On the island of Cyprus, I was treated to a razzle-dazzle show-stopper that made me laugh, cry, clap my hands and stomp my feet. Occurring at the close of a two-week stay in this eastern Mediterranean country, it was a glorious grand finale to a fortnight-long feast of culture.
My husband Tom and I had made the half-hour foray to the town of Geroskipou five kilometers east of Paphos to watch a troupe of school children perform traditional Greek dances. The excursion was “field work” for a story I was developing on how Cypriot folk art is being kept alive. Normally, it was precisely the kind of window into a culture I relish, but this particular evening found me over-tired and preoccupied with the logistics of our long journey home.
We navigated the town’s busy main street lined with workshops that produce loukoumia, or Turkish Delight, a local sugary confection, and found a parking spot across from the village square. The plaza was a large rectangle, anchored on its far left corner by Agia Paraskevi, a 9th century Byzantine church capped with five domes in the shape of a cross.
On the far right corner of the park was Katsonouris Supermarket. Modern fountains adorned the sides of the square, and a semi-circle of tiered stone seats rose above the pool of water on the right. The plaza’s perimeter was lined with cafes and pockets of palm and pine trees. At the edge of the square along the road, a smattering of young teenagers acrobatically passed a soccer ball back and forth, while others breezed by on skateboards.
We were told to arrive at 7:30 p.m. and, running a few minutes late, I was worried we would miss the beginning of the recital. Fortunately, my fretting was as usual ungrounded. Rows of empty chairs sat expectantly facing a vacant stage area, squared off by klieg lights glowing softly in the waning daylight. Squinting, I spied three small figures twirling in circles to the right of the stage and tentatively moved toward them as though drawn into their orbit by gravitational pull.
Nearing them, I was enchanted to see a trio of young boys who appeared to be between 3 -5 years of age, facing in the opposite direction, with their backs to me. Garbed in crisp white shirts under black jumpers, they each held aloft a tambourine-like disc. As I came within a few feet, they simultaneously turned to look at me with solemn faces, somehow alerted I had entered their force-field.
Despite being a practiced photographer and certified “people person,” (I have the paperwork!) I have never gotten comfortable with asking complete strangers if I can take their picture, for fear that I will somehow intrude or insult them. My self-consciousness was not in any way alleviated by my potential subjects being toddlers. As a childless middle-aged woman, I often feel out of my element interacting with little people, their small statures making me feel even more awkward and clumsy than usual in my almost-six-foot frame.
I crouched down and asked “Can I take your picture?” The boys responded with curious stares. I realized they didn’t speak English and muttering “what the hell,” I started shooting. Snapping away, I began coaxing them to smile and, language barrier aside, they broke into grins. I shot them as a group, I shot each one of them individually, then I zoomed in and took close-ups of their faces. Within minutes we were old friends, all four of us laughing.
I paused and, separating from the camera’s viewfinder, looked around me, involuntarily taking in a sharp breath and a step back. I was surrounded by dozens of kids, dressed in either fluorescent orange t-shirts, or rich satiny turquoise tops. The scores of children engulfed me, with open and eager smiles lighting up their faces. I felt such a palpable wave of welcome, tears sprang to my eyes.
I understood instantly what was expected of me and was delighted to comply, feeling a warm glow of gratitude in my chest that fortune chose such a happy intersection of interests. The young performers and I embarked on a dance of our own, of poses and pirouettes by both parties. As I clicked, ducked, squatted and angled off, the adolescent girls vogued and vamped with abandon, while the boys stood shoulder to shoulder, their smiles alternately proud and shy.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a tall, stocky man barreling toward me, an agitated expression on his face. I gripped my camera more tightly and said a silent “uh-oh,” certain I was about to be admonished. Instead, in a thick accent the man exclaimed that the photographer he had hired to record the performance hadn’t shown up. He excitedly beseeched me to take a portrait of the group before the light faded completely. I emphatically nodded my agreement, and laughed out loud, rejoicing in the unexpected affirmation from the Universe that I was apparently exactly where I was meant to be.
The man was joined by another, and together they began corralling the kids into the rows of concrete seats by the fountain. As the group was being gathered, I saw a steady stream of townspeople begin to flow into the square and take their seats in front of the stage. Old women in black with kerchiefs on their head hobbled in on canes, young mothers wheeled baby carriages, middle-aged couples pulled toddlers on to their laps, and teenagers jostled each other for the best seats.
Turning back to my assignment, I saw the two men had made quick work of getting the kids organized by height and in place for a photograph. As they each took their place on either side of the group, a full moon rose in the dusty pink sky behind them. After a series of photographs were taken, the ensemble headed toward the stage. The two men gracefully moved from one child to the next, part papa bears and part stage mothers, offering a smile here or a stern word there. Then the first man spoke to the sound technician and the chords of a melody began.
The young boys in the black jumpers moved on to the stage in formation, laying their tambourine-like instruments on the ground behind them. As the music began to swell, the boys stepped together, clapping their hands and then joining arms across each other’s shoulders, swaying together as they spiraled around the stage. Then the youngsters picked up their hoops and began swirling rhythmically across the stage. In a well-choreographed movement, one of the boys placed small glasses of what appeared to be tea in the bottom of two of the boys’ hoops. The duo, working with gravity, twirled about the stage, waving the tea-laden hoops in circular motion, from high in the air and down, and then back around again.
I shifted my gaze to the two papa bears and felt my heart swell as I watched them on the sidelines, focused intently on the young boys, passionately willing them to remember the steps and not spill the tea. I then looked over to the audience, each person’s eyes riveted by the sight of the youngest members of their community moving together in an ancient dance, one they had no doubt seen performed countless times.
I later had a chance to get acquainted with the two men who were teaching the youngsters to appreciate their culture. Marios Yioua, 40 and Charios Pazaros, 23 were founders of a traditional dance school in Geroskipou and now have seventy students, ranging from 3 ½ to 14 years old.
Marios, who started dancing at six years of age, explained that the traditional dances include Kartsilamas, a face-to-face dance done only by men; Tatsia, performed with a glass of water in a tambourine-like instrument; and Sousta, a very fast dance.
“Every village does something a little different and every person has their own style, how they clap, how they touch their heel,” he said. “In reality, it’s not good to need to have a school—traditional dance used to be passed down family to family and learning in a school creates conformity.”
“I teach because I feel it,” he continued. “The world is poorer if just one of these kinds of traditions is gone. The dancing and the music are like a dialect or an accent. If someone learns to dance in Paphos where the land is flat, that will be reflected in his dancing. If he is from a rocky village, he might do more jumping in his dancing—we need both kinds!”
One of Marios and Charis’ star pupils is Andreas Kaukarivde, who started the traditional dancing at five years old. Now 12, Andreas expressed to me the joy and sense of freedom he experiences when dancing, promising “I will dance forever!”
Many of the children of Cyprus are also raised with a love of the traditional music, which traces its roots to both Greek and Byzantine influences.
Sortiris Karageorghis is a teacher of traditional music; his father and all five boys in the family play instruments.
“The orchestration and the instruments may have changed and become more modern but the concepts and ideas are the same,” he explained to me over coffee. “Different melodies are associated with different areas. There is a special ballad called ‘The Spring of the Peyia Girls.’ From the Troodos Forest there is a famous song that is full of play on sounds and syllables.”
Sortiris said that a popular type of music called rembetika was brought to Cyprus in 1922 by refugees from Ionia. The music of these simple people, considered bohemians, is like American blues.
Our waiter couldn’t resist chiming in.
Dimitris Mavromatis had a mod haircut and trendy glasses befitting his other job as a guitar player in an indie rock band. He said at the end of a long day, he has a glass of wine and listens to a CD of rembetika artist Mario’.
“All Cypriots love rembetika,” he declared. “It is the people’s music, underground and anti-establishment, describing the agony of their times and expressing grief, sorrow and pain.”
“When people are young, they are concerned with superficial things, but as they get older, their culture becomes more important,” Sortiris asserted.
Sortiris may well be right, but in Geroskipou, a legion of youngsters is learning a love of Cypriot dancing from papa bears Marios and Charis. May they dance forever!