Monday, August 03, 2009


I am diametrically opposed to dance in all its forms for two reasons, one philosophic and the other personal. Dance, as a form of expression gives too much away, compared to words which can be twisted. Granted, dances can contort emotion but since contrivance is already assumed, its extent cannot be measured with any facility. Further, I have absolutely no control over my limbs and other extremities which means that I cannot make my body do anything remotely resembling the primal gyrations of the African tribal dance that forms the basis of contemporary, western dance. Greek dancing is somewhat easier because there are predetermined steps and a line in which one can conceal their ineptitude in anonymity. My problem is that I have a short attention span and as soon as I have mastered steps four to six, I have forgotten steps one to three. I’ve been told that I could dance a mean zeimbekiko, if I did not lack the requisite co-ordination, imagination and tendency to confuse it with a kalamatiano. Disturbingly enough, I remember being complemented for my dancing at a panigyri in Anthousa some years ago, simply because my Greek peers had absolutely no idea how to dance.
In the diaspora, dance is important. While we may not all know how to speak Greek fluently, almost all of us know how to dance a basic kalamatiano and tsamiko. Despite the fact that fewer and fewer urbanized Greeks in the homeland have the opportunity or the ability to dance in the traditional manner, our main form of communal entertainment still is traditional dance. Greek schools also use Greek dance to great effect. Adoring grandparents seeing their grandchildren stumble their way through a kotsari will be so moved at such an overt display of Greekness that they will be prepared to overlook the fact that their progeny have acquired little functional fluency in the language. They way we present ourselves to others is also inextricable linked to dance. Any given multicultural festival in Melbourne will feature at least one traditional Greek dance group, while our peak showcase of Greek culture, the Antipodes festival, exhibits dance group after dance group in dazzling array. Whether or not standardized, reconstituted and reformed Greek dances from a period and place far removed from the present actually represent Modern Greek reality is irrelevant. Greek Dance constitutes one of the hooks upon which we diasporans hang our hat of identity. We have consciously made it form part of who we are.
Dance Groups are therefore indispensable in maintaining a sense of cohesion and community among the younger generations, whose first taste of organized community life is often through brotherhood dance groups. Attending a dance group is still therefore very much a rite of passage for Greek-Australian youth. Whereas in the ‘old days’ inept and uninspired teachers trudged unsmiling and visibly bored children through tedious steps, nowadays, the art of dancing and its teaching, is a science. This is because there exists there a (hard)core of second generation Greek Australians who are so devoted to dance that they make trips to Greece to study it, locate variations, track its history and development and then, spend their spare time in passing their specialist knowledge on to their peers. Too often, the existence or appointment of a passionate dance teacher forms the catalyst for the revitalization of dormant youth groups. Further, such dance groups provide an ideal way for members of the community of mixed descent to blend comfortably and explore their heritage in a non-intimidating or demanding environment.
The 2nd Dance Seminar of the Academy of Greek Dance was held in Melbourne over a 6 day period. It covered the music, dances and traditions of Pontus and Epirus and will be conducted by Giannis Dimas and Kyriakos Moisidis, leading specialists in the particular dances of these regions. It is an endeavour proudly sponsored by the Panepirotic Federation of Australia, the Pontian Community, the Thessaloniki Association and other community groups. The brainchild of veteran dance teacher Nick Papafthymiou, the seminar is intended to provide intensive, specialist training not only in the fascinating history, customs and traditions that gave rise to the dances of Epirus and Pontus, but also valuable technical advice pertaining to their execution.
The rationale behind the event is explained by Nick as follows: “In these times we have an urgent need for dance teachers to participate in educational programs in order to reach the next level, improve and build on what is being done currently. In Greece most dance teachers have a dip-Ed. in the field of physical education with their specialty being folk dancing or study as ethnomusicologists at university. In the field of teaching in Australia dance teachers simply take on the role as a teacher without any formal training. This sometimes results in their knowledge of folk traditions, music and dance only touching the surface, mainly with the basis only on movement and form. Unfortunately simply teaching somebody the steps of the feet does not mean you have taught someone how to dance with many of the elements of dance missing. This seminar will both work on develop correct teaching techniques as well as correct analysis of the musical beats and teaching of the steps. The seminar will benefit both students and teachers. It also instills confidence in the students that what their teachers have been showing them is correct.”
The seminar, held at the Pontian Community building in Victoria Street Brunswick on 1-2 August 2009, in conjunction with a traditional glendi on 2 August 2009 and a dinner dance on 8 August 2009 is, according to Papaefthymiou, “the first step in the establishment of an organisation which will be made up of members of all the dance groups in Australia and New Zealand and whose main function is to organise Bi-annual seminars covering the needs of all the dance groups and bring better cooperation with the various dance groups in the different states.” This envisaged organization aims to revolutionize the way Greek dance is taught in this country. Nick Papaefthymiou lists the main issues that need to be tackled as follows:
• “Teaching and methodology of Greek dance today.
• Dance Modes: In music there are modes upon which all songs are based. Corresponding steps exist which match these. There is a significant gap in the field of dance. Once learn,t this can assist greatly in the teaching of dancing.
• The A-Z of teaching;
• Dance style, expression, technique, motif.
• Rhythm, Music metre. Rhythm in relation to dance steps and correct counting of steps and beats. Rhythmic analysis of music and song. Analysis of Rhythmic movement and coordination of style and form of dance. Coordination of steps and phonetics so a meaningful flow exists.
• Rhythmic and phonetic methodology. Teaching groups how to sing and dance at the same time. This form of dancing is disappearing even in the villages in Greece.
• “And first there was rhythm”. The teaching of Greek dance for very young children.
• The teaching of expression in Greek dance. – yes, expression can be taught.
• Dance circle, hand position, dance formation and the correct naming of these.
• The role of dance groups in maintaining our cultural heritage.• The teaching of solo dances. Zeimbekika. Yes Zeimbekika can be taught! (As if!)
• Method system of a good dancer.
• Stage presentation.
• Code of Communication between dance teachers and musicians.
• Going through all the different musical styles from all regions of Greece and showing all the links and relationship between them.”
This is all very specialized and incomprehensible to the uninitiated and the inept and yet it makes perfect sense. If our community had taken such a serious-minded and scientific approach to the propagation and preservation of Greek culture in all its forms from the beginning, perhaps our current situation would have been markedly different. At any rate, it is touching that here in the antipodes, latter generations are able to make lasting contributions to fields that are traditionally the preserve of the metropolis. The organizations supporting the seminars deserve commendation, as does the Academy of Greek Dance for maintaining a professional and yet at the same time compassionate approach to the perpetuation of this important aspect of Greek diasporic culture. We should all pitch in, have a dance, revel in the intricacies of our tradition but most importantly, assist those who will be the standard-bearers of whatever is left of our community, into the future.
In parting then, a few words from one of the world’s greatest dancers, Mikhail Baryshinkov: “I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself.” Suits me. After all, its better than this twaddle from Bette Midler: “It’s the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance. It is the dream afraid of waking that never takes the chance. It is the one who won’t be taken who cannot seem to give. And the soul afraid of dying that never learns to live.” Nick Papaefthymiou, you truly are the wind beneath my wings.

First published in NKEE on 3 August 2009