South Presa Street below Southtown is an intrepid splash of buildings painted in pink, green, yellow and red, post-rain steam rising from flowerpots through wrought iron gates, and tortillarias offering fresh batches of tortillas.
Inside an old converted church at the intersection of Dunning Street, the Urban-15 group is putting the sultry feeling of the surrounding space into play every Tuesday night, with zesty Latin and African-based basement drumming sessions stirring the building’s foundations. Upstairs in the studio, dancers are building slowly to the rhythms of the music.
From now until Nov. 18, Urban-15’s Open Call offers individuals nine-week classes for dancers and drummers to hone their skills before auditioning to join the performance ensemble for Carnaval de San Anto at the Fiesta Flambeau Night Parade next year.
Originally conceived by a group of 15 artists in 1974, Urban-15 has become one of San Antonio’s leading nonprofit arts organizations devoted to creating educational programs, events and performances.
Today, the soul of the sessions stays true to the idea of artists creating art within the city with emphasis on expression at the grassroots level, evocative of barn-raisings, community events, and organizations such as 4-H that have gone by the wayside in San Antonio in recent years.
Dancers and drummers will practice and perform the carnival rhythms of samba, meringue, reggae, cumbia and more, bringing the exciting colors and sounds of Bahia and the Caribbean to every celebration.
Cynthia Sandoval, dance instructor at Urban-15, said there is still time for interested dancers and drummers to become involved. They should begin attending practice now.
“We are starting the beginning of our audition piece – for the last two weeks, we’ve worked on the first four movements, and we will continue until we’ve learned the entire dance,” she said.
Some of the dancers currently participating are returning dancers, while others are new.
“This is my second practice session – I’m excited for the end result and getting to dance in front of a whole bunch of people,” said Jennifer Romaniak, a Navy veteran from San Antonio. “It’s nice that the practice is calming and peaceful for the first hour before we get into the more intense dance steps.”
Oralia Herrera has been participating in Urban-15 for the last three years and said she wanted to challenge herself to see if she could still do it this year at age 75.
“I love to dance and to move – my husband and I used to go dancing a lot. I love to move to the drums,” she said.
The success of Urban-15 can be attributed to two of its founders – Artistic Director Catherine and Music and Media Director George Cisneros.
“We started as avant-garde artists in music, dance, sculpture and film before a lot of things were happening in San Antonio,” Catherine said. “We would show up, paint the street, hold public dance performances, appear and disappear.”
When the group created Carnaval de San Anto in 1987, there was nothing else like it in the city or the country, Catherine said.
“San Antonio once had a very strong high school band, drill and dance community, so if you were between the ages of 14 and 18, you had it great – but suddenly you’re 35, and you’ve had no venue for you to dance,” George added. “Our program is about working with the community, and the Open Call is a process by which people can come and we show them the material they will be using in the performance next year.”
Each year, Catherine’s commitment to Urban-15 shines through in the costumes she designs and begins individually sewing in January, working around the clock in an assembly line fashion as the show quickly approaches.
The basement of Urban-15 is complete with a sewing room, studio and oodles of photographs from dance troupes of yore, including the Utopian Antoinettes, who performed in the last show of the century in 1999, to more recent incarnations.
“We’ve performed at the Clinton, Bush and Obama inaugural parades, and at all San Antonio Spurs Championship celebrations,” Catherine said.
While most people think of the group for the performance at Carnaval de San Anto, Urban-15 also teaches music, movement and media through Cultivation, its in-house and outreach education program in music, dance and media for Youth and Special-Needs populations, especially students who would not be able to afford, access or participate in the arts.
Through Cultivation, students learn through sequential steps, beginning with exposure to the craft, participation in classes, and execution of the materials as a completed production.
The widely recognized Arts Education Project is a year-round program with Urban-15 arts professionals in the schools, classes and workshops in the studio, as well as major city-wide concerts. The programs serve about 10,000 students from 41 schools and community centers, according to the website.
Urban-15 also is recognized in national media for its work in film. The Urban-15 Studio is one of the only venues in Texas screening films for the Manhattan Short Film Festival, a worldwide film festival originating in New York, where the finalists’ short films are sent to venues all over the planet and voted on by audiences themselves.
Urban-15’s classes are held every Tuesday from 6:30-8 p.m. at the Urban-15 Studio at 2500 S. Presa St. Each class costs $5. Dancers should wear comfortable,loose clothing and soft-soled dance shoes, or be prepared to dance barefoot. Drummers should bring their own drumsticks and mallets, while most instruments will be provided by Urban-15.
Urban-15 also is looking for volunteers to help with creative costume fabrication, photographers to help document progress and performances, and event crew members to help with equipment transportation, event promotion and coordination.
*Featured/top image: Dancers practice at the Urban-15 studio for Carnaval de San Anto at Fiesta next spring. Photo by Katherine Nickas.