Monday, August 24, 2009


“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names,” Chinese Proverb.

Modern Greeks don’t generally hold Northern Epirotes in high esteem. They tend to equate them to Albanians, a people generally considered as culturally inferior in the common consciousness. This particular trait of self-loathing is nothing new by the way. When the Asia Minor refugees arrived in Greece, expecting to find a safe haven from persecution and intolerance, they too were segregated, isolated, and made subjects of derision. The irony is greater however, in the case of the Northern Epirotes, because their ancestor’s endeavours and bequests are responsible for the construction of most of the landmarks of Athens and the foundation of some of its most enduring educational and financial institutions.
Having endured some of the harshest forms persecution for approximately seventy years, which they did stoically, their eyes forever fixed upon Greece as a symbol of hope, Northern Epirotes generally find that apathy at best is their compatriots’ response to their plight. Sometimes, that apathy inexplicably turns into hostility, as is the sorry case among some insular Epirot groups here in Melbourne, unaffiliated to the Panepriotic Federation of Australia, and as was recently attested to in a bizarre incident in Canberra where a representative of a Sydney Epirot group purported to tear up Australian Hellenic Council submissions to Parliament on the subject of human rights for Northern Epirotes, claiming that “there is no issue,” and implying that he had been asked by ‘higher Hellenic powers,” to commit such a heinous act..
The human rights of ethnic Greeks in Northern Epirus seems to be of secondary concern when it comes to Greek government policy on bilateral relations with Albania. Just three months after the official state visit of Greek PM Karamanlis to Albania, a visit touted as a great success by his government, and his undertaking to support Albania’s accession to the EU, the Albanian PM, Sali Berisha, former doctor of the paranoid Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, has chosen to reciprocate, by announcing his plans to change all Greek toponyms in Albania to ones derived from “ancient Albanian.”
The ludicrousness of such a decision is immediately apparent. Firstly, no archaeological or literary records exist, attesting to an ancient Albanian language. Secondly, no amount of name changing can mask the fact that Northern Epirus has formed part of the Greek cultural world for over two millennia. The vast majority of toponyms in Southern Albania and coastal Albania are of Greek origin, simply because these places were or are founded and inhabited by Greeks. Dürres, for example, is Dyrrahion – the ancient Epidamnos. Gjirokastër is Argyrokastro, Himarë is Cheimarra and the list goes on endlessly. To change the names of these places is to deny their history.
One may ask why this is particularly offensive. After all Greece too has indulged in intensive name changing, especially of Turkish and Slavic toponyms. The answer lies in the fact that most of these toponyms have been altered subsequent to the passage of those ethnic groups from the regions in question. Slavs have not existed in any significant numbers in Epirus for hundreds of years. Yet the prevalence of Slavic toponyms and words in the local patois attests to a time when Serbian kings such as Stefan Dušan incorporated much of Greece into their empire. The changing of these is thus inoffensive, since the intention is not to deny the Serbian occupation of Greece, which is a historical fact, but rather, to revert toponyms to their original forms.
In Berisha’s case, the opposite seems to be the case. Given that Northern Epirus forms part of the same cultural and geographical entity as southern Epirus, the prevalence of Slavic toponyms such as Lambovo, Gorantzi, and Kossovitsa for Greek villages, is also acute. If Berisha sought to revert to original names for these places, pre-dating their inclusion within Serbian and Bulgarian medieval empires, the only names he should find would be Greek, as up until the twentieth century, Albanians had not existed in any appreciable numbers in this geographic region. Berisha’s intent is thus clear: By imposing upon villages in which Greeks still reside, Albanian names, he seeks to deny their inhabitants their basic right to freely choose their ethnic and cultural affiliation. In short, he seeks to deny the historical Greek character of those villages and towns. As David MacKay observed: “ Some people think that if they change the names of things, the things themselves will have changed too.” This is stupid, considering that wherever one goes in the south of the country and in a good many places in the north, ancient, medieval and contemporary artefacts attesting to the presence of Greeks in the region abound.
Acknowledging a people’s current and historical presence in a region does not in any way impinge upon a nation’s sovereignty. At no stage since the fall of the Albanian communist regime have the slightest hint of irredentist or secessionist intentions been made by either Greece or the Northern Epirotes. Berisha’s act is thus racist and highly offensive and it is embarrassing for the Greek government to undertake to support the accession of such a politically immature country to the EU.
Indeed, the Greek government’s lack of protest at yet another abrogation of the human rights of ethnic Greeks in Albania exposes their stated ‘concern’ as to the welfare of Greeks living beyond the borders of Greece, as mere rhetoric. During his Albanian visit, PM Karamanlis stated that the Greek minority in Albania constituted a bridge between the two countries. However, his aides arranged no official meetings with representatives or leaders of the Northern Epirotes, and the only unofficial meeting that did take place, did so at the last minute. Greek foreign ministry officials are quick to meddle in the political affairs of the Greek minority but rather slow to defend them when their rights are compromised. Northern Epirote organisations within the region and around the world have expressed their indignation at the fact that not once during Karamanlis’ expression of empty platitudes, did he substantially address the vast gamut of problems endured by the Greeks of Albania.
Even more concerning is the fact that Berisha’s announcement comes just days after the Albanian Cabinet rejected an application by His Beatitude, the Orthodox Archbishop of Albania, Anastasios, to build a private educational institution. The Orthodox Church in Albania and its saintly Primate have played a key role in the reconstruction of Albania and the provision of welfare to all Albanian citizens, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation. Nonetheless, the Church’s application was rejected, not on its merits, but rather because the proposed name of the school was to be “Logo” (from λόγος the Greek word for the ‘Divine Word.’)
This blatant example of racism is rendered inordinately ironic when it is considered that the ruling party of Albania, which so takes exception to the use of Greek words in state-recognised institutions is the Partia Demokratike e Shqipërisë – Democratic Party (DP) – a party that employs Greek terms in its appellation, regardless of whether it is consistent in its committment to their meaning.
In the tortuous byzantine micropolitics of the Balkans though, names are everything. The New Democracy Government of Greece always seems to blindly support the DP, seeing it as a partaker of the same ideology, simply because of its employment of the term ‘democratic,’ regardless of the fact that this party has proven inimical to the interests of the enthnic Greeks of Albania. Such then is the political maturity of the Greek government when it comes to minority rights.
Paradoxically, the only official expression of disapprobation comes from a surprising quarter. None less than the foreign minister of Albania, Mr Paskal Milo condemned Berisha’s announcement as “ridiculous,” stating that his decision was: “reminiscent of the dictatorial Hoxha regime, when hundreds of villages were given “socialist names overnight.” It is, and thousands of other examples abound. When the Mayor of Cheimarra, Vasilis Bolanos attempted to implement Council of Europe guidelines as to the rendering of roadsigns in Greek minority areas, he was arrested and convicted of disturbing the peace. Was there an outcry by the Greek government or Greeks around the world? No. Instead, the former SAE youth co-ordinator had the temerity to call him a criminal. Despite any pre-conceived ideas we may have generated about ourselves, we manifestly are not our brothers’ keepers. It is meet then to remember the old adage: “From our ancestors come our names but from our virtues, our honours.”
Diatribe takes leave of you this week, with a ditty it would like to dedicate to the august Albanian PM, Sali Berisha, courtesy of Destiny’s Child: “Say my name, say my name,/ You actin’ kinda shady/ Ain’t callin me baby/ Why the sudden change?” Miru pafshim.


First published in NKEE on 24 August 2009

Monday, August 17, 2009


“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” E. L. Doctorow

One of the chief joys of purporting to pen the Diatribe, apart from exasperating its editor with its proliferation of adjectives that quite possibly do not exist in the English language, disembodied punchlines, and mastaba approach to paragraph formation, is that on the odd occasion, the content thereof serves to enthuse or interest readers in some of the most unlikely of places. For example, a Diatribe I had written earlier in the year about Dimitrios Tsafendas, the assassin of the South African Prime Minister Werwoerd elicited a detailed response from a researcher who had obtained further, extensive information on the subject and was in the process of making a documentary. I have been advised that a Diatribe on the Vlach Principality of Pindus is referenced in a Wikipedia entry on Baron Gyula Cseszneky. Other readers just want to share their own thoughts or parallel endeavours. Diatribes devoted to emotive subjects such as the Pontian Genocide also tend to elicit informed responses from readers who are keen to share their own endeavours in recording or coming to terms with this traumatic historical event. Much of the information I receive puts me on a train of enquiry that inexorably leads to the composition of further Diatribes. After all, as Sidonie Gabrielle quipped: “Writing only leads to more writing.”
Most recently I had the pleasure of receiving an email in response to a Diatribe I had written a few years ago now: “I was fascinated to read your summary of the life and significance of Theo Stephanides, on your blog. Currently I am editing the reminiscences of my mother, Vivian Iris Raymond who was born on Corfu, and knew Theo Stephanides and the Durrells. [Lawrence Durrell, the famous author and Gerald Durrell, the zoologist]. As a matter of interest, she was present at the birthday party when Gerald was presented with the little boat that came to be known as "Bumtrinket", and my mother remembers things about the house and events that are not recorded elsewhere. These will be in her book. She also has recollection of Theo Stephanides that will be new to posterity, and will be included.”
After providing this tantalising snippet of information about a family that through Gerald Durrell’s “My family and Other Animals,” were constant childhood companions, Vivian’s son goes on to relate a fascinating tale. During the Second World War, at the age of twelve, Vivian was evacuated to Crete and actually witnessed the battle of Crete, possibly one of our finest hours. Her son is now currently researching these events now to make sure that Vivian’s recollections do not conflict with the historical facts. To his delight, he finds everything his mother recalls to be a true of the events transpiring at that time. He continues to check the facts, as his discovery of salient events from diplomatic dispatches and from other records occasionally trigger a recollection from her that was lost but incipient, and these are filling out the book.
Vivan’s son then seeks to enlist the help of all gentle Diatribe readers out there, especially those cognizant of things Cretan.
During her stay in Crete, Vivian lived with her family on the Venetian estate known as Bella Capina. This was family property of Sidney Merlin. This was also the residence of King George II, before he was evacuated from the island. On the 20th of May the invasion began. Most of the Germans landed to the west and south of Bella Capina, but a small group of Germans landed in the fields around Bella Capina. They were very quickly defeated by the New Zealand force in the area. This is recalled by Vivian, and military records confirm this: it was the B company of the 18th battalion.

On or around the 23rd of May a field ambulance commandeered the house to set up a hospital. The records are not clear, Vivian thinks this was the fourth field ambulance. Her son feels would be helpful to know which field ambulance it was, and if this even was connected to the known bombing of the Red Cross hospital that occurred. In the confusion of battle this information was not recorded and is lost to official archives.
More important to Vivian and her son, is the question regarding the location of Bella Capina, which they have been unable to discover. Vivian’s son pleads: “Is there anyone who can give me an exact location - it would be most helpful to see it on the Google Earth?” If it no longer exists, to know where it had been located would be crucial in setting the scene for his mother’s reminisces.
Vivian recalls that while she and others tending to wounded and dying, orders arrived to evacuate to Sphakia. In her memory they and the personnel walked one day and one night to get to Sphakia, and were evacuated by RNS Napier on the night of 28th to 29th. The evacuation is confirmed in both British and New Zealand war archives. Both she and her brother are the two children registered in the archives as evacuees. In hindsight, Vivian agrees that her amazing trek across the island, reminiscent to that described in Stanley Moss’ “Ill met by Moonlight,” (also a movie starring Dirk Bogarde) may have actually included one full day, one full night, one day hiding in a cave and another half a night of walking. This seems more likely, given that most other reports of the trek suggest that it took two or three days to cross the island, given the difficult circumstances - despite the fact that the cartographic distance along the road is only 35 miles. King George, who left Crete on the 19th of May, and was accompanied by helper troops and assisted by partisans, and travelled on empty roads, took three days to reach the other side of the island.
In the despatches of Major General Freyberg, the estate Bella Capina is described as lying about two miles to the west of Chania. In several other sources, including some diplomatic records, Bella Capina is described as being in Platanias. This is at least 5 miles west of Chania and the location of the estate could be as much as 7.
Now time for speculation: If Bella Capina is in Platanias, then it was over-run by Germans on the 25th of May, and in that case the orders to evacuate must have been given early on that morning at the latest, and would have been local orders only, perhaps orders to move to Galatas, where a new front was being organized. The evacuation from Sphakia had not yet been organized, and the ships were still in Alexandria, Egypt. It is simply not possible that orders to evacuate to Sphakia were given on that day.
However, if Bella Capina is only two miles west of Chania, then it could have been used as a field hospital right up to the 26th of May, when the orders to evacuate to Sphakia were given. It was late on the 25th that decision to evacuate was agreed by High Command, and the ships set out from Alexandria early the next day.
Consequently, Vivan’s son, as historian, has anything from three days to just one day on the road after leaving Bella Capina to account for. In order for him to complete a plausible, verifiable account of his mother’s experience, he would thus need the answer to the following questions:
(1) Where is the estate Bella Capina?
(2) How long would it take to walk from Chania, via Askifou, to Sphakia? The walk was a forced march, but people were tired, thirsty, some wounded and the road was crowded and in a bad condition, and the people were being straffed by German aircraft. Assuming a moderate walking speed, would it be possible to make this crossing in a single night?
If the answers to these questions prove elusive, then publication of the book will be halted and presumably I will never find out the gossip pertaining to Gerald Durrell’s birthday party. Wishing Vivian’s son well in his literary endeavours, we leave you this week, along with our entreaty for information and wonderment as to how heroic Crete continues to inspire, with these words of wisdom by the master himself, Oscar Wilde: “I put all my genius into my life. I only put talent into my works.”


First published in NKEE on 17 August 2009

Monday, August 10, 2009


“History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Winston Churchill.

Socrates Tsourdalakis, author of the groundbreaking and weighty tome that shares a title with this article, prefaces his study of the Cretan diaspora community in the Antipodes with an array traditional mantinades, or verses. One of these, is as follows: «Κρατάτε Κρητικόπουλα μέσα εις την καρδιά σας/ αμόλυντα τα έθιμα, της ρίζας της δικιάς σας.» (“Cretan youth, keep in your hearts unsullied, your traditions and roots.”) This poetic exhortation forms the raison d’ être of Tsourdalakis’ handsome, leatherbound, brilliantly presented and illustrated study. In encapsulating a century of Cretan culture and efforts towards its transplantation in this country within the pagers of his magisterial work, Tsourdalakis is in effect, bequeathing the treasures of the experience of an entire people to the latter generations. The injunction is clear: “This is what we have striven for. Now take it, keep it and improve it.” Unlike many Greek community so-called ‘doyens’, Socrates Tsourdalakis is certainly morally qualified to make such an injunction. Whereas the offspring of most of the first generation ‘leaders’ who immerse themselves in the quagmire of internecine politics in the name of ‘perpetuating Greek culture for our children’ are nowhere to be seen on the community proscenium, both of Socrates Tsourdalakis’ sons have in their own way, ensured the perpetuation of Cretan culture: Sifis Tsourdalakis is a profoundly gifted traditional Cretan musician, whereas the ubiquitous Antonis is the president of the Rethymnian Association of Melbourne “Arkadi,” a Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria board member, and a lot more besides. This is a family that has invested heavily in Hellenism. Consequently, when Socrates Tsourdalakis seeks to present the sum of that experience, we are compelled to sit up and take notice.
It is quite beyond the scope of this diatribe to examine the reasons why our ethnic identity is so particularized as to require a separate treatment for each region of Greece. One would consider that the experience of Greek migrants in the diaspora is not so much coloured by the region from which they derive but rather, where they settled and what they did when they arrived here. At most, it could be argued, the organisation or rather fragmentation of the Greek community into insular, often competing and rival ethno-specific groups deserves but a chapter in the wider study of the history of the Greeks of the Antipodes and only, so as to examine how Greek diasporans viewed themselves, and responded to the challenges of transplantation and acculturation.
The structure of Socrates Tsourdalakis’ work is thus novel because it departs from the usual approach to particularistic Greek regional historiography, which is generally comprised of long and rather tedious lists of such important activities as barbeques and dances, irrelevant dates and mention of obscure and historically insignificant committee members. From the outset, he seeks to place the Cretan community within the broader context of Australian society and the Greek diasporan community at large, through a concise and well-researched analysis of its history and social organisation, including statistics as to the population and demographics of Greek-Oceanians, a list of schools, and lavishly illustrated though brief accounts of the Greek community in each state. In this way, the book works on two levels with a marked measure of success, in that it embraces and engages both those who have knowledge of the unique social fabric of Oceanic society, as well as those who do not have direct experience of it. Tsourdalakis seems to be addressing the book to Cretans both in the diaspora and the motherland and further cements this through the bilingual format he chooses to adopt – again a departure from tradition which either records community history in Greek (eg. Petros Petranis’ ‘History of the Epirots in Australia), or in English (eg. From Tsamanta to Melbourne). Of particular interest is Tsourdalakis’ brief though partisan analysis of the Orthodox Church in Australia. In that account, which is based upon the selective exposition of correspondence, he chooses to centre upon the Cretan Archbishop of Australia Stylianos’ opposition to the controversial Council of Greeks Abroad and also an ecclesiastical dispute involving another hierarch of Cretan origin, Joseph. It is instructive, in so far as it provides an insight into popular opinion and commonly held misconceptions about the institution in question.
From this general foundation, Tsourdalakis proceeds to document the arrival of the first Cretans in the Antipodes and their social organisation into brotherhoods in order to protect their collective identity. Two things become apparent from the outset: that despite the prevailing Australian historical narrative that tends to view Greek migration as a primarily post-war phenomenon, the earliest documented arrival of Cretans in Victoria can be traced to 1848 and thus, the way we view pre and post Federation Australia needs to be coloured by the experience of such largely unrecorded and unsung pioneers. Secondly, Tsourdalakis makes a case for a specialized analysis of Cretan-Oceanic ‘history’ by including a chapter in which he presents an overview of the history of Crete. This will not only serve to familiarize English-speaking Cretan-Oceanians with their place of origin but also juxtaposes the Cretans as against the rest of the Greek community owing to their distinct culture and mindset. This is further exemplified by the multitude of references to Cretan dancing and the teaching of Cretan musical instruments in the text, along with the provision of corresponding photographs. From this we are able to glean that in ways the parallel the many Pontian communities of Australia, the Cretan community’s conception of itself revolves around the lynchpin of dance and music.
One of the enduring criticisms I have of ‘brotherhood’ histories is that they tend to attempt to glamourise the organisations they portray and make them more active or relevant than they actually are. What amateur historians either do not realise or rather try to hide given their own involvement in the affairs they seek to record is goodly proportion of the significance of these organisations to our history is not actually their activities (which following a canon of music, dance and barbeque ‘prove’ that they are perpetuating Greek culture) per se but rather the manner in which they engage in conflict with each other and rival organisations, vie for power and then, how they wield this. What is perhaps the most endearing element of Socrates Tsourdalakis’ approach to recording the history of the many Cretan organisations, is that he does not shy away from the various disputes or disagreements taking place within or among these organisations. Some of these are particularly revealing of what their founders were setting out to do: “…having considered that even though the Cretan Brotherhood’s attempts were genuine in representing the Cretans, the Cretans themselves were dissatisfied because the functions organised and held were not truly of Cretan character.” Tsourdalakis’ commentary about the stance of certain organisations towards the youth also makes fascinating reading at a time when the presidents of the major Cretan organisations in Melbourne derive from the second generation: “the fact that children were prohibited from certain functions organized by the Brotherhood did not encourage the Cretans who had children to attend. It seemed culturally inappropriate to discourage the presence of children at dances because they were the functions that Cretan culture could flourish and be sustained. Only with the establishment of other Cretan organisations was this nonsensical practice acknowledged and change came about.” There then follows a lengthy examination of the Cretan communities in each state, along with the relevant Cretan organisations that have been formed by these, culminating in the history of the Cretan Federation.
Towards the end of the book is perhaps the most valuable addition to our history, in the form of a list of a registry of first generation Cretan-Oceanians, an invaluable resource that would permit the latter generations to trace their ancestry and kinship with each other. Unfortunately, this list only appears in the Greek language and it is hoped that in subsequent editions it will be provided in English as well, for it is of intrinsic importance.
Like any conscientious historian, Socrates Tsourdalakis candidly points out the limitations of his work. For all their distinctiveness, Cretans do not form an impermeable entity. Many Cretans have never belonged to Cretan organisations, many Cretan girls, as he says, have married ‘outside’ the Cretan community and do not play an active role within it. This observation is illuminating and valuable, as he identifies the historian’s challenge for the future: how to record the histories of those persons who claim kinship with us but who do not fit within the constructs we have created for ourselves.
Socrates Tsourdalakis’ stated aim in writing his history of the Cretans of Oceania was to leave something behind for “our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that will remind them of their roots, because sadly, “All things in the world are lost and people are mortal, but whatever is written on paper remains immortal.”” It is revealing that even stalwarts who have managed triumphantly to pass their culture on to the next generation now talk, not of perpetuation but of leaving little nuggets of unobtrusive clues behind, in the hope that these will capture the curiosity of estranged future generations. Fittingly launched in Crete on 5 August, ‘The Cretans of Oceania from the 19th Century,’ is an invaluable addition to our community historiography. To Mark Twain’s observation that: “history does not repeat itself, at best it sometimes rhymes,” this from the Cretan Vintzenzos Kornaros, equally applicable to Socrates Tsourdalakis’ grand work: “the circle’s turns that rise and fall, and those of the wheel that now mount high and now plummet to the depths, time’s changes that never rest – all these have moved me today to tell a story…”


First published in NKEE on 10 August 2009

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