The bone I’d like to pick with Greece: Where have all the dances gone?

Every college campus has its local hang-out place. Aside from the fact that this place probably offers the cheapest food around, it is also the place that stays open after everything else has closed, serving irresistibly greasy foods. For those returning to Boston College from a night out on the town, Roggie’s is the primary destination. Slender girls dressed to the nines will order two slices of pizza with a side order of garlic bread. By the end of the evening, Roggie’s is the place to be, as kids line up at the counter hollering orders. As the final destination for such a large portion of the student body, the name of the place alone evokes hilarious memories of epic nights out. And it is this very place that, every other month or so, morphs into a Greek glendi.

BC students dancing the zeimbekiko at Roggie's

The BC Hellenic Society rents out the bottom floor and members take turns plugging their ipods, replete with Greek playlists, into the sound system. As the evening progresses, students holding pizza slices and scarfing down cheesy bread follow the strange music down to our dance floor. Pretty soon, they find themselves kneeling beside us, hooting and hollering for the zeimbekiko dancer, someone they probably recognize from class. They dance gleefully to the familiar pop beat of Anna Vissi and Sakis Rouvas songs, though they can’t understand the lyrics. Then, they stand off to the side and clap along as we lock shoulders and try the complicated Bulgarian version of the hasapiko serviko.

I am one of those girls that can barely walk in heels, but the shooting pain in my feet would somehow disappear as they’d watch us dance. In the basement of Roggie’s, stomping out the traditional village dances, I felt so proud to be Greek. Despite the wafting smells of fried food, our traditions were still so dignified and impressive.

While some of us at BC grew up dancing the intricate pentozali and ikariotiko at church festivals, the rest of us learned them in the evenings after class. I invited two Greek-American friends over to my dorm to teach them the steps one evening during freshman year, and before long, my roommates had joined in. Then, the girls next door. We YouTubed traditional Greek songs late into the night, dancing until we were too exhausted to stand any longer. By the time I was a sophomore, we had organized a Hellenic Dance Troupe and would meet weekly in some secluded classroom to teach each other dances. Pushing all the desks to a back corner, we would create a makeshift dance floor and, whoever had remembered his ipod speaker dock would plug it in. The hour that would then unfold was usually the highlight of my week. We each became Zorba, as our problems would dissipate in the face of the slow crescendo.

Greek dancing does not require much coordination or athletic ability. Once you learn a dance, you realize you are soon able to do it without thinking. Your legs become programmed to move as they’re supposed to move and you become one with the bouzouki melody. Your mind inevitably rises above your usual problems and concerns and you find yourself in a place where nothing but the steps and the beat seem relevant. If you had forgotten to wear sneakers, you would probably take off your shoes and dance barefoot. In the moments where we were all perfectly synchronized, perfectly integrated and melded together, we didn’t feel so different from the proud Greek village people.

But now that I am in Greece, I have found that these dances have somehow been forgotten. I spent August 15th, a major Greek Orthodox holiday commemorating the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, in a remote mountain village where a friend from Athens still has very tangible roots. Their panegyri involved a lively band, delectable food, plenty of ouzo and rakomelo, but very little dancing. Every so often, the band would play a song that could pass for a hasapiko or one of the soustes, and I’d look around desperately to see if anyone was getting up, but no one would budge. Occasionally, a handful of villagers would stand up and join hands– and I’d come bounding over– but what would follow was little more than a glorified walk. At Greek school, we would dance our folk dances, remembering the proud Soulioti women who danced off the cliff side in an effort to avoid capture by the Turks, but it seems that these noble dances have become a thing of the past.

In the bouzoukia, the chic nightclubs of Athens, Greek music artists take turns on stage, first singing a repertoire of their own songs and then switching over to well-known traditional ones. As the night progresses and the tsipouro flows freely, some of the Greeks will make their way onto the stage to dance. Delighted, I usually follow them up there. But it’s always this same glorified walk, something like a trot, involving no wild leaps, no complicated figoures. You can rarely even find a kalamatiano. I never return to my table glistening with sweat, like I used to in Boston, fully energized and completely out of breath.

At the rembetadika, taverna-like venues where they play more traditional music, it’s pretty much the same thing. The band will play a perky song and people will get up to do their usual trot. I taught a study abroad friend my favorite dance, the pentozali, a name that translates roughly to “five crazy steps,” and we’d get up and dance it whenever the music seemed suitable, but no one would join in. I cannot understand it. In this increasingly globalized age, have the Greeks forgotten their folk dances? Maybe these traditions have been lost in the generational turnover. Or has this new generation just lost interest in such customs, deeming them to be archaic and tiresome? To be fair, we certainly don’t square dance anymore in the States. We would never rush to the dance floor to do a waltz. Or perhaps the economic crisis, with its harrowing austerity measures, has taken a toll on the vibrant Greek cultural consciousness?

I wasn’t homesick on the Fourth of July, as a treated myself to a hot dog and pictured the fireworks over Playland amusement park. Though I perused facebook album after facebook album of my friends dressed up in their goofy costumes, I was not homesick on Halloween. I wasn’t even homesick on Thanksgiving, when I skyped with my parents as they pulled the turkey out of the oven. But I am acutely homesick anytime the bouzouki player launches into a ikariotiko and no one leaps from his seat, as everyone would back home. I yearn to dance, but have no one to dance with. As I prepared for my year here, I had imagined the plethora of new dances I would learn and bring back home with me to show off and teach. But now I worry I might forget some of my skills over their year of disuse.

Me, with my mother and my grandmother, dancing the "sailor's dance"

Positioned between my mother and grandmother, I used to dance at church dances until I could dance no more. We would whistle and whoop for the leader of the line, cheering for friends across the dance floor and beckoning for those still seated to latch on. One year, my mom tore her meniscus as we danced the Bulgarian hasapiko serviko, which resulted in weeks on the couch with an elevated knee, but she cannot contain herself when she hears the music. We scamper onto the dance floor, alongside our friends and relatives, and let our feet take over. The music is in our blood, speaking to the core of our beings and rendering us irreversibly bound to the rhythm. Contagious and addicting, there is no abandoning it. It is always the band, fully spent and exhausted, that concedes the dance and announces it’s time to go. Maintenance begins cleaning up the discarded bottles and cans, flashing the lights for last call. It is then and only then that we stop dancing, reluctantly leaving the dance floor behind us with the sounds of Greece echoing in our heads, as we dream of the next excuse to dance again.

This post also appeared on Greekreporter.com as a part of my series “Musing in Athens.”

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5 Comments

Filed under Melanie Graf

5 responses to “The bone I’d like to pick with Greece: Where have all the dances gone?

  1. Thea Paraskevi

    Koukla mou, you should come to Mesoxori and dance the Mesoxorino with my katsikes and me. The katsikes, in particular, have really improved and no longer have four left podia. Please come and visit your Thea soon.

  2. M. P.

    Seeko khorepse kouklee mou na se tho na se kharo!

  3. Vangeli

    Melanie,
    Another insightful and well told story. I shared your article with Greek-American parishioners at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in New Rochelle, NY. They all agreed that it is puzzling and saddening that they go out in the evening for entertainment and the Greeks do not chose to dance. Some hypothesized that perhaps as part of the EU the Greeks think that they are now too sophisticated to revert to traditional village dances. Others think that the youth want to rebel against vestiges of the past. That does not explain why they will not dance in the familiarity of the village. In any respect, they are missing out on what’s the best of the Greek tradition; enjoying life.

  4. Theodora

    I had a guy run up to me and my niece in Monastiraki this summer because he wanted to talk about the Greek Americans. He said, “we love guys, you are so much Greeker than we are. Thank you for keeping our traditions alive!” Theodora

  5. Cleo Marantis

    As you have pointed out, even in the United States folk dancing, e.g. square dancing, is passe. Moreover, recent dances like the waltz have also lost their popularity. Although change or “modernization” is inevitable, In many ways this is a shame and a lost opportunity for Greeks to demonstrate and express pride in their traditional village dances while at the same time having a lot of fun.
    Pappou

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