Katie Hall steps out onto the Arneson River Theater stage as dancers in colorful costumes twirl and dash around her to get into position for one of their last four shows of Fiesta Noche del Rio’s 63rd season.
Hall was once in their place, dancing every Friday and Saturday 20 years ago. Now she works behind the scenes directing the long-running show, having replaced Lisa Sanchez-Lopez, who retired last year after 27 seasons. As Hall’s first season as director comes to a close next week, she has aimed to make the showcase of folkloric dance and music more authentic to better reflect the identity of San Antonio and Texas.
“I wanted to give the tourists what they expected while still staying true to locals. That is my overall mission,” Hall said. “Tourists are going to go away thinking that the show was exactly what Texas was like in an hour and 30 minutes, and I want locals to go away saying, ‘That is who we are. I am proud of that. They aren’t mocking what we are doing.’”
Fiesta Noche del Rio, which runs Friday and Saturday nights through Aug. 10, is produced by the Alamo Kiwanis Club. Proceeds from the show fund children’s charities across San Antonio like Childsafe and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Hall, a San Antonio native and former Miss Fiesta, has added new elements to the production, which premiered in 1957. Those include a Tejano section that features a tribute to Selena, a competitive salsa dance routine, and a revamped Western section with new costumes.
“I wanted dances and costumes that you would actually see around the city if you went into a restaurant or the Mercado,” she said.
Hall added other details to enhance the show’s authenticity, bringing in mariachi trajes – the ornamented suits worn by the musicians – that were handmade in Mexico and flamenco dresses from Spain.
Matt Orenstein, the 2018 chairman of Fiesta Noche del Rio, said ticket sales have been up this year over last and praised Hall for freshening up the show.
“We needed somebody who was going to take the show in a new direction. Katie had the right background and was already familiar with the club,” Orenstein said of Hall, whose father is a longtime Kiwanis board member.
“Her vision for how to evolve the show for the next five years was dead on to what we wanted. She delivers on everything. If you ask for two, she’ll get you four.”
The show’s cast consists of 14 dancers, five of whom are from the San Antonio School for the Performing Arts (SASPA), where Hall also teaches. “I was adamant that everything [be] technically perfect, and we brought in the right people for that,” she said.
Hall demands a high level of quality from her dancers, but she said they are plenty motivated on their own.
“I tell them, ‘You don’t practice it until you get it right. You practice it until you don’t mess it up, until you can’t get it wrong,’” Hall said. “But sometimes, I also have to tell them to stop. They are like puppies. If you keep throwing the ball, they are going to go get it every time. They love doing it that much, but I worry that they might exhaust themselves.”
Kahlie Sanchez, who has been dancing for 14 years, is a first-time Fiesta Noche del Rio dancer. Even with a severe stress fracture in her foot, Sanchez kept dancing throughout the season, which began in June.
“I jumped back into it as soon as I could,” Sanchez said. “I basically said, ‘nothing can stop me from doing what I love.’”
Hall herself had a career in dance much like that of Sanchez. She joined the San Antonio School for the Performing Arts for ballet lessons as a girl and joined the school’s dance company before performing for Fiesta Noche del Rio in 1999 and 2000.
After attending college at Texas A&M and then living in Austin, she came back to San Antonio and began teaching at SASPA. When she learned Sanchez-Lopez was retiring as Fiesta Noche del Rio’s director, she was eager to apply for the job.
“Being part of the Kiwanis Club makes this performance that much more meaningful because we are not just doing it for us,” Hall said. “When you have a giant blister on the bottom of your foot, or your earring is caught in your hair, or its 1,000 degrees outside, I tell myself, ‘I am doing all this for the kids.’”
She also wants her time as director to be a love letter to the city she calls home.
“The legacy I want to leave is that the show helps the audience love San Antonio,” Hall said. “I want it to be an authentic story that teaches people about all the beautiful cultural and historical significance that San Antonio has to offer.”