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SPOTLIGHT:
DANCE AND THE CITY
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Dance and the City: My Big Fat Greek Festival

by Rachel Levin
September 12, 2004
Los Angeles, CA

Dance and the City: My Big Fat Greek Festival

Rachel Levin
September 12, 2004

For a single girl looking for dance and romance, Greek culture may have it all. Perhaps because of the legacy of Zeus and the Olympics, Greek men have inherited a reputation for being earthly gods and athletic Adonises. To add to the mystique, they are known to dance fervently, locked arm in arm with one another, staggering in a rhythmic circle. Granted, they sometimes smash plates in the process, but that's just more evidence of their passionate nature.

When I saw an ad for the annual Los Angeles Greek Fest, the promise of dancing Greek Adonises was enough to lure me for a Saturday night of Zorba demonstrations and spanakopita. Opa!

The temperature in L.A. reached upward of 90 degrees and humid on Saturday, so I was delighted to get out off my stuffy apartment into the balmy night air. My friends and I arrived at sunset, and the city looked beautiful. The Greek Orthodox Church, St. Sophia, was lit up, and her green domes were set against a sky of pink clouds. The blue and white awnings and tiny white lights of the festival reminded me of my visit to the whitewashed villages of the Greek island of Santorini.

We first hit the food booths, where we piled our plates with Greek salad, feta cheese, lamb souvlaki, rice pilaf, spanakopita, and tyropita. The handsome man who rang me up for my food wore a nametag that read "Odysseus." Are Greek men actually named after epic figures? I wondered. Here I thought the whole Greek hero thing was just a single girl's fantasy.

"So," I said to him, "is your name really Odysseus?"

"Yes, it is," he replied. I thought maybe he understood the irony until he said, earnestly, "I didn't steal my nametag from anyone."

Clearly, he didn't get the joke. But alas, Odysseus was stuck behind the cash register for the night, with the earthly task of totaling prices of phyllo dough delights. I'd have to look elsewhere for my dancing Greek god.

We shared our dinner table with a quartet of Greek senior citizens who plopped themselves down without so much as a kind inquiry about whether the seats were taken. But they were old, and they were Greek, so what could we do? One of the elderly gentlemen started speaking to me in Greek.

"I'm sorry, sir," I said. "I only speak English."

"Only English?" he said. "You're not Greek?"

"No, no. I'm not Greek," I said.

"Yes you are," he said, shaking a bony finger at me. "You're Greek!"

"Do I look Greek?" I said, flattered.

"Greek!" he said, smiling and still shaking the finger.

I realized how often I get mistaken for foreign ethnicities. My father is Russian Jewish and my mother is French, so somehow the combination of my Semitic-Southern European features gets mistaken for all manner of Mediterranean/Caribbean identities. In Spain, they thought I was Spanish. Sometimes people think I'm Israeli; others swear I'm Cuban. Brazilians regularly address me in Portuguese. But this was the first time I'd ever been identified as Greek. Maybe, I realized, my cultural chameleon status is why I love dance so much. Put me in a samba nightclub in Rio or wrap me in a flamenco shawl: I want to get as close as possible to the movement of a culture, and blend in.

To my surprise, when the festival's dancing started, it wasn't Greek. It was salsa. The MC explained that the Greek community had partnered with the Latino community to make this event possible. He pointed out a neon sign that blazed blue atop a nearby building. It read, "Welcome to the Byzantine-Latino Quarter." What a romantic name for an L.A. neighborhood, I thought. The concept that L.A. even has "quarters" makes it sound like more of a real city than it actually is. (Other possible names for L.A. quarters occurred to me: "The $5 Million-$10 Million Home Quarter," "The Hummer-S.U.V. Quarter," "The Double Half-Caf Nonfat Latte Quarter.") But with more Latinos than Greeks in this neighborhood, the Byzantine-Latino nomiker made sense. It was fine by me. More dancing men!

I was asked to dance by what appeared to be a non-Byzantine, non-Latino man. But considering that looks are deceiving, I couldn't be sure. It was my first time dancing salsa in over a year, and I was a little nervous. Did I still have what it takes? Would this man be able to lead me?

Since the band had just started, the dance floor was still nearly empty. It felt like my partner and I were about to give a performance of sorts to the crowd seated around the floor enjoying ouzo and margaritas.

And what a performance it was! My partner was an expert lead. After I warmed up, it felt like I had never taken a break from salsa. I was still a little rough around the edges with the advanced steps he tried, but the turns and cross body leads felt as smooth as honey. After several songs, we took a break, and I was glowing from my dance high. I hadn't felt that in so long.

A woman came up to me (Greek? Latina? I couldn't tell) and said, "You're a great dancer! You're really good." In any language and culture, that's one of the best compliments I could ever receive.

It turns out my expert partner was actually a professional dance teacher. No wonder he was such a competent lead! His dance interests spanned the globe from Israel to Argentina, and spanned the centuries from 19th Century England to the Roaring Twenties. But he himself was American, a native Los Angeleno, and Jewish.

Though I didn't feel attracted to him romantically (sigh!), and he didn't dance hip-hop (one of my current requirements for a romantic partner), he did seem to offer everything I'd want in a dancing companion. A new dance friendship - if that's possible between a single man and a single woman - was sparked.

By the time the Greek dancing started, my friends and I were tired from the salsa dancing, and had eaten so much that we felt like a bunch of stuffed dolmas. So I never danced with the hot Greek man of my fantasies, but the night was still as sweet as a baklava pastry. Next year, I thought. There's always next year.

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