Columbia Restaurant flamenco director brings Spanish culture to audiences for more than 30 years

When the lights go down at the historic Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, all eyes are on the captivating dancers telling a story of Spanish culture through flamenco.

For Maria Esparza, who has been front and center of the dance troop as the director since 2008, flamenco isn't just a dance – it's a work of art. She was hired more than 34 years ago by Cesar and Adela Gonzmart back in June 1988. 

"I just took to the flamenco music, and it was something that I felt inside and something just sparked," said Esparza.

The history of flamenco was ingrained in Esparza beginning in her childhood. 

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"The gypsies in southern Spain that were very looked down upon for being gypsies. It was done in their homes," Esparza said.

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Esparza said her mother was from Seville, Spain, and her family would go there over many summers. She said her parents loved flamenco dancing as well as bullfighting. 

Bullfighting coincidentally goes hand in hand with flamenco, because there are a lot of movements that the bullfighter does towards the bull.

With every move on stage, Esparza is reminded of a hit-and-run crash that could have kept her from walking – and dancing. She said it took nearly three years to learn how to walk again, but once she was back on her feet, all she wanted to do was run, swim and dance. 

With flamenco, there's nothing routine about each performance.

"It's really hard what we do. The coordination is like no other," Esparza said. "We work with our hands and the footwork, we're doing percussion with our footwork. I'm constantly researching and coming up with new numbers and new dances."

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She said there are occasions when people confuse the name of the dance with a flamingo.

"They'll ask me all the time, ‘are you the dancer at the flamingo show?’ And politely I try to correct them," Esparza said. 

For Esparza, flamenco is not just a connection to culture, but family.

"My sister is also part of this dance company. I'm also honoring my parents, because they’re no longer here and they loved it so much, so I do that for them," said Esparza. "Because I know that's what they would want for me to continue to shine and be proud of our culture. I try my best to hold up to that integrity and put out the best show. I think that's so important. To leave the customers with like the best memory."

For more information about the Flamenco Dinner Show at the Columbia Restaurant,