Group of delightful ‘misfits’ bond by dancing

La Boheme’s energetic, inclusive approach to dance transfixes Solstice Parade spectators

By Leah Etling

Teresa Kuskey Nowak is a mother of six children who range in age from 28 to 11, but somehow she makes time for a second family.

That family is La Boheme, a group of dancers that has performed in the famous downtown Santa Barbara Summer Solstice parade for the last three years. You might not know their troupe name. But if you attend the parade regularly, I would bet you a dollar that you have a photo of the group in your camera roll.

La Boheme is not made up of professional dancers, though some, like Nowak, have danced professionally at some point in their lives.

“When I look around the room, there’s an airplane mechanic, a physics PhD, a mother who hadn’t danced in 17 years …,” Nowak said. And they aren’t just women. There are men and kids, too. Last year’s ensemble included drag queens and children in wheelchairs. The age range of the group starts around 10 and goes up to over 70.

It’s why they’re called La Boheme.

“’La Boheme’ means ‘the outsiders,’ the ones who don’t fit in a box, the poets, the creative people,” Nowak explained.

If you’ve always thought you had to know how to dance, or even how to move, to be in the Solstice parade, La Boheme is here to change your mind.

Becoming La Boheme

Four years ago, La Boheme entered its first Solstice Parade with a group of less than 20 dancers – Nowak, some family and friends, and a few others who were curious about what she had in mind.  This year more than 60 dancers, and extra actors and helpers, will be part of the group.

A third-generation Santa Barbaran, Nowak loves Solstice.

“Solstice to me means community. It means a total expression of Santa Barbara. It’s the people who live here, it’s about the community we have. It’s just about love, unity, and our beautiful city. I feel like our group represents Santa Barbara,” she said passionately.

One thing she’s become particularly inspired by is welcoming those who might not think a creatively costumed, live-action Solstice group dance is something they could ever pull off.

“Some of our dancers have never danced, and come in so raw and insecure – I just love seeing the transformation. It’s like a caterpillar turning into a beautiful butterfly,” Nowak said.

Her first-time dancers might never have performed outside of their own living rooms. Some are terrified of what can be skimpy costumes and self-conscious about their bodies. By the time Solstice Saturday rolls around, that has all washed away.

In the three months leading up to the parade, Nowak holds dance class. At first it’s weekly, then ramps up to three times a week. She throws in extra sessions at lunch or privately for those who are most worried about their moves. But all it all starts with something very simple – learning how to walk.

“We start with just learning how to walk – just to give them the footwork and the attitude of empowerment. They get so saucy and sassy just learning to walk, how to move their hands and shake their hips, and then doing some poses.”

Sauce and sass

And when La Boheme finally marches up State Street, sauce and sass will absolutely ooze. When people say Solstice has become family-friendly, that doesn’t mean it isn’t still fun for adults – and even a little flirty.

Nowak personally choreographs the routine in a mélange of styles she calls “cabaret fusion.” She studied all kinds of dance growing up and trained professionally in New York and San Francisco after leaving Santa Barbara. She said that returning to the teaching, planning and training of a dance company has improved her own quality of life.

“Getting back into dance and in shape has been good for me,” she explained. Her third child, 22-year-old Michael, was born with Down Syndrome as well as a muscle-wasting disease that requires him to use a wheelchair. Nowak and her husband, Ray, are his primary caregivers.

“I’m his legs and arms, and when I lift him, it’s 120 pounds of dead weight. Dance keeps me strong for that and mentally revitalized as well. When I choreograph, it’s like my brain is on fire, memorizing steps,” she said. Michael participates in the parade each year, too.

The results of Nowak’s creative process will be on display Saturday, June 24, at the annual Solstice Parade. The theme of this year’s celebration (the parade is followed by a festival at Alameda Park) is “Celebrating Unity.”

Nowak wouldn’t reveal what the La Boheme performance theme will be this year, but she hinted that it might be “more tribal” than in the past and mentioned bringing in performers from the Brazil Arts Café downtown. Another contributor slipped and told us the routine might be driven by a certain well-loved Shakespeare play. You’ll have to check out the parade yourself to find out.

The dancers

Steven Lovelace has played a major role in the development of Santa Barbara’s dance scene and is the director emeritus of Santa Barbara Dance Arts, which he previously co-owned. A working performance artist since 1980, Steven was the longtime director of the Solstice parade – but he was always on the sidelines.

“For 30 years, I sat out of the parade itself, then here comes Miss Teresa and the rest is history,” said Lovelace, who is an unabashed fan of Nowak’s efforts with La Boheme. “She has got my heart and soul,” he said.

“It’s really so amazing for a large group of non-professionals to take on something that ends up looking so professional, so slick,” Lovelace said. He has danced with La Boheme for the last several years and loves the inclusiveness and creativity of the group.

“The people that (Teresa) draws in are all special. She really gives them a process and makes them a part of what she’s doing, That woman can create and hold a vision for something that looks like nobody’s business,” Lovelace added.

One of the first-time dancers with the group this year will be Jessica Anne Parsons, a Goleta resident who was recruited into the group after meeting Teresa this year.

“She was so fun and I loved dancing with her and was so excited to find out about the Solstice group. I danced with La Boheme for ‘Thriller’ last year and I have never danced in the Solstice Parade. So I am loving it and really looking forward it,” said Parsons, a local yoga teacher.

Parsons has Down Syndrome and first met Nowak at a flash mob for World Down Syndrome Day. She hasn’t let the condition slow down her life, and she teaches inclusive yoga at the Carrillo Recreation Center.

As a lifelong Solstice Parade spectator with her family, she’s looking forward to being part of the fun this year.

Traci Russell, a second-year dancer with the group, said that she had never danced before a friend urged her to overcome her fear of the unknown and show up for practice.

“It was comforting starting with other newbies and learning from the experience of the veteran dancers.  There were days that I thought there’s no way I’m going to learn this, and days I wanted to quit and I didn’t think I could go on, but I kept showing up,” Russell said.

“My experience with La Boheme personally has been empowering, but also inclusive, loving, challenging, and connected. The kinship of the group, and meeting new people, and allowing myself to be vulnerable with people has been very powerful.”