). Macioce moves around the stage all the time interacting with the dancers: forming conga lines, indulging in playful spanking, making us dance in a terribly unbalanced circle. For some songs, she also invites one or two regular students to come up front and dance alongside her.

The class has drawn many veterans of various Santa Barbara dance classes — some looking for a COVID-safe workout, others just excited about a great dance class. Zumba beginners are also welcome. Between Macioce’s constant movement and the added presence of backup dancers, it’s generally easy to follow the steps. And if you come regularly, you will learn the routines.

Most of the class participants are women, but there are also several men; the age of the participants tends towards forty and more. As it’s outdoors, no one is wearing a mask and it’s easy to keep your distance from other dancers if it feels safer.

Macioce showcases the sexy side of Zumba moves – hands grazing the body, pelvic thrusts, booty shaking and various other parts of the anatomy, and I mentioned spanking spanking, right? But it’s all about the fun, and no one has to do anything that would make them feel uncomfortable.

Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Macioce also manages to incorporate some serious training moves into his choreography, like squats, high knees, and plenty of lateral moves for the oblique muscles. Chalk it up to its formation in capoeirathe Brazilian martial art which she describes as “magnificent, full of acrobatics, kicks and dodges”.

Of course, all of these moves are much safer – and easier on the joints – on the new floor. Although one dancer I spoke to expressed disappointment that the dance surface was not simply wood, she acknowledged that it was a huge improvement over the old stage and the nearby concrete surface on which the class danced during the months of stage renovations.

Dancing in the park makes you feel like part of a larger creative community. On a recent Monday, in the parking lot near the dance stage, a trio of women draped in veils in bright shades of purple and emerald rehearsed the Middle Eastern dance, while two other women played their djembes. Another night, a group heading to Burning Man got together to practice spinning batons and (non-flaming) hoops, in preparation for a fiery performance at the Desert Festival.

“Dancing brings me so much joy, says Macioce. “I love sharing this in Zumba!”

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Oak Park Zumba classes are held on Mondays. and Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. and Saturday at 10:30 a.m. Donation recommended (cash or Venmo). Wear sunscreen and a hat.

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