How I learned to love Greek folk dancing all over again

This is a story about returning to your roots, years after you've abandoned them for "cooler" pastures.

This is what happens when a rash promise takes you back to your Greek roots

Much to my astonishment, I am enjoying something I once shunned. (Jonathan Morin/CBC)

Dance the steps of the Syrtos and you map out a cross. Dance it round and round, while holding hands in an open circle, and it begins to feel like a meditation.

The Syrtos is a signature dance from the island of Crete, in Greece. It's one of many Cretan folk dances I practise Saturday afternoons in Montreal. We dance for two hours, work up a bit of a sweat and have a good time.

I always walk out with a smile on my face. A bemused smile. Much to my astonishment, I am enjoying something I once shunned.

In my early teens, I was in a Greek folk dance troupe. We practised Saturdays in the basement of the Aphrodite bakery in Montreal's Parc Ex neighbourhood. We learned a variety of dances from the Greek mainland and the islands. We dressed up in elaborate costumes and performed them at Greek dinner dances, and even at the occasional folk dance festival.

I loved it.

And then, sometime during the year I turned 14, I stopped loving it. I was embarrassed by it, and dropped out. I wanted to be cool, and Greek folk dancing was, to my teenage mind, not cool.

I am the serious one, fourth from the right. I dropped out soon after this picture was taken. (Submitted by me, Anna Asimakopulos)

In the years since, my repertoire dwindled to the Kalamatiano — that one repetitive dance you are guaranteed to be roped into at any Greek wedding or baptism.

That was until a festive gathering one night last December at the home of my friends Helen Petoussis and Elana Wright. They put on the music and taught all the partygoers the steps to the Syrtos.

They told me enthusiastically about the Cretan dance class they'd joined. "You should join us," they said, and I, wrapped in the glow of good food, good company, and wine, agreed.

Helen was born in Montreal and spent her early years in Crete before moving back here. And somehow, she never got around to learning any of the dances. On family trips home to their village in central Crete, she'd sit them out.

"I'd be like, 'I need to learn these dances,'" she says.

Helen Petoussis and Elana Wright joined the class last fall. (Jonathan Morin/CBC)

Last fall, she saw a post on Facebook about a Cretan dance class near her Montreal home and asked Elana to join with her.

"I was really just humouring her. I was like, I will go along with you for a class or two, really just out of solidarity," Elena says.

Months later, they're still at it. 

Credit for that goes to Vasileios Bourmpounis, our teacher. His enthusiasm is infectious.

"It's so emotional," he explains.

"It's the connection with my roots, with my island Crete, with Greece, with my mother, because she used to be a top dancer when she was young."

Vasileios Bourmpounis, second from right, says teaching Cretan dancing in Montreal helps keep him connected with his roots. (Jonathan Morin/CBC)

Vasileios never expected to end up teaching Cretan dancing in Montreal. But in 2004, at the University of Crete in Rethymno, a Greek-Montrealer caught his eye. She seemed immune to his allure — until the day he brought her to watch him dance at a local festival. They've been together ever since.

For Vasileios, teaching these classes in Montreal maintains his connection with Crete. He also looks on as some of us rediscover ourselves.

"It's the most rewarding thing for me, because I see second, third generation Greeks. They come to classes, and all of a sudden you can see the Greek spirit. It lights up."

Wondering what a Cretan folk dance looks like? Wonder no more:

Hand in hand, a group of Montrealers practise Cretan folk dancing on a Saturday afternoon. 0:44

And sometimes, that Greek spirit lights up in non-Greeks, too.

It was one cold, grey, depressing January day when Beatriz Gomez went looking for something to warm her up. A friend suggested the Spanish-Montrealer give Cretan dancing a try. She tried it, and quickly became hooked on the repetitive steps and the music.

Oh, and on George Peristerakis.

"I met my partner, and as a result of dancing, I also got a baby. Yeah, the power of Cretan dancing," Beatriz says, laughing.

George Peristerakis and Beatriz Gomez met at Cretan dance class. Their daughter Agueda sometimes joins them. (Jonathan Morin/CBC)

In the new year, Helen and Elana held me to my promise to join the dance class.

In a few months, I have learned so much. I have a favourite dance — it's called Anogianos Pidichtos, a war dance. We link our arms across the front, with stamping steps, and there's a thrilling sense of communal power.

I have also learned that in the end, you can't escape who you are. I am embracing what I once rejected. And it feels good.

Anna Asimakopulos will be performing Cretan dances with the group Saturday, June 1, at the Association des Travailleurs Grecs, 5359 Parc Avenue.


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