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California Cities Offer Performing, Visual and Culinary Arts Experiences

Find classes in international folk dance, painting, cooking and more

By Patricia Corrigan

Learn something new. Enjoy low-impact exercise. Meet people. Those are three reasons to take up international folk dancing, says Emily Stoper, a past president of Berkeley Folk Dancers. At 80, Stoper attends dances at least twice a week with her 85-year-old husband, and they dance at the group's special events as well. 

"Folk dancing brings great joy," Stoper said. "People make lifelong friendships, and many marriages have come out of dancing, too." Founded in 1941, the Berkeley Folk Dancers, a nonprofit, offers four levels of classes: beginner, intermediate, advanced intermediate and advanced. Non-members are welcome to drop in, and no partner is required. 

A person painting a landscape outside. Next Avenue
A participant at Art Spot on Wheels paints in a vineyard  |  Credit: Courtesy of Art Spot on Wheels

"We do dances from a variety of places," Stoper said. "Some favorites come from Europe, the Scandinavian countries and the Baltic states. We also do some square dances, Mexican dances, Asian dances and tango. There is always something new to learn — and that keeps me interested and excited."

"Folk dancers share a common vocabulary."

According to the Folk Dance Federation of California, the National Folk Organization lists 68 dance groups in the Golden State and 361 in cities across the U.S., though many dance groups are not affiliated with umbrella organizations. If you can't dance — and don't want to be asked — opportunities to engage with other art forms are abundant throughout California, perhaps most notably in the 14 Cultural Districts, designated by the state to help "grow and sustain authentic grassroots arts and cultural opportunities." 

Before we sashay away from international folk dancing, Loui Tucker, who teaches in San Francisco's South Bay, would refer you to an article in Scientific American from 2020 that reported synchronized movement with others can build stronger social ties, foster a greater sense of well-being, boost trust and tolerance toward others and possibly increase one's threshold for pain. 

Tucker, 73, points out another plus. "Folk dancers share a common vocabulary," she said. "Except for a few regional differences across the country, we all do exactly the same steps for tens of thousands of dances from dozens of different countries. You can tour the U.S., and dance anywhere."

A group of people dancing. Next Avenue
Loui Tucker of San Jose, California, teaches an international folk dance class  |  Credit: Photo by Marc Rayman

Pottery on the North Coast; Painting on the Central Coast

Fancy footwork is not John Loomis' style. This general contractor in Fort Bragg spends his spare time making art. "I make giant vases, a lot of them with ocean motifs," said Loomis, 73. "I try to be fluid with the design, just let it go, and though I have sold some pieces, I don't like to make pots to sell as much as I like to do this for pleasure." 

Loomis has attended ceramics classes at the Mendocino Art Center, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean from the top of the city's headlands. Founded in 1959, the Center boasts studios, classrooms and exhibition galleries, and sponsors a plein air painting festival each year. 

"I'm not an artist who is imaginative. I paint because I'm inspired by things I see, and the landscape here is gorgeous."

Loomis' artistic endeavors extend beyond pottery. "I'm pretty varied. I'm interested in photography, architectural design, sculpture and drawing, and I've just finished a hand-printed children's book for my grandkids," he said. "I have an art studio at home, and I've taken a lot of classes over the years, to keep myself fresh." 

Fresh air factors into Art Spot on Wheels, which offers painting classes on beaches, in vineyards and in a studio in Solvang, 40 minutes northwest of Santa Barbara. (Online classes also are available.) A decade ago, while managing a tasting room at a winery, artist Christi Belle founded the business when she invited locals and tourists alike to sit down at outdoor tables overlooking a vineyard and paint the view. 


Seeking Artistic Inspiration in Vineyards

"I'm not an artist who is imaginative. I paint because I'm inspired by things I see, and the landscape here is gorgeous," said Belle, 38. She leads most of the three-hour sessions, which include a wine tasting. Her favorite participants among the estimated 10,000 she has painted with are those who insist they can't draw or haven't painted since they were kids.

"The classes are a learning experience, something we do for fun," Belle said. "We can all make art, and losing track of time while you do that is good for the soul." Linda DeTarr, an executive recruiter from Nipomo, attended three of Belle's classes in October. "As an artist, I'm somewhere between beginner and intermediate, and I love working with acrylics and watercolors," said DeTarr, 60. 

"Many of our professional chefs are entertaining instructors so our classes are about having fun, as well as learning."

"So many classes are about painting off a copy of a painting, and it's so refreshing to be outside and to paint your interpretation of a vineyard and the mountains. Christi encourages creativity — you can paint a tree here or a rosebush there, even if there isn't one — and her engaging personality makes you feel as though you are painting a masterpiece."  

One recent Saturday, DeTarr invited her friend Chris Sands, 65, to Belle's class at Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria. "We make candles and we do clay and pottery together, and Chris is 10 times better than me," DeTarr said. "She is super artsy, but she hates to paint. Still, at the end of the class, she gave me a big hug and said, 'Let's sign up again.'" 

Upgrade Your Cooking Skills or Customize Chocolate Bars

Fans interested in the culinary arts may want to peruse the 500-plus cooking classes offered in person and online each year through Kitchen on Fire, established in 2005. Known for promoting healthy cooking practices and the use of fresh ingredients, the school in Berkeley holds a signature 12-week class and numerous three-hour workshops. 

A colorful handmade ceramic vase. Next Avenue
Pottery by John Loomis of Fort Bragg, California  |  Credit: Courtesy of John Loomis

"We have classes on everything from international cuisines to vegan dishes to fusion cooking, and a lot on baking," said Lisa Michelle Miller, co-owner and director of the school's nutrition program. She also teaches some of the classes. "Many of our professional chefs are entertaining instructors," she said, "so our classes are about having fun, as well as learning."

At two-hour workshops held at Menchaca Chocolates in Santa Barbara, anyone can learn to make chocolate bars or bark. "I've always been interested in social activities that are entertaining," said artist LeAnne Iverson, 61, who started the business in 2018 with Pete Menchaca, 62. He makes their craft chocolate; she handles branding and the colorful artwork on the packages.

When the couple began offering workshops last year, they wanted to give participants something to do as they wait for their chocolate bars to set. "Now we provide art supplies so people can decorate their own packaging," Iverson said. "Everyone has such fun painting, stamping, staining or drawing as they personalize wooden boxes." 

By her own admission, Rosemary Rice doesn't "do" art activities. An administrator at a health care facility in Santa Barbara, Rice signed up for a chocolate- and art-making workshop anyway. She made several candy bars, customizing them with dried cranberries, Rice Krispies, almonds and raisins, just some of the choices. She also learned about the process of making chocolate from bean to bar and she sipped cacao husk tea, which she said was delicious. 

"I had met LeAnne previously, and I loved her art work," Rice said. "When I heard she was getting into the craft chocolate business — well, who doesn't like chocolate?" 

Patricia Corrigan
Patricia Corrigan is a professional journalist, with decades of experience as a reporter and columnist at a metropolitan daily newspaper, and also a book author. She has written for Next Avenue since February 2015. Read more from Patricia at Read More
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