Two summers ago, when Kyriaki Tsigkounis returned to Greece after five years away, she was eager to rekindle her rapport with her cousins. One commonality that helped smooth over the awkward period? Greek folk dance.
Since she was 6, Tsigkounis has been learning regional dances at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Church in Pasadena.
Now 19, she has mastered the moves from her parents’ homeland. She belongs to Pyrkagia, or “fire,” the church’s young-adult dance troupe and one of several competitive coed dance teams offered there.
Where most Greeks pick up a handful of national dances and perhaps the distinct style of their native region — the dance equivalent of a local dialect — Tsigkounis has built up a repertoire of steps from across Greece’s diverse ethnographic regions.
During vacation, when family afternoon picnics on Crete inevitably evolved into dance parties, she jumped in. Her Greek cousins were floored.
“They’re like, ‘You know this?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I learned it in America, through my church,’” Tsigkounis says.
“They’re surprised, they think it’s cool. My cousin is learning a whole bunch of dances too now.”
Today, St. Anthony’s teams head to San Diego to compete in the Greek Orthodox Folk Dance & Choral Festival, or FDF.
The annual event, held Feb. 16-19 and sponsored by the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco, is the largest Greek dance competition on the West Coast, drawing church teams from as far away as Seattle, New York and New Jersey.
Pyrkagia dancers have placed at the festival the past several years. Their junior high counterparts, Spitha, or “spark,” currently reign as defending champions in their age group.
But at St. Anthony’s, where the dance program has survived more than 40 years and now numbers about 75 dancers, competition comes second to cultural preservation and faith. In the Los Angeles Greek community, the two are firmly intertwined.
Tsigkounis’ mother, Kathy, grew up in Southern California after her parents emigrated from Greece via Australia.
“Where did we find more Greeks? More Greeks are at the churches,” she says. “Because you’re not going to have them as your neighbor, especially here in California. We’re pretty spread out.”
Greek immigrants arriving to the United States in the late 19th century faced a language barrier and often discrimination, says Anthony Shay, an associate professor of theater and dance at Pomona College, who has profiled Greece’s national dance company, Dora Stratou.
Local churches served as safe spaces, later evolving into vibrant outposts of Greek cultural and family life.
But as third and fourth generations assimilated to American culture and Greek language skills waned, churches jumpstarted youth dance programs to hook the faithful early.
“Now, learning dances from different regions of Greece becomes a way for Greek-American youngsters to learn about the culture of Greece,” he says.
“It’s a way of keeping them involved in the church and its activities, and hopefully finding a marriage partner in the process.”
Each Sunday, the Tsigkounis family treks 45 minutes west to Pasadena, passing three other Greek Orthodox churches along the way. Kathy and her husband chose St. Anthony’s for its youth programs like Greek dance, which she learned as a girl.
For Greeks, dancing arises naturally from the joy of communal gatherings, she says. “There’s always a celebration. Life is celebration. Living is celebration.”
Kathy’s brother lost touch with his Orthodox heritage once he married outside the church.
Her husband was born in Greece, and they both want their kids to grow up engaged with their roots.
“You don’t have to be Orthodox to hold onto the culture, but boy — keeping the faith and keeping the culture, it really does help to keep both together,” she says.
Events like the Folk Dance Festival encourage that aim by mingling traditional culture and socializing with religious instruction.
During the competition, teams attend a welcome invocation, religious workshops and Sunday morning services. Absences from these activities can lower team scores — a serious penalty at an event where a tenth of a point can divide first and second place.
Andrianna Lareau, a 12-year-old on the Spitha team, thrives on the competition.
After seven years attending the festival, she still gets a rush performing for the judges.
But the best part comes afterward, she says: “We don’t only compete, we also have parties every night.”
Her instructor, Georgia Giannoulias, is in her first year directing Spitha. A veteran dancer, she carefully reviews YouTube footage and meets with experts from Greece to verify proper technique and styling.
The team spends months preparing routines and sewing authentic costumes like the males’ foustanella, a white pleated skirt whose 400 folds symbolize the four centuries Greeks spent under Turkish rule.
At the Folk Dance Festival, Spitha will showcase a series of dances from Thessalia, a region in central Greece.
Unlike island dancing, with its light steps and wavelike rocking, dancers from the mainland stay more grounded, with proud chests and straight backs.
That kind of technique matters in competition, Giannoulias says. But most important is displaying kefi.
“It’s the sense of connection, the joy you get out of the dance, the joy you get out of dancing with other people. It’s not a solo dance. We dance together.”
Shay, the dance professor, says folk dance has fallen out of favor in urban Greece, where modern youth look askance at what they consider an old-fashioned art form — now slickly packaged for tourists.
“But among people in the countryside, it’s far more commonplace, and a very organic part of their lives,” he says. Among Greek-Americans, who feel the need to assert their ethnic ties to the motherland, its pull is even stronger.
On a recent Sunday night, Giannoulias coaxed the girls through “Kiria Veriotisa,” a ballad about mothers and daughters, whose dance is performed in a circle with fluttering handkerchiefs.
Other traditional songs recount the harvest cycle, love stories and the dangers of trusting Turkish strangers.
Many students don’t speak Greek, so Giannoulias translates the lyrics and explains the story.
When teaching a new dance, she often pulls out a map of Greece to show them where it originates.
“As we get older, a lot of the things keep disappearing, things that were culturally and religiously part of the church,” Giannoulias says.
“Yes, the culture part is still there, but it’s almost like it’s slowly slipping away. I want to hold onto this, and I want them to hold onto it.”