Greek Dancers of the Monterey Peninsula
Greek America Article
The following article was published in issue 7.3, 2002 of Greek America Magazine along with several pictures from our website. We would like to thank Greek America for honoring our humble group! Article re-produced here by permission of Greek America Magazine, all rights reserved.
Philhellenes Sharing Greek Culture
The scene is a familiar one. Traditional Greek music plays. Dancers dance. The audience claps. Cries of "OPA!". The swirl of a Foustanella here, a flash of an Amalia there. Tsarouxia drumming an ancient rythym on the dance floor. Sibilant hisses from both audience and dancers.
This is the local Greek Orthodox Church's youth dance group performing at the annual Greek festival. Or is it? There's something about this group that doesn't fit the usual Greek dance group mold. Perhaps, it is when the audience notices that many members of the group are in their 60's and 70's. Perhaps it is when a whisper runs through the audience "Can you believe that NONE of these dancers are Greek?" These are the Greek Village Dancers of the Monterey Peninsula, a group of philhellenes who love Greek dance and culture. Their home base is Monterey, California.
The group was founded by the late Maxine Myer, herself a philhellene, in 1978. Maxine had been a member of the Yassou Greek Dancers in Oakland, California before she started the Monterey Peninsula group. Maxine is well remembered by the old timers of the group. She hosted a radio show "Maxine's Greek Adventure Hour" on a local radio station for a number of years. She also would actually apologize for "not being Greek"!
Maxine led the dancers for 12 years until the current leader, Darold Skerritt, took over instruction duties and group leadership in 1990. Maxine passed away in 1991, but the dance skills, the kefi, and the comraderie she instilled in the group lives on to this day.
Although membership has always been primarily comprised of non-Greeks, Greeks have played pivotal roles in the formation and history of the group. The late Aphrodite "Aphro" Recupero, for instance, designed and made the first women's dance costumes based on a Thracian design. Several Greeks have given "guest teacher seminars" to the group over the years.
There were originally two separate performance groups: The Hellenic Dancers of the Monterey Peninsula and The Greek Village Dancers. The Hellenic Dancers of the Monterey Peninsula consisted of a small group of advanced students. They wore a variety of authentic Greek costumes and performed for major local community events, specializing in the more difficult dances.
The Greek Village Dancers included all students who had completed the beginning Greek folk dance classes. The women of this group wore the costume designed by Aphro Recupero. The men wore the typical 'Taverna' costume, comprised of simple dark trousers, traditional white Greek shirts, and red sashes. They performed primarily for convalescent hospitals and similar venues, bringing Hellenic cheer to many.
The two performing groups now have merged, since eventually membership overlap was almost total. Now called the Greek Village Dancers of the Monterey Peninsula, they specialize in the dances of Greece, with a few from neighboring countries as well.
The dancers perform frequently in many venues. As you would expect, they are a welcome addition to the local Monterey and Santa Cruz Greek festivals. In recent years, they have expanded their territory to include the Roseville Greek festival, 200 miles away! They also frequently perform at various charity events, convalescent hospitals and retirement homes, and local festivals of all types. Performances are always free of charge.
Many dancers particularly enjoy performing at convalescent hospitals and similar institutions. One dancer reports "The elderly really love us and the fact that we take time out to come visit them. They love to ask questions about the dances, our costumes, and reminisce about trips to Greece they have taken."
Although the original Village Dancer's costume is still frequently employed, in recent years there has been a re-emphasis on ethnic costumes. In contrast to many dance groups who prefer to costume everyone in similar costumes, the Monterey group has taken the opposite approach by each member selecting a costume that appeals to them. Thus they have the Cretan Vrakas, worn by group leader Darold Skerritt, which he purchased in Greece; as well as a Poukamisa from Corinth, a festival costume and a black Foustanella from Epiros, an Amalia, a Karagouna bridal dress, a festival dress from Skiros, a pair of different Thracian women's costumes, and the famous white Foustanella of the Evzones. One of the dancers, who was given the name "Zorba" in reference to his love of Greek culture, likes to relate the following story:
"We had finished a performance at a local retirement home and I had a line of about six ladies who wanted to talk to me about my Foustanella. At the end of the line was an elderly man, who related the following story when he made it up to the head of the line: 'Your costume brings back memories. I was in the British Navy during World War II, helping evacuate Greek regulars off the south coast of Crete who had been pushed south from the mainland by the Germans. They were mostly wearing the Foustanella, and were very brave and fierce fighters. They didn't want to leave, even in the face of overwhelming odds. We practically had to throw them bodily into the boats. We took them to Alexandria, where we dressed them in British Army fatigues with special "Hellenic Forces" arm patches we had made up. The Greeks were furious at having to wear something as effeminate as pants!'" "Zorba" loves his foustanella and adds "Every man should wear one of these, they are far more comfortable, and certainly look far better than a suit and tie!"
Another dancer, Joanna, who has both Karagouna and Amalia costumes, relates "I feel honored to wear the Queen's costume". Group leader Darold Skerritt says "I feel proud wearing my Cretan costume". Dancer Steven Gee adds "I feel that I am representing Greece and promoting Greek culture when in my costume".
Greece has had a large impact on many of the dancers. Several have been to Greece numerous times, and have enjoyed dancing there, often to the amazement of the locals who aren't used to seeing tourists dance. A few have learned enough Greek to "get by" and enjoy trying their language skills when interacting with the greater Greek community. All the dancers know at last a few words of Greek as dance calls are generally made in Greek. Darold relates "My wife and I had the joy of dancing with the villagers in Delphi on Easter Sunday".
One immediately notices that this group isn't comprised of kids or "gen-Xers'. In fact, the oldest member of the group is a lady of 92, and danced regularly until last year when an accident prevented her continuance. She expects to resume dancing shortly. However, "young blood", people in their 30's and 40's are coming into the group. These dancers will ensure the group's heritage continues un-abated in the coming decades.
Many of the dancers have been performing Greek dances for decades, most of these dancers started with Maxine when the group was founded in 1978. One dancer, Joanna, started Balkan dancing in the early 1960's, and quickly gravitated towards Greek dance. She had the honor of dancing with Melini Mercouri at a party many years ago.
Many of the dancers are involved with other dance forms as well. Israeli, Middle Eastern, Swing, Country Western, and "Alta-California" (Dances of California of the 1840's) are among the other dances a number of the members are involved with.
The group enjoys excellent relations with the Greek community at large, being invited to perform at various Greek festivals, both local and distant. They are always invited to the annual Orthodox Easter Sunday picnic as well. Many Greeks state that they are honored by the dancer's love of Greece and Greek culture. In turn, the dancers are grateful that most Greeks love to share their heritage.
Although many dance groups are involved with folk dance competitions, the Monterey group is not. They feel their mission is to share the joy of the dance, and that competitions can detract from the joy, or "kefi". Dancer Pat Bates says "You can tell we have more fun than a lot of groups. Isn't that what dancing is all about?" Certainly, there are a lot of smiles on member's faces when dancing!
A commonly held feeling among the dancers is the feeling that the group is extended family. Dancing is a passion to many as well as a social outlet. "My fellow dancers are my family: mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters."
The wide range of Greek dances is astounding, and the group enjoys quite a wide repitoire. In addition to such popular and often seen dances such as Syrto, Hassapiko, Tsamiko, and Kritiko Syrto, the group dances seldom and rarely seen dances. These include Menousis, Laziko, and Pogonissios. They dance Karagouna in a rarely seen form, the men dance behind the women for most of the dance, then join into one line for the end.
As most of the group is not of Greek heritage, care is taken to keep the dances authentic. All the dances were learned from various Greek sources, and video tapes and interactions with the Greek community and other dance groups help ensure authenticity. Several have had the pleasure of attending performances by the famed Dora Stratou Dancers in Athens.
A real crowd pleaser is their choreography called "Zorba", a syrtaki danced to the theme from "Zorba the Greek". Greeks and non-Greeks alike clap along with the music and yell "OPA!" as this popular dance is performed. "Zorba" always wraps up any Village Dancers' performance.
The Greek Village Dancers invite you to peruse their website at: http://www.greekdancemonterey.org where you will find information on the dancers, the dances, upcoming performances, past performances, and lots of pictures!
Now going for almost 24 years, the Greek Village Dancers of the Monterey Peninsula look forward to another quarter century of sharing and enjoying Hellenic culture. OPA!