The San Antonio Parks and Recreation dance program produces some of the city’s finest dancers, as seen in the many performances held each year. Founded in 1934, the program is the oldest municipal dance program in the country and plays an integral role in shaping the city’s unique cultural landscape.
The dance program’s origins can be traced to one woman: Berta Almaguer.
As the first dance instructor for the department, Almaguer taught classical Spanish dance to thousands of students, many who would go on to have distinguished careers. Although Almaguer passed away in 1971, her efforts set in place a foundation for teaching folkloric dance styles to students both young and old.
Today, the Parks and Recreation dance program offers a variety of classes from Mexican folklorico and Spanish flamenco to hip-hop, jazz, and other popular genres. Aside from teaching fitness, the program helps preserve many of the rich cultural traditions associated with dance. It features two pre-professional dance troupes, Fandango and Alamotion, which can both be seen performing throughout the city.
Although Almaguer never taught flamenco, her role in teaching traditional dances is significant and her influence is still felt today.
“She really was a pioneer in bringing dance to San Antonio,” said Almaguer’s granddaughter and former Parks and Recreation dance instructor Diana Rosa Almaguer Orellana.
Born into a musically-inclined family in Coahuila, Mexico, Almaguer naturally developed a passion for music. Her father was a musician and composer and her mother gave voice lessons. In 1917, the Almaguer family moved to San Antonio, bringing their musical traditions with them.
“She was always very traditional,” Orellana said of her grandmother. “What she learned in Mexico, she taught here.”
Among the Spanish dances Almaguer taught were malagueñas and the zarzuela La Boda de Luis Alonzo. First, Almaguer would teach her students the steps, then she would move to the piano to accompany them.
“When you’re taught at a young age how to turn and not fall on your face … and how to speak to people and look at them straight in the eye … I think that’s a wonderful thing,” Orellana said.
It was important for Almaguer to reach children no matter what side of town they lived on, so she taught classes everywhere from the North Side to the South Side. Almaguer was known for buying bags full of castanets so that every student in her class had a chance to play them.
“We would pass the castanets out to the kids and put them back in the bag afterwards,” Orellana said. “We tried to serve all the kids whether they had money or not.”
When the students advanced in their dance classes, many would go on to form their own groups or perform at venues such as the Arneson River Theatre.
The Arneson’s Fiesta Noche del Rio, presented by the Alamo Kiwanis Club, is one of the oldest outdoor musical performances in the country and draws thousands of visitors each year. With the stage on one side of the San Antonio River and the audience on the other, the Arneson is unique in that it allows tourists riding on barges to catch glimpses of its performances. The theatre and its many performers have played a major role in establishing the city as a tourist destination.
Fiesta Noche del Rio has included many dancers from Parks and Recreation throughout its inception in the 1950s. Its main choreographer in the 1980s was one of Almaguer’s former students Felipe De La Rosa. The Fandango Dance Troupe was formed in the ‘80s to groom young dancers for shows such as this. Today, one can find Fandango Dance Troupe at the Arneson Theatre throughout the year performing for locals and tourists alike.
“I’ve traveled quite a bit in my lifetime and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Orellana said. “I think that’s the part I liked most …that we were making it pleasant for tourists.”
In July, the Historic and Design Review Commision voted to demolish the present Berta Almaguer Dance Studio and replace it with a brand new state-of-the-art facility and recreation center. The new facility will feature higher ceilings, bigger dressing rooms and more space to host workshops, ensuring Almaguer’s legacy will be kept alive for generations to come.
Orellana says she looks forward to the completion of the new building and believes her grandmother would approve.
“She would be happy to see that everyone is still dancing and would be very proud of Parks and Recreation,” Orellana said. “She would be very humbled and appreciative.”
The San Antonio Parks and Recreation dance program presents Puro Flamenco: La Nueva Generación as part of the 10th annual WeFlamenco Fest, Saturday, October 5th, 8:00 p.m., Carver Community Cultural Center, 226 N. Hackberry, tickets available at universe.com