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Proud Greeks abroad > Eleni’s dance July 22, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greek Diaspora.

The tradition of Greek folk dancing thrives under Eleni Chakalos’ leadership. Eleni Chakalos, also creates the costumes for her dance troupe, the Hellenic Dancers of New Jersey.

The Greek word “glendi” means “happy party” and there are many great big ones going on around the globe organised by the Greeks of Diaspora. Located on the Gulf Coast in west-central Florida, Tarpon Springs last January hosted a pair of events of major significance to Greek Americans:

The first was the Winter Dance Conference, an annual gathering of the top Greek dance troupes in the United States and Canada.

The other was the city’s Epiphany Glendi, an event that marked its 100th anniversary this year with a special visit by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Archbishop of Constantinople, spiritual leader of the worldwide Orthodox Church.

And Long Branch resident Eleni Chakalos and her Holmdel-based dance troupe, the Hellenic Dancers of New Jersey, were in the thick of the action, as usual. Her 20 members of the troupe shared the stage at the 11,000-seat Sun Dome in nearby Tampa with tenor Mario Frangoulis, Greece’s answer to Andrea Bocelli, and the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra.

The performance, which His All Holiness Bartholomew attended, was the latest highlight in the rich history of the Hellenic Dancers. Chakalos and her husband, the Rev. James Chakalos, 82, a Greek Orthodox priest, founded the troupe in 1972 with a handful of dancers at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Asbury Park. Today, the well-traveled troupe, now about 35 strong, is regarded as one of the best in the country.

Being asked to join the troupe, whose male and female members, ages 16 to 44, come from throughout the state, is considered a great honor. It is not unusual for dancers to remain in the group for 10 or more years. Many start troupes of their own when they head off to college or move out of the area.

“We love to dance. We’re all good friends,” said Thomas Kousouris, a 33-year-old union carpenter from Keansburg. He and his twin brother, Peter, of Yonkers, N.Y., have been in the troupe since they were in grade school. You’re spreading your heritage and culture to other people,” said Christie Bontales, 18, of Holmdel.

Greek culture linked to dance > Dance has its place in every culture, but Greek dancing and Greek culture are virtually synonymous, and have been so since long before Plato, who extolled dancing as “the gift of the gods” and the art form that is most beneficial to the soul.

More than 2,400 years later, it remains an open question whether Greeks live to dance or dance to live.

“There’s a dance for everything: mourning, battle, flirting, harvesting,” said Arete Bouhlas, 26, of Highland Park, one of seven assistant directors of the Hellenic Dancers. “Life is a celebration for Greek people.”

In fact, Greek folklorists recognize more than 500 distinct traditional dances, not counting the myriad variations each one has spawned, said John Halkiadakis, co-director of the troupe. Troupe members know in excess of 325 of these dances, he said, and by the time they return from the Winter Dance Conference, which includes workshops with leading dance experts from Greece, they are bound to have added several more to their repertoire.

Halkiadakis, a 24-year-old biologist and part-time graduate student from Edison, assumed the duties of co-director more than a year ago after Eleni Chakalos injured her knees in a fall. Though the injury has forced her to the sidelines during rehearsals for the time being, “I’m going to get better,” she vowed, Chakalos, 79, is still the driving force behind the troupe, the dancers say.

“I would do anything for her, and all of them would, too,” Halkiadakis said of the other troupe members during a rehearsal last week. “She keeps me going.”

Whether it is Chakalos who sustains the Hellenic Dancers or the other way around is another question for Socratic scholars to mull over. This much is certain, though: The troupe is as central to her life as dance is to Greek culture. As soon as the Epiphany events concluded, Eleni turned her focus to the troupe’s annual Taverna show, its main fund-raising event, which was on February 11.

A first-generation Greek American who visited Greece for the first time in the summer of 2004, Chakalos said she learned about five dances as a child. In 1972, the year her husband was ordained and became an assistant at St. George’s, she agreed to teach the dances to a handful of youngsters in the church’s youth program. She said that it was during a performance at a nursing home in Ocean Grove that she recognized the group’s potential.

“When I saw the joy it brought to these people in wheelchairs I was very moved,” she recalled. “I realized then what my future was going to be, and how hard I was going to work to perpetuate our heritage.”

With characteristic single-mindedness, she set out to learn as much as she could about Greek dancing. She attended dance events in Astoria, N.Y., and studied the moves carefully. Afterward, she went to bed practicing them over and over in her mind, and would often wake her husband in the middle of the night to stand up and hold her hand, so she could execute the maneuvers for real.

Costume expertise > Later, when she stumbled upon a treasure trove of traditional costumes at a store in New York City, she pored over the garments to see how they were made. She begged her sister, Estelle Ermides, to teach her to sew, but her sister knew better and refused, fearing Chakalos would do nothing but sew costumes day and night.

Chakalos’ late mother, Ethel Banos, whom she credits for passing on a deep pride in being Greek, came from Mani, a region in the southern part of the Greek mainland where, she said, “the people are very, very tough.” That may well be where Chakalos gets her resolve. Not one to be easily dissuaded, Chakalos simply taught herself. And sure enough, her husband would awaken at 3 in the morning and find her there with a needle and thread, working like a sweat-shop seamstress.

The result of all her sewing and embroidery is a jaw-dropping assortment of more than 600 colorful outfits that span Greece’s rich history and diverse regional traditions. Scores more costumes were ruined more than a year ago when a water pipe burst in the basement of the Holmdel Cultural Center, the troupe’s headquarters, which adjoins the Kimisis Tis Theotokou Greek Orthodox Church on Hillcrest Road in Holmdel. Today the collection is kept in the attic.

“I’m not making any more. I quit!” Chakalos said during a visit to the attic, which can’t accommodate many more dresses, anyway.

Whether or not her dressmaking days have truly ended remains to be seen. Everyone knew Chakalos will be on the lookout for new dance and costume ideas while she was in Tarpon Springs this week. She can’t help herself.

“No I’m not going to retire. I still have a lot to learn,” she conceded. “I know I haven’t covered every (Greek) island, which is why I go to workshops. Maybe I’ll see something new.”

More about Greek dance > Greek dancing generally involves groups of people moving counter clockwise in a circle. The dancers are usually linked to one another by holding hands, wrists, shoulders or a handkerchief.

Greece has six mainland regions and three main groups of islands. Each region and island has a distinctive dancing style. Dances tend to be slow and controlled in Thessaly, for example, whereas in Crete the dancing is fast and dynamic, according to the web site for the Hellenic Information Society (www.nostos.com).

During its trip to Tarpon Springs, Fla., the Hellenic Dancers of New Jersey performed dances from the region of Pontos, which is now part of Turkey. Eleni Chakalos, co-director of the troupe, said she picked Pontos dancing because “it’s the most difficult.” The dances are characterized by militaristic movements and primitive-sounding music.

Friday 6th of January 2006 marked the commemoration of the Epiphany, the Greek word for manifestation or revealing. For Roman Catholics, the Epiphany is associated with the visit of the Magi, or Three Wise Men, to the infant Jesus, whereas Orthodox Christians observe the feast day as a commemoration of Jesus’ baptism at the onset of his public ministry. Tarpon Springs, Fla., known as the sponge-fishing capital of the world, has the highest concentration of Greek Americans in the United States. The city’s Epiphany celebration is the oldest and largest in the country. There are 540 parishes, 800 priests and approximately 1.5 million Greek Orthodox Church members in the United States.

Sources: Hellenic Information Society, Tarpon Springs Epiphany Glendi

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