How I learned Greek dances in Greece as an expat

I am not a natural dancer, invariably I find a rhythm of my own whenever I find myself on the dance floor, but I enjoy it. I have visited this island many times with my Greek husband, coming every summer for 3 months and often Easter too and I have always wished I knew how to join in the dancing competently at family parties and gatherings I always had a go but my own rhythm just didn’t seem to fit into this Greek form of line dancing.

As I bobbed up, everyone else would bob down, when I went left, they would go right. Eventually, I would give up in frustration and watch on with envy. Now, living here for a whole year, was the perfect opportunity to learn to dance properly.

Shortly after coming here in November last year I discovered a dancing class which was run by the local cultural centre. This isn’t any old dance group, the more experienced members of this dancing team give displays every year on the island and frequently tour Europe and America. I have seen them dance many times and always came away awestruck. What fortune for me – to have a marvelous, professional dance teacher who would teach us dances from all over the regions of Greece.

Every week we would have an hour’s lesson during which time we would invariably learn a new dance and practice some of the ones we had learnt in previous weeks. The other members of my class are all Greek. Their ages range from their early twenties to mid-40s and they are all school teachers in the local primary or secondary schools on the island. None of them come from this island as the practice in Greece is that public employees are sent wherever they are needed. The only non-Greek dance pupils in this group then, were myself and two English female friends – all in our 50s. As a consequence, we three were faced with an extra challenge.

Not only were we learning to dance but all the lessons were taught in Greek and, as this was another subject we were having lessons in, our newly forming linguistic skills were pushed beyond our limits. For many weeks my English friends and I never knew what dances we would do in our lessons until the rest of the class began moving, and then it was a real ‘aha’ experience as we recognized the steps as a dance we had learnt a few weeks before.

Before learning a new dance our teacher,. Niki, would tell the group what it was called and whereabouts in Greece it came from, also explaining a little history of that particular region. All this went completely over our heads and for a long time we did not know that this was what she was talking about. We would look at her earnestly, willing comprehension but all to no avail.

She would then start the music and slowly show us the steps, counting them out all the time and advising us as a body how to accomplish the moves. I always watched her with amazement. She made it look so simple and effortless. Her body and legs would move so fluidly and in perfect time to the music. Then it was our turn. I really tried to achieve the same ease and gracefulness that she possessed but, unfortunately, I could only follow the dance if I counted the steps out loud to myself and as a consequence my efforts seemed to me very stilted and wooden. And, I was still having trouble doing that slight bobbing movement that you see in many Greek dances.

I felt like some demented puppet but I didn’t care, I was keeping up and it was early days. Out of the three of us, my friend Jane seemed to pick up the steps fairly easily and, most importantly, remember them. For me and my other friend, as soon as we had finished one dance and moved onto the next, the steps of the dance just completed seemed wiped from our memory. Jane suggested that we add in another lesson whereby the three of us would meet at her house on a Saturday morning to go over what we had learnt that week.

This was an excellent idea and was further assisted by taking video films of the lessons that we would then use to help us improve. And improve we did. As the weeks went by we began to get used to the rhythm of the music, the steps began to be accomplished with more confidence and our understanding of dancing related Greek words was also whizzing along. I could now understand the command to take small or large steps, to go slowly, or quickly, to kick or stamp or twirl. I still didn’t know what the names of the dances I could do were but at least I could now do them.

After four months of lessons our teacher announced that in around 4-6 weeks the cultural centre would be giving a dance display at one of the big hotels on the island and she would like our group to take part. The show would be for two nights and would include dancers from some of the other groups that she teaches across the island. Additionally. we would all be wearing the local, traditional costumes from the different regions of Greece that our dances came from.

When she suggested this in Greek to the group I thought I had an inkling that this was what she was saying. Checking it out afterwards with some of the our Greek team members we got some of the details and it was in this secondhand way that we continued to learn about the preparations for the show. Everything could be ‘hit or miss’ and lucky for us most times (and it seemed quite by accident) it turned out to be the former rather than the latter.

However, it was quite some time before we understood that we would only be doing four local dances, the Syrtos, the Tsamikos, the Sousta ,the Kotsari (Pontiaka) and the Pentozali from Crete Before this we had been frantically practicing everything in our extra lesson by ourselves. At least now, we could concentrate only on those dances that we will be performing. And practice we did and some more. I was certainly not going to leave anything to chance.

Our proper dance lessons continued normally. Each week learning a new dance and going over others. Unfortunately, one of the English dancers would not be able to dance at the display as she would be leaving the island for four weeks.

So it was Jane and I now and, of course, our new Greek friends. It wasn’t until 3 weeks before the show that we began to practice the dances we would be performing and then only once a week. Will we be getting any extra lessons? Was our dancing OK? was I bobbing at the right time? what about our costumes, when will we get them, how do we know they will fit? what days and time will the display be? how much will the tickets be? So many questions that it seemed embarrassing and would give a sense of panic if we bombarded our Greek friends and teacher with them. We tended to work then on the principle that we must be doing OK or the teacher would have told us. And when it is really important for us to know something we were confident that she would .

The last two weeks before the show we were very busy with rehearsals. They were held at the hotel on the stage, 3 times the week before and 5 times during the week of the show. It certainly helps being in the venue as I find as soon as something changes in the environment I am temporarily thrown. By the time the show comes round I shall be quite used to this stage. I think we should be alright now!!! The first performance was to be Friday night and the final one on the Saturday night.

On Wednesday evening before the show we picked up our costumes. Its very beautiful – on someone else, young and lithe – I’m afraid I look a bit like Heidi’s grandma!!!! We have to wear a long white heavy cotton undershirt/blouse thing with a lace collar, on top of this goes a dress/coat (mine is dark burgundy with a fine black stripe -beautiful heavy material) Over this goes a short, black, long sleeved, velvet jacket with gold metallic embroidery trimming it. then there is a large sash, a gold necklace made from tiny coins and – the crowning glory – an extremely flattering headscarf. It is quite a lot of stuff to wear and very heavy that I can hardly walk in it all let alone dance!!!! All the other women are probably in their early twenties – but look 14 and dance beautifully, graceful and elegant. I hope the audience’s eyes will be on them rather than Jane and me!!!!

On the first night of the show. Jane and I both had a different understanding of what should happen. Getting all the instructions in Greek is very challenging especially when your head is full of the sequence of steps for the different dances and the trauma of getting it wrong. I understood it that we would not have a dress rehearsal – just a rehearsal and could then go home until 7.30.

Jane thought we had to stay there from 4pm. As it turned out, this time I had understood it correctly. Together we make a great team in our understanding of what is going on. Between us we have never got it wrong. Sometimes I do and she doesn’t and vice versa. For example, today we found out that we are to dance first and for some reason I had been sure that I had heard our teacher tell us that we would go last.

The rehearsal went very well although it wasn’t a dress rehearsal. Everyone was really nervous and anxious that something would go wrong and now we had the added stress of not knowing how it will be to dance in these heavy clothes until we actually do it! For me, I have to keep reminding myself of the changes in each dance. In one of them, the Sousta the girl on my right leaves the line to dance with a partner in the middle of the circle. I find it quite difficult to keep my feet in step when she does this whilst at the same time trying to reach out to hold the hand of the person she has just left.

This I find especially difficult because it takes place in the dance with the fastest steps! The other thing that makes me anxious is when we dance the Rothithiko. At the command of ‘Oopa’ we change from dancing round in a circle to dancing into the circle. In previous rehearsals I have felt a surge of panic each time this point is close and, consequently, miss the first few steps. Fortunately, at the dress rehearsal it went perfectly. I was so relieved to have finally cracked it that I continued going into the circle after the requisite 3 times and missed the first steps when everyone else returned to going round. Still I was glad to have made these mistakes in the final rehearsal because I will be very conscious not to do it at performances.

After the rehearsal everyone else went home to relax before returning at 7.30. Jane and I were far too worked up to go home and then come back again. We sat in the poolside bar and drank a soft drink whilst Jane had a toasted sandwich. Her thoughts had been so taken up with this evening’s performance, she had forgotten to eat any lunch and was in desperate need of sustenance. Afterwards we decided to go for a calming walk along the beach.

The nerves and anxiety seemed to be interfering with our intake of oxygen as neither of us could stop yawning. We returned to the hotel at 7pm and sat in the cafe with a large heavily caffineated coffee to stop us yawning. As the time moved on my stomach was becoming more and more jittery, giving a sudden lurch when I noticed some young dancers in the hotel lobby all dressed in their costumes. Time to go and sort out ours.

When we reached the lobby we saw one of our group, who immediately came to us to show us where the changing rooms were and to let us know that we will be the first dancers after a musical introduction. It was now around 7.45 and the show would start at 9pm with us coming on around 9.30. Plenty of time. We checked out backstage and the dressing rooms. Everywhere was packed with excited young people in a stunning array of different costumes, all beautifully colourful and exquisitely made. There were costumes from northern Greece,. Thrace and Macedonia. as well as from our island. However, this.

I could only guess as my linguistic skills were not able to understand the babble of excited explanations that were going on around me. We were the island’s group, because nobody in our team actually came from the island. All were Greek, with the exception of Jane and myself and the idea of the dance display was not just to give enjoyment to the audience with the music and dancing but also to encourage people to understand and appreciate differences between the different groups in Greece as well as recognizing there are many similarities.

Hence all the local dancers were doing dances from elsewhere in Greece and those from outside the island were to do the local dances. We then wandered back into the lobby where we found the rest of our group and our teacher. Jane and I were getting a bit hung up about the fact that we did not have proper shoes.

Our teacher had looked at the ones we had brought with us and said they were not really suitable but, don’t worry, because there would be someone in one of the other dance groups who would be able to lend us theirs. Niki, our wonderful teacher, then went off and returned with a young girl, Eleni, who had the same shoe size as me. She was delighted to be able to lend me her shoes as she had another pair that she would be dancing in – and they fitted. We agreed to find each other at the end f the show so that I could return them to her. The teacher then decided that Jane’s shoes would be OK so that was one more problem sorted.

After another five cigarettes I said to Jane that I would really like to go and get changed and get the feel of the costume so we made our way backstage to join the throng. Once we had climbed into our costumes and then gone to the official dressers to get our headscarves on right, our necklaces pinned into place and a final once over to check that we looked authentic I began to feel that the show was really going to happen, and I didn’t look like Heidi’s grandma after all, in fact I looked OK, the headscarf was tied in a way that was not unflattering and all I wanted to do now was get it over with.

The performance was supposed to begin at 9pm with traditional music played by the musicians from the cultural centre. However, true to the Greek concept of time, it was nearer half-past by the time it got going. After 15 minutes we were told to go backstage and be ready to go on when the music stops and Niki begins her introduction to the dancing. Huddled backstage with the rest of our group our nervousness increased tenfold, all I could think about now was that I desperately needed to spend a penny but there wasn’t time anymore. One of our group, Yorgos, came to each of us and wished us all luck and then did a very good job of relaxing us all by clowning around.

It certainly worked because suddenly I was aware of Niki speaking to the audience, explaining who we were and what dances we would do and, suddenly, we were on! And it was brilliant! As soon as I heard our music playing, the steps just fell into place and off we all went. I was aware of an audience but didn’t dare look out to it. I kept my eyes firmly fixed on the lead dancers to make sure I was in time, and just thought about what dance I was doing, blocking out that this was the first night of the show.

Nothing went wrong, I kept step when Haroula let go of my hand to do her solo, I went into the circle and out again at the right time and I was really enjoying myself by the time it all ended and was able to look out to the audience for the first time. At the end of our four dances we were really on a high. We had done it and tomorrow cannot be as nerve-wracking as tonight. I was very hot, sweaty, and breathless but I was thrilled.

After we had performed our dances, Jane and I went to the bar in the lobby and had a stiff drink and 2 more cigarettes. We then spent a very enjoyable 2 hours watching all the other dancers until the end of the show when all the teams had to go back on stage to dance the Syrtos together. A piece of cake now and so exciting to be part of all this. At the end of the performance we all went out to eat together, the musicians came too and the taverna was buzzing with the excited chatter of relief and the knowledge that all the practice had paid off. there was more dancing in the taverna, but this time just for us, and it was 2.30 am before we left exhausted by the pressure but buzzing with the achievement. Tomorrow can now be looked forward to instead of seen with trepidation.

The following day was spent just waiting with anticipation for that night’s performance. I was able to achieve nothing other than ironing my costume so that it would look presentable in the evening. At 7pm I met Jane on the corner and off we set for the hotel.

Tonight our friends and families would be watching us but for me the worst was behind me now that I knew I could do it. I just wouldn’t think of the audience again and I was determined to really enjoy the performance. Our friends and family arrived, admired our costumes and took copious photographs then took their seats in the auditorium.

The performance we gave this time was even better than the night before. We made a conscious effort to look relaxed and smile more. I even dared to look out into the audience and noticed my husband right up at the front of the stage taking videos of it, but I wasn’t fazed anymore and just kept dancing. At one point my headscarf fell down and yesterday it would probably have thrown me completely but now, I barely noticed. At the end of the performance we were thrilled that we had achieved something that we, and our teacher could be proud of. I felt very fortunate and pleased that I had had the opportunity to take part in a real Greek dancing display for the Greek community.