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Greek-American Stories: Opa!

Dancing is as old as civilization. Homer’s epic poems referred to them in his works, those performed at various events: weddings, funerals, symposiums, athletic games – and before and after battles, although it’s hard for me to believe anyone wanting to dance during a war. According to Homer, the best interpreters of dance were the citizens of Corfu (Phaeakes) and Crete, the Trojans, and the Mycenaeans.

Body movements and rhythmic steps and hand motions performed with the sound of music is poetry in motion. Whether artistic, religious or simply entertainment, dancing is a beautiful language and joyful.

The ancient Greeks’ love for dance had, they believed, divine origins, something sent by the Gods and sanctioned by Terpsicori, the goddess of dance who was the most cherished of the muses.

War dances performed before battle inspired soldiers to prepare for ultimate victory. Just before the Battle of Thermopylae, Leonidas and his Spartans danced. A Persian soldier spy was sent to spy on the Greek camp and reported, with awe, “they washed, braided wreaths, and crowned themselves. And, by the Gods, they danced – they danced like they were not about to go to war.”

Another legend says the Rea, mother of Zeus, taught dancing to the Kourites (Cretans) while Plato classified dancing as demonstrations of sadness and joy.

Dionysus, another son of Zeus, (Zeus had many kids. He was a lusty God.) was more than God of agriculture. He influenced social and religious importance through dance.

Dancing has changed through the years in various ways. Some have, however, changed very little. The Cretan Sousta and the Kalamatianos haven’t changed at all. This has led historians to assess that the lives of ancient Greeks and modern Greeks are not as different as one might think. British historian, T.K. Lawsaon, who studied Greek traditions, said, “no foreigner can look upon a Greek festival without realizing that here, before their eyes, are scenes re-enacted from ancient days.”

All Greek dances express the preservation of history through the centuries. They are the real, most beautiful expression of a priceless heritage. Epirus, whose dance steps are monotonous and austere express the agony and subjugation these people suffered through the many centuries of slavery under the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The dance of Zalongo is historic as one of the most tragic and heroic moments in the revolution against the Turks, commemorating an event that preceded 1821. Trapped on a mountain, the women of the village of Zalongo preferred to die rather than fall into Turkish hands, to be defiled or sold into slavery. They joined hands, their children beside them, and sang and danced while they leaped thousands of feet to their deaths.

Wherever Greeks gather, at church festivals or parties, they wave their handkerchiefs in the air as symbol that no power on Earth could enslave them. Those dances are the preserved expressions of Greek history and culture and continued proof of the Greeks’ spiritual and ethical world, a part of our priceless heritage.

Modern times in America have seen radical changes in dancing routines. Once upon a time, accompanied by outlandish costumes and hair displays bordering on redundant, people performed romantic and graceful steps like the fox trot, waltz, tango, or the Lindy hop, where couples joined to dance with music that could soothe the savage soul, now is danced apart and frantic. Now, most dancers perform frenetic displays of calisthenics – some appear to suffering a fit. In my un-asked for opinion, the lyrics matching the dancing are just inarticulate and inartistic noise.

To be fair, before WW II, in rowdy taverns and dives in Greece, a tough breed of men – grim, usually drunk – danced the zeibekiko. Some were knife-wielding Koutavakides who threatened anyone interrupting their serious display of locked-up emotions. But, after the war, that all changed. Those arrogant misfits settled down and the zeibekiko took on a very different character. Thankfully, bouzouki and rembetica music became a trend to behold. In fact, the zeibekiko was danced by all classes of Greeks and foreigners, too.

Whatever the dancing mood or style, dancing is joy. However, it’s hard for me to get into a dancing mood when the latest dances when people are just engaging in calisthenics – or look like they are having a fit. Just watching dancers on TV whose costumes are racy, gaudy, flashy, skimpy or a size too small, appalls. Oh, well, my opinions aside, let’s hear it for the Zorbas.



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