Archive | September, 2011

So You Think You Can (Greek) Dance?

22 Sep

It’s time I let a dirty little secret out of the bag: I never went to Greek school and I never learned to Greek dance.

In high school, I attended a Greek festival with a group of non-Greeks.  I had some helpful tips for my friends on which pies to pick (and VERY strong opinions on which pastries we’d be eating), but when it came to the dancing, I was clueless.  I had gone to my fair share of Greek Festivals,  and my very favorite parts of weddings had been the times when my Pappou and his friends would line up and dance. I remember feeling a strong sense of belonging to these movements, but when my friends started nudging me toward the stage, a paralyzing fear of not knowing the steps came over me. 

Since then, I’ve learned to muddle through a step or two.  I’m an enthusiast–not an expert–and you’ll probably never see me leading the line.  But, if you’d like some advice from a mid-line Zorba, see below.

Let’s start with the basics. 

-Line Up and Get Close: Most of the dances you’ll see at your run-of-the-mill wedding or Festival are going to be line dances.  In this configuration, the best dancer leads the line and everyone else links hands behind him/her to form a circle that moves counterclockwise.  If, like me, you’re not there to show off, find the middle and do whatever you can to stay in the middle.  This, by the way, is also a nice way to finnagle a meeting with the cute Greek you’ve been eyeing from across the dance floor–though it is not advisable if you are a palm sweater (trust me on that one).

-Don’t know the moves? No problem.  Most dances have 1-2 repeated steps (maybe three if the ouzo’s been flowing) that go on for the entirety of the dance. Most of the really fancy stuff you see is non-line or freestyle–and we will save those for another post. As far as I’m concerned, you can watch the line for two or three bars and then three-step your way through most of these dances to your little heart’s delight.

-Greeks look out for each other.   If you’re a bumbling mess on the dance floor, never fear: the more-experienced dancer next to you will probably smile, start counting the steps with you, and hold his/her arm straight enough that no one else notices a break in the chain. So relax!

We’re going to spend some time with the Kalamatiano, the Hasaposerviko, and the Tsamiko.

If you’ve got an eye to antiquity, you may recall this dance described in The Iliad. If not, I’ll refresh your memory with the 21st century answer to the epic poem: You Tube.

This dance looks harder than it is, but success is based on your center of gravity.  If you stay light and on your toes, you’ve got a chance of making it. There’s a great instruction portion in the video below (complete with amusing quote bubbles) followed by about 3 minutes of unfrilly, clean demonstration. Please do not judge me or my people by the prevalence of early 1990s athletic gear featured here.

This is one of my absolute favorites.  It’s a great example of how Greek dancing can be dressed-up or dressed-down based on the skill of the dancer(s). 

A simple Hesaposerviko:

And a more jazzed version:


And last- the man’s dance.  Literally, the name means ‘Dance of the Charms.”  I like this dance because it is much less about the steps and much more about the precision, attitude, and style of the dancer himself.  It’s a slow dance that requires both group cohesion and spectacular individual talent.  Also, I love how closely it resembles break dancing: further proving that the Greeks invented everything! 🙂

Got it? Good.  Now rush to Rhodes, pay a visit to Cafe Chantant and then send me a thank-you note.


A Man, a Dream, A Legacy of Kefi

1 Sep

Once upon a time in a small village outside Sparta, Greece, a family gathered to bid adieu to one of their own.  Turned off by the politics du jour (or, as it were, du decades), Lakis decided to leave behind his family, the olive oil factory they had operated for years, and the small-town life of Sparta in the hopes of hitting it big in the bustling metropolis of…. Wilkes-Barre, PA.   More than half a century later, when I would meet for the first time the family my Pappous left behind, my mother’s cousin would tell me that although she had been devastated by her favorite uncle’s departure, she was heartened by the belief that American baby dolls could walk and talk and that, one day, Lakis might return with one of these magical dolls for her.

 I can’t imagine what my Pappous must have thought when he arrived in north-eastern Pennsylvania to find that the streets were paved in coal, not gold.  There’s a lot I don’t know about this particular coming-to-America story, and it’s hard to tell the chicken from the egg here.  Maybe my Pappous was the kind of kid who ran the Greek-equivalent of lemonade stands and bubble gum hustles as soon as he was old enough to count drachmas, or maybe he was transformed by the Holy Spirits of mid-century America: opportunity and entrepreneurship.  What I do know is that my grandfather immediately got to work, joining a network of established Greek business owners already beloved by the community, and it wasn’t long before he owned his own diner in New Jersey.

 Now, before you get all “oh–this girl’s grandfather came over here from Greece and opened a diner in New Jersey…tell me a story I haven’t heard 10,092 times” let me qualify this by saying Lakis’ diner was more than just a diner: it was a Kefi center.  For most of my life I thought my fond memories of the diner were a function of having known its owner–for me and my siblings, the kitchen was always open, the diplas were always fresh and the sizzler steak was always free.  My first Greek lessons came from a server named Donna who taught me everything she knew–the extent of which, sadly, did not go past kalimera, kalispera, and kalinihta–and I saw first hand the kind of work it took to run a small business in America.  While most of my friends and their families rarely enjoyed the luxury of eating out in those days, my family and I enjoyed some of our favorite memories while squeezed into the vinyl booths of the diner: my sister losing her front tooth in a basket of fried chicken, my brother surviving his first day of employment as a bus boy, even performing the impossible–surprising Pappou in his own diner for his 65th birthday party.

 But it turns out that this kind of kefi was not reserved just for my family and me.  When my Pappou passed away (may his memory be eternal), his viewing and funeral were full of former customers, business partners, and employees who remembered the diner as a place where people came together and neighbors helped each other out.  Servers who had worked for Lakis for 25 and 30 years came, telling us he had been the “best boss” they ever had.  People told stories of his kindness–opening the diner to the hungry for a free Thanksgiving meal, cashing a check in the middle of the night for long-time customers in a bind–and his playfulness: he had locked a server in the freezer as a first-day prank, only to be locked in the same freezer by the same server days later.  It was overwhelming to see the way that one little dream–to come to America and create something–had turned into something far beyond my grandfather, my family, or my memory.

 This post is conspicuously replete of recipes or drool-worthy food photos. It’s just a little homage to the kind of person who has informed my thoughts of kefi–someone who organized a community just by being there, and who brought people together for purpose, not profit.  The diner is long gone now–in fact, it’s now a White Castle–but it’s clear that people never forget kefi or the people who create it.

Where Kefi Began

1 Sep

So there we were.  Four Greek-Americans on the second family voyage back to the Motherland.  A few days earlier, we had celebrated the wedding of a dear cousin. Flash forward a few protests, strikes, and a 5 am flight and we were in Rhodos.

If it’s been awhile since you’ve reviewed your Greek mythology, I’ll remind you: Rhodos is named for the wife of Helios, the god who lit up the world each day by riding across the sky in the chariot of the sun.  You’ll find this in no mythology text, but I’ll put forward the theory that Helios felt bad for his wife (that kinda schedule must’ve made quality time tough to come by) and so he searched for the world’s most perfect island to give to her. And perfect it is.  Nestled in the eastern Aegean Sea (as much as a land mass that resulted from ancient volcanic activity can be nestled, I suppose), Rhodes is home to ancient castles, butterfly preserves, two spectacular old cities, and–most importantly–some delicious examples of Greek cuisine.

Back to Kefi.  We had been taking in the sun and sites during our first day in Lindos and had worked up quite the appetite.  We settled in to a great table at a great restaurant (whose name escapes me now…womp). The lighting was low, the wine was interesting and refreshing and the first round of mezze had just arrived at the table.  We looked around at one another, and my brother said, “THIS is kefi.”

From “Kefi is a hard-to-translate word which has been described by various Greeks as meaning the spirit of joy, passion, enthusiasm, high spirits, or frenzy. Kefi takes many forms. The custom of smashing plates is considered an expression of kefi, when the soul and body are overwhelmed with an exuberance that must find an outlet.”

So that’s what this blog is all about. Capturing the moments–both the sensory and the intangible–that make Greece, Greeks, and the descendents of a Spartan-cum-Jersey boy everything they are.  This blog will be just as much about food (Greek and not) as it is about the moments before, during, and after a meal that make it seem reasonable–no, required–to throw your plate against the wall and scream, “Opa!”


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