I started going to the Greek Festival in Tremont when I was just five months old. The festival is a celebration of Greek culture in Cleveland. I grew up going to the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, where the festival is held. Other Greek churches in the Cleveland area also have festivals that happen throughout the summer. This festival falls on Memorial Day weekend at the end of May, and it is where I discovered my passion in life: fitness.
One day at the festival when I was 5, I was playing with a bunch of kids from my church. We met kids from the other Greek communities in the Cleveland area. There was a pair of twin boys that had a younger brother, and they came from a Greek church in Cleveland Heights. My Greek friends and I let them play with us. The younger brother wanted to prove that he was the strongest kid in the group. He went under a table, squatted down, put his neck and upper back against the underside of the table, grabbed on to each side of it with his hands and stood straight up as the legs of the table lifted off the ground. There was an old lady sitting at this table and her food fell all over her. She quickly moved. I then wanted to prove that I could pick the table up too. I had a very scrawny body with long, skinny limbs. I had been gifted with a very fast metabolism so there was no meat on my bones. I tried to pick up the table and it barely budged. I had expected more of myself. After that, we played a lot of racing games and I continuously came in last over and over again. After that day, I told myself that I would one day become stronger than all of the other Greek kids. Now, as a 24-year-old woman, I work as a fitness trainer at the Westlake Recreation Center. I am also a rower and the Cleveland State University Rowing club team, and I have succeeded at being the strongest Greek kid in the group.
At the age of 7, I started Greek school, which is meant to teach Greek children about their parents' culture and language. Greek children attend Greek school usually twice a week after regular school hours. The ultimate indication that the festival was just around the corner was always when our Greek school teachers announced final exams. The last day of Greek school usually fell around the week after the festival. The festival was our time to show the rest of Cleveland how well Greek kids can perform in front of a crowd. Dancing was a way for us to show what our culture was all about. The reason why Greek people love dancing is because we feel that dancing and music is a way that we can express our deepest emotions. There are Greek songs that showcase happiness, sadness, heartbreak, success, strength and humor. We would dance two to four times each day of the festival in front of our crowd. We were fed by the mothers and grandmothers of our church, and our dressing rooms also served as our resting stations. Dancing during the festival felt like a marathon on our agile bodies.
If I wasn’t performing, I was either working or running around with my friends. When we entered the age to do GOYA (Greek Orthodox Youth Association) we had to help volunteer to work. GOYA is a youth group for Greek kids between the ages 12-18. Each Greek church also has a basketball team that competes against each other churches at tournaments three times each winter. Outside of tournaments, GOYA youth groups would help their church and their local communities at various events. They would also participate in a religious camp during the summer in Pennsylvania called Camp Nazareth. I remember that I was always physically active throughout the whole day of the festival. When I had the attention span to dance for fun during the night, I loved letting my stress just float away as the sounds of the music and the euphoric colors of the disco lights would move my body. Without the help of instructors, I taught myself to be a gifted dancer at the festival by just feeling the music flow through my veins. I had perfected this technique after I graduated Greek school. Other Greeks and non-Greeks would come up to me and praise me for this technique. People would ask me how I became such a good dancer and I would respond that I just go with the flow. They would look at me funny because my dancing seemed didn't seem that way. It was very poised, strong, graceful, fast and explosive. The festival taught me that my flow is not like water, but instead it's my powerful like fire.
I stopped performing at the Annunciation Tremont Greek Festival after I graduated Greek school at 15 because I converted basketball teams to Saint Demetrios in Rocky River. I became very active at that church and I had completely neglected my roots at the Annunciation Greek Festival for a few years. This meant that I would be a dancer for Saint Demetrios instead. I kept this up for about 4 years until I went to see my brother perform in the adult dance group at the Annunciation festival. When I saw him dancing, I realized that for years I had strayed away from my mother church. I felt like something in my heart was missing. Why can’t I be part of two churches? I thought. So, I did just that. I signed up to be part of the Annunciation Tremont adult group when I was about 20 years old. I danced with this dance group for 2 years straight. I made deep, lifelong connections with every member of that dance group, including our dance instructor. When I turned 22, our dance instructor wanted to take a break from teaching. I then joined the Cretan dance group of Cleveland. For those of you who don’t know, there are many cultural Greek dance groups all across America. Cultural Greek dance groups are different than regular Greek dance groups because they only focus on dances and customs from one area of Greece. The Cretan dance group only performed dances from the island of Crete. As an adult, I only danced in the Cretan club for one year.
I had to quit performing altogether because I started to train for my rowing team 6 days a week, Monday through Saturdays, and on Sundays we had 3-hour long dance practices. My body was just getting run-down and over-worked so I had to stop for my own health. I also stopped because I was bored with Greek dancing altogether. The reason for this is because as a woman, you cannot evolve in Greek dancing. Although Greek dancing is fun, there are specific moves reserved for men and women. When women perform solos, they are allowed to show off how poised and graceful they are. They can spin in circles and gracefully dance around like a beautiful little fairy. There was very little room for my fiery style. Men however, were allowed to jump high, do flips, dance on the backs of chairs and jump off of them, and dance on beer bottles (yes I said on beer bottles). By my early 20's, I realized how mad this made me so I strayed away from performing after the age of 23. At the festivals, people would ask me over and over again, “Why aren’t you performing anymore? Everybody enjoys watching you dance.” I would give them the half-truth and tell them that I was too busy. But the reality is because I also cannot stand being physically restrained from truly expressing myself.
Now I participate in the festival as a bartender behind the outside bar under the tent. I love working as a bartender because I like seeing people get pumped and excited. Unfortunately, the Greek festivals are not as exciting to me as they used to be when I was a young, pure soul with an innocent spirit. I cannot spend all day, every day at the festivals anymore because some days I have to wake up early and go to work or train. The festivals taught me many things. However, I have learned two important lessons these past few years. The first lesson is that looking at the world with the wonder and excitement of a child can keep our lives from feeling dull and mundane. Also, I learned that following certain gender norms can cause us to feel restrained and helpless. This is why I stopped performing. Dancing is fun, but I am a woman with a lot of natural power and energy. Greek dancing does not allow women to show their power and fiery energy while performing. Maybe I should be the one to break tradition.
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