Since 1905, Florida's oldest restaurant, the Columbia, has been a pillar of historic Ybor City, Tampa Bay's Latin Quarter. Now in its fifth-generation under the Gonzmart family, the Columbia embodies Tampa Bay's Cuban and Spanish heritage from the menu to the decor. Six nights a weeks, visitors experience an authentic piece of Spain when the restaurant's Flamenco dancers take the stage to perform. Maria Esparza, whose mother was born in Seville, Spain, has led the troupe for more than 30 years as the artistic dance director of the Tampa Bay Flamenco Dance Company.

Where are you from?
I consider myself a Tampa girl -- born in California but raised here in Tampa Bay.

Who’s your hero and why?
My parents are my true heroes. They continuously stood by my side and supported me;
believing in me always. They constantly encouraged me to make my flamenco my life. It
started as a hobby when I was young, but my parents saw the passion and dedication I had for
the arts, and pushed me to go after my dreams.

What do you do for fun or hobby?
I want to say dancing…but that is technically my job! I really do love to teach my students the
art of flamenco; I also am a sucker for a juicy murder mystery series I can binge on Netflix.

Tell me about your job.
The Tampa Bay Flamenco Dance Company performs 6 nights a week at the world-famous
Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. Guests are able to make reservations for dinner and a show,
and enjoy the wonderful entertainment while they dine on incredible food. We rehearse
weekly; constantly adding new choreographies to change up our repertoire; you will never see
the same show twice! We have Christmas numbers specially for the holiday season, these
numbers incorporate flamenco to traditional Christmas carols to get you and your loved ones
into the holiday spirit. There is truly nowhere else in the world where you can find flamenco
dancers 6 nights a week. I think that really stands us apart as a company.

What do you like about your job?
As a flamenco dancer, it is unheard of to work for a corporate company with benefits such as
health insurance, paid vacations, 401ks; which we are very grateful for! Another reason to love
my job is the people. Our company is truly a family. We’ve all known each other for many
years and we are always there for one another.

How would your life be different without tourism?
I’ve performed in theaters, arenas, stadiums, you name it! One thing I have not had to do is go
on tour like numerous other performers do. People from all over the world come to visit the
Columbia Restaurant. I haven’t had to go anywhere to meet anyone -- they all come to me! Our
shows are full every night due to tourism. I cannot imagine what my life would be without it!

What’s something people don’t know about your job?
People have no idea that the saying “ the show must go on” truly means that no matter what,
the show will always go on. Every morning we wake up and deal with our day-to-day lives. But
no matter what occurs throughout the day, we have to leave everything at the dressing room
door. The life of a dancer is that the show must always go on.

What’s the funniest thing that has happened to you on the job?
Oh, there is no way to pick just one moment! I remember a time when I lost my shoe during
the middle of a solo or a fan was accidentally thrown into someone’s soup. The list goes on
and on! Everyone falls onstage. We pick ourselves back up, recover and then move on. But I
would have to say that our best times are back in the dressing rooms while we are all together
getting ready, we share so much laughter!

What do you recommend your visitors do for fun when they come to Tampa Bay?
Beside visit our flamenco show? Take a stroll down Bayshore Boulevard. Go check out the Tampa Theatre.
Organize a trip around a sports event. Our community has a lot of pride for our teams! There are
fabulous art/music/film festivals around the bay area. A lot of new and upcoming things I can’t
wait to explore.