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  Nr. 114 - May 2008
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Twenty Years of Tradition

by Michael Hockaday, May 2008
During 2008, the Folkdance Group of Naoussa, (XON), is celebrating its 20th year of success in performing the traditional dances of the Aegean, and those of Paros in particular. As stated in their first publication, printed in 1994, the XON’s mission is “to keep alive, by way of performances, the traditional dances presented at weddings, festivities and gatherings, plus to learn and display those dances local to the other islands of Greece.” Therefore, to accomplish such a worthy goal, a group of dedicated individuals formed in 1988, and since their union have enjoyed many laurels in the field of traditional dancing.

As a member of the International Dance Council of UNESCO, which encourages people from many countries to share the gifts of traditional cultures such as dance, music, art, and drama, the Naoussa group has performed and won awards in numerous countries besides Greece; in France, Tunisia, Turkey and Finland, to name just a few. Two early successes came about in collaboration with the European Union, when, in 1994, the group organized and hosted the Traditional Greek Dances Seminar, followed in 1996 by the Lyres of Greece and their Dances Seminar. Two years later, the XON was asked to offer the first Cycladic Folkdance, Music and Tradition Festival, a multi-cultural event which proved instrumental in the group’s educational and inspirational growth.

More recently, the XON organized the Parian Folkdance Groups Panorama in 2003 and to date it has invited and hosted 35 folkdance groups from Greece and abroad.

I met the current Chairman, Michalis Theodorakos, in the small yet well-organized office of the XON’s headquarters in Naoussa recently. I was immediately impressed by his genuine friendliness and interest in sharing all he could about traditional dances, and the group’s commitment to dancing those particularly Parian.

Though this young man in his mid-30’s seemed shy about his own importance in the XON, I was not put off from asking the pertinent questions concerning what I conceived to be his vital role in the group’s success. I never doubted his humility, when, throughout our interview, Michalis lauded the efforts of all the members, making special mention of the founder and guiding light of the XON, Maria Tripolitsiotou-Tsounaki, the first President, dance instructor, and now Honourary President.

Michalis became President of the XON in 2005. Primarily, he is in charge of public relations and press releases. In addition, he helps organize events, substitutes as a dance instructor when needed, and is one of the dancers. None of the Board of Directors are paid; their services are rendered out of love for keeping traditional dances alive on Paros.

What, I wondered, got him started in dancing?

“I’ve been involved in traditional dance since junior high school,” Michalis answered. “People in this culture grow up seeing the dances performed at weddings and other special occasions. I was always interested in dancing for as long as I can remember. Later, I got involved in administration to help solve some of the problems that naturally arise in such a venture and to help keep it going and growing.”

Michalis has lived on Paros since he was five, when his parents returned from Athens. After earning a degree in Media and Communications from the University of Athens, he served in the army for 18 months and returned to the island in 1999, when he was first elected to the XON board.

“Where,” I asked, “or from whom did you receive the inspiration to become involved in keeping these dances alive?”

“My parents were a major factor. Both liked traditional and folk music very much. There were always many kinds of music playing in our household, Greek, international, you name it. But I remember one moment especially as a turning point. It was in 1982 when an album with new recordings of local folk songs by Yannis Parios was released. It was so exciting: our own Parian ballads becoming so well known all over Greece! That really stirred my interest in local music. Also, the fact that people on Paros were still dancing all those traditional dances. Even at our parties, along with the pop hits of the era, there was always the Ballos (the most popular traditional couples dance of the islands). It began to dawn on me how special it is. When I had the opportunity to learn these dances, I grabbed it!”

This direction, Michalis informed me, arose during the “Renaissance” of Greek traditional dancing during the 1980’s. Many groups formed and a new wave of performing the old dances swept through Greece. Previously, the military junta of 1967-74 had negatively influenced the perception of traditional dance for many Greeks. The colonels were seen on television joining in the dances and many who watched them were troubled by the media presentations. A dark time for traditional dance settled over the land.

Thankfully, that era is long past. Moving onward, Michalis and I discussed some of the origins of Greek dances, plus the expression of dance itself, the need for humans to come together and integrate their musical rhythms in physical expression. It seems the roots of what has since flowered into the modern tree of traditional dancing is as old and probably older than the dawn of recorded history. And especially for the island cultures of Greece, the eternal movement of the sea is a primal factor in the creation of dancing.

In the XON’s first publication, four definitions of dance are suggested. The one I like the best is: “a type of language, a language of the body... which a dancer discovers and uses to express joy, sadness, love, heartache and passion.”

Though not specifically Parian, the Trata hold, the crossed position of the hands of fisherman pulling in their catch by gathering their nets, “was unknowingly almost instinctively re-enacted as people danced, since labour is followed by celebration, sowing by reaping.” In a likewise manner, the circular movement of the threshing ground found expression in the earliest dances. “Round and round, toiling and rejoicing... the art of dance ties together the earth, sea, and man.” And of course, I must add, the woman! And let’s not forget the drinking of wine as a major contributor.

These, then, are the basic roots of dance: the sea and earth, the catch and crops, weddings and harvest gatherings and other special celebrations performed spontaneously by local dancers and musicians, whether on the shore or around the fire. Something special always happens when I link my hands with others in the Trata: I experience an ancient bonding, a sense of something so right, so powerful. Though I am still such a beginner, I try to move with the group, wobbling, uncertain, and then the group is moving me. I let go a bit and suddenly the ancient wonder of communal movement fills and thrills me. My dance instructor smiles at me, knowingly, and I am charged with affirmation!

Having honoured and built upon that firm, historical foundation, the XON is currently a strong and productive organization. The annual operating costs of 15,000 euros a year on average are met by a number of funding sources. Paid performances, at least three a year, earn the group seven euros per ticket. The current members each pay 20 euros a year. The largest single contributor, the Municipality of Paros, donates nearly 4,000 euros a year (since 2005). Stipends from the Greek government (Cyclades Prefecture and Eparchio of Paros, in particular) help sponsor specific dance events. A little math reveals that the XON’s effort to keep the old dances of Paros alive is ever a work-in-progress.

“So,” I ventured, “no one’s making money beyond the cost of operation?”

“That’s right,” said Michalis, “we do it because we love to dance. We are always available for dancing.”

I asked him to tell me a little about the nature of membership, and especially about the group’s trip to Finland in the fall of 2007. Michalis explained that the younger kids are trained until they are mature enough in skill and looks at around 15-18 years of age to join the adults in the performances. Children are participants but are not required to pay dues. There is no age limit to membership, but the focus is on the adults, because “the paying public wants and deserves to see the best and most professional performance for their money.”

“What is the ratio of men to women in the group?”

“There are never enough men as we would like, usually one man to every two or three women. Therefore, the women form a subgroup of about 25 dancers.”

The trip to the Finland Dance Festival was the highlight of last year, at least for the 24 dancers who attended, each one paying their own way.

“We were the first Greek group to perform in the area. It was a great experience of multi-cultural exchanges,” Michalis added. “and a very well organized event.”

“What was the highlight of the 10 day trip?”

“Performing our Parian dances in the Finnish Parliament. That was the best, I think.”
I asked Michalis if it seemed there was a lack of children stepping up to help preserve this ancient art of dance nowadays. His reaction is one I hear from many people involved in preserving the performing arts, and even such personal pastimes as reading and writing.

He said, “I am concerned that kids today are so busy with all sorts of things and do not have enough free time to simply enjoy themselves. Many of them are also spending so much time on the computer, on the Internet and playing video games.” Indeed, we agreed it is a concern of global importance.

But take note if you are concerned, and a parent especially. Due to the worthy efforts of the group’s laographic committee, the XON has published a wonderful instructional book on children’s games, complete with photos and directions on how to play them.

A current celebration of these 20 years of successes is the group’s new calendar “Kalantari 2008” featured in the March 2008 issue of Paros Life. Though calendars have a short shelf-life, this one is for the ages. It is gorgeous, a work of photogenic artistry. Living Parians are depicted at work and play in scenes of the older days on Paros, each month an “authentic” portraiture of a way of life that, though it passes, is still honoured through remembrance.

The XON commends the expertise of photographer Stavros Niflis plus the work of Panagiotis Spirou & Marousso Kontaratou (both dance instructors of the group along with Kostas Flakas) and Argyro Petropoulou for the project's design and supervision. Thanks too for the generous sponsorship of Blue Star Ferries which helped make this volume possible. The calendar is available for sale at shops in the centre of Naoussa and from the XON directly: call 22840-52971 or email info@paros-xon.gr. A nice touch is seeing Maria Tripolitsiotou-Tsounaki, the group's founder, striding through the golden fields of November, leading a laden donkey.

Wearing the exact copies of costumes worn by Parians of the 16th century, and also several traditional costumes from various Greek regions, the dancers of the XON perform in the courtyard of the central church in Naoussa and elsewhere on Paros throughout the summer. Scheduled performances in front of the Cathedral of the Panagia in Naoussa are on 28 June, 20 July, and 14 September. There will be an Easter Sunday dance in Naoussa's central square. Also, on 22 August, the group will celebrate the Enniamera at the port of Naoussa. But long before that, everyone is invited to help celebrate the XON’s 20th anniversary on April 30th at the Aghios Athanasios Church in Naoussa (the Byzantine Museum), where a special mass will be held at 7pm. More events – including a June performance in Lefkes and a special event in August – will be announced soon. For more information, check the brand new official XON website which will soon be operational at www.paros-xon.gr

So come and see the dancers of the XON perform the traditional dances of Greece and Paros. You will be moved by the ancient power and dignity of the Ayeranos, the dance of the Labyrinth, called “the human circle without beginning or end,” a unique experience unaccompanied by musical instruments. Enjoy a Parian wedding dance, which “represents the flowing current of a river which meets obstacles in its path, meanders around them, but never stops.”

The time had come to end the interview, but I had saved what may have been the most difficult question till last, simplistic maybe, yet I had to ask it.

“Why, Michalis, is it so important to keep these old dances alive on Paros?”

“It’s a vital part of our identity. I believe that the more symbolic the steps, the more original they are. I want to keep it simple; it’s the proper form. These dances began as just impulsive expressions, so it has to be kept simple in terms of preservation.

Thematically, the group tries to perform dances just as they were and not create new choreographies to "modernize" these forms for the public, as many groups are doing. I think, too, that in order to proceed to the future, you have to know your past.”

“And what’s the best part of dancing and of being a part of the XON’s performances for you especially?”

“The kids. I feel really good when I see the children just naturally singing or dancing, playing and improvising, all together or in their own smaller groups, even after the end of a performance. This is our best reward: seeing our children still dancing and singing and enjoying themselves.”
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