A Story of Greek Folk Dance Dancing and Costume Making in Annapolis
Contributed by Anastasia Pantelides Samaras
Additional contributions from Angela Nikiforou, Kyriakoulla Kacoyianni, Maria Pelekanos, and Joan Goudounis
We are each a part of an important story. Often we seek to understand ourselves better through the stories of our families. For Greek-Americans in Annapolis, those stories include how our families worked to preserve a part of our heritage and culture through Greek folk dancing and costumes. This story is a piece of a much larger story as well as other stories of dancing and costume making. It is based on my experiences, interactions, and memory work. It is nonetheless an important one to share as it is situated in the community’s interest and commitment to give their children opportunities to learn Greek folk dance. And within that story is a fascinating story of how a group of women gathered in the shared task of the Greek Costume Making Project to “bring a part of home to Annapolis.”
I grew up in the Annapolis Ss Constantine and Helen church community at four Constitution Avenue. I remember learning and reciting Greek poems for Greek School events like Greek Independence Day, but there was no formal teaching of Greek folk dancing to children. I actually learned to dance the “Zeibekiko” and other Greek dances from my dad when we went to church parties and at friends’ homes. He insisted that we all get up and dance and keep dancing! I continued to learn new Greek dances as I traveled to annual Greek dancing events sponsored by the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) and at other Greek church dances held in the Maryland DC Metropolitan area.
My passion for dancing would lead me to teaching Greek folk dance to the children of our parish for a decade–the most rewarding of all of my service work. According to Anna Gallos, the “Presbytera” or wife of Father George Gallos, my teaching Greek folk dance to children began after she watched my enthusiasm for Greek dancing at a church party and then asked me to teach Greek folk dance to the youth in the church hall in 1970s. That planted a seed for children to later dance at the annual church festivals and dance competitions which continue to this day. My work initially involved a small group of dancers performing at annual church festivals. It was the annual church festival that gave the dancing project life as we became the key entertainment for the locals who attended the festival.
To set the scene for the dancing, imagine children who had largely never performed in front of a large audience, and who were now performing at annual festivals filled with large crowds and lots of excitement! Before the festivals, the church held food bazaars that took place in the church hall where we sold Greek pastries and food to locals and especially over the holidays including traditional breads for New Years and Easter. In the early 1980s, we moved our festival first to the Annapolis National Guard Armory off of West Street and later to our own Hellenic Center which was then on Riva Road. Christine Samaras chaired our first festivals. Many dedicated chairs and workers would follow. Those early food bazaars later became our annual church festivals which expanded to include live music, folk dancing, and arts and craft demonstrations.
Ted Samaras, an entrepreneur, had the vision to make the festival even more than food and dance. The community worked together to create a festival which included arts and crafts demonstrations. Parishioners generously shared their talents in a series of free workshops at the festival where locals attended with delight to learn how to make baklava, spanakopita, and much more. For example, the children had a hands-on experience in making the famous Greek cookies, “koulourakia” with Marie Kouirinis and Anthy Lakis. Stylianno Stylianou demonstrated how to make straw hats which he learned to weave as a young boy in Cyprus. Others talked about the wines and travels of Greece and so many shared their talents. Bessie Samaras and “Big Yiayia” later demonstrated how to roll homemade phyllo to a senior group (See Photos 1-4).
Photos 1-4 Parishioners Sharing Talents at Festival
The church festivals were central to the Greek-American community. They were the annual gathering of a community of volunteers who worked very hard to raise money for the church and share their culture with locals. And families were excited about their children participating in the festivals and performing Greek dancing. As the number of dancers grew, I asked others to join me in teaching the dancers including Daphne Samaras who worked with me at many long dance practices in the church hall. Many others were involved as teachers over the years. We created more age groups for the dancers and invited others to teach those groups and they invited others so we eventually had two teachers for each group. There were about a dozen of us teaching, taking turns using the church hall for dance practices, dragging our boom boxes and cassette tapes with us as one age group was finishing up and the next one was ready to start. The children ranged from three to18 years of age. As an early childhood educator, I have always believed in the capacity and interest of the young child to learn so we taught them the dances in a modified manner (See Photo 5).
Photo 5 Young Children Performing Greek Folk Dance
I also worked to tap in on the special talents of our community. For example, instructors who knew how to dance a less common dance, like Marye Leanos who was the queen of the Cretan dance and Vickie Lardis who taught the “Ikariotikos” dance from her husband’s homeland of Ikaria. That was all taking place in the late 1980’s. One of the first dancers, Tassos Bourantas, now a priest, did amazing dance leaps into the air. He later came home from college in Boston to help the next generation of children learn to dance. We saw a rapidly growing interest by families, dancers, and teachers to participate. As an outreach effort to the greater community, the dancers also performed at the Anne Arundel Community College.
For the first church festival performances, children wore or borrowed dance costumes. The dance costumes added a special meaning as they were actually worn by their own family members or other Greek family members in past church sponsored events (See Photo 6). For example, some of the sky blue long skirts and red vests with gold trim were the same ones that Dimitra Keshes had sewed for my sisters Irene and Alexandra when they read their Greek poems in Greek school many years before. Some families had brought costumes from their homeland. Several Cypriot families had brought the female village dress called “saias” and the thickly creased male bloomers called “vrakas.” Seamstresses sewed blue skirts and made red vests with shoulder strips and gold trim and a red cap with a gold tassel for the girls. Later, some families brought costumes when they visited their homeland and donated them to the cause. Other families would order costumes from various regions of Greece. Some families bought the classic Cypriot maroon and black scarves when they traveled home or asked their families to mail them costumes. We performed using a mix of costumes that we had in hand and with families lending what we had to others.
Photo 6 Greek Costumes at Early Church Festivals
The Greek soldier outfit or “fustanella” was popular for the boys (See Photo 7). This uniform is a symbol of the Greek identity and is still the uniform worn by the Presidential Guard.
Photo 7 Fustanellas
When it was time for the Senior and Junior Aegean Odyssey dancers to perform at the festival, George Hadjis served as the Master of Ceremonies for the dancing event – when he wasn’t serving coffee! So many worked so very hard to make the festival a success (See Photo 8).
Photo 8 George Hadjis, Festival Volunteer
Angela Nikiforou reminded me that I had asked her and her husband George, who are excellent dancers, to perform their love dance–the “Tsifteteli” (See Photos 9-10). They wore their traditional Cypriot costumes when they performed at the annual festivals to raise funds for the children’s costumes. I announced to the audience that if they enjoyed the dance and music to please donate to the costumes. As the couple danced, many in the audience showered Angela and George with dollars to show their appreciation; then they danced with them a bit. The money thrown is symbolic of celebrating the dancers and wishing them well – a richness of love and generosity by and for others. We used that money to buy more costumes. In her interview about her dancing, Angela laughed and told me how her husband George would invite her to dance before their performances. George would say:
‘Ela yeneka! (Come woman). Let’s have a little drink and dance.’ We would cross our arms into each other’s and take a shot of brandy for some courage to dance in front of the large crowds. People enjoyed our dancing and waited for us to dance. I enjoyed the dancing but I really enjoyed helping.
It takes a village and we had a magnificent village! For example, Sotos Christoforou had a fundraiser at his restaurant, Chris’ Charcoal Pit, to also raise money for the costumes.
Photo 9 Nikiforous Dancing to Raise Money for Children’s Costumes
Photo 10 Dancing at an Annual Greek Festival
We continued to add to the dancing. I researched and announced descriptions of each Greek dance and its geographic area of origin before the children enacted them. With my cousin Nikki Peterson and dear friends Marye Leanos and Helen Sfondouris, we also orchestrated a Greek dance costume show describing the origins of the costumes (See Photos 11-14).
Photo 11-14 Greek Folk Dance Costume Show at Festival
The annual church festival continues with dancing to this day. In 1991, the folk dance festival was launched and grew exponentially. In 1990, Father Kosmas Karavellas asked me to be the director of teaching dance for the Diocese of New Jersey First Chesapeake Bay Region Folk Dance Festival which was held May 18, 1991. Father told me he was waiting for me to finish my PhD which I completed in 1990. I was honored to be asked. Joan Goudounis exquisitely managed and orchestrated the dance competition event and also coordinated the music for the dancing. Joan and I worked beautifully together. Father invited other churches in the Baltimore area to participate and compete for best music, costume, and dance. Joan kept detailed records of her work with the dance festival event which are housed at the church and is a key informant on that work. We worked together with a large team of teachers along with many others to make the event a huge success for a number of years. When I returned to full-time work as a university professor in the early 1990s, l asked Evangeline Kokkinos to take my place. She would also become the Parish Coordinator of the folk dance festival and taught one of the dance groups with Lucy Petros. Kallia Sakellariou followed Evangeline as the Parish Coordinator. Kallia coordinated the costumes as well. A new generation of teachers followed.
The Diocese of New Jersey Chesapeake Bay Region Folk Dance Festival would continue to be held from 1991-1995 at various venues: Annapolis Senior High School, Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, and elsewhere. The festival began with four churches and seven dance groups from Maryland. The number of churches and dance groups continued to grow. Participating churches came from DC, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Later, Father Kosmas had the keen vision to extend the number of churches involved in the dancing for the Metropolis of New Jersey Folk Dance Festival which later became the Metropolis of New Jersey Hellenic Folk Dance Festival in 2004. In 2005 there were 14 churches and 24 groups; the most ever from 1991-2006. The annual Greek folk dance festival continues to this day and includes a large number of dancers from other churches in the Diocese area celebrating Greek folk dance and Greek heritage and competing for best dance, best music, and best costume. Over the years, our church won awards for best in show, first, second, third place, best music, and also for best costume. And that takes us to a wonderful story of the early costume making.
Greek Folk Dance Costume Making: “Bringing a part of home to Annapolis”
When Father had first announced the Diocese of New Jersey Chesapeake Bay Region Folk Dance Festival would be taking place, a handful of Cypriot women, Angela Nikiforou, Kyriakoulla Kacoyianni, and Maria Pelekanos launched the costume making project to make the little girl costumes. Angela suggested that I gather a group of seamstresses in the community who were seamstresses by trade. She recognized the need for the dancers to have beautiful costumes. So we gathered in my living room to make a plan of action. In addition to Angela, Kyriakoulla, and Maria, there were many other seamstresses involved in the costume making including: Eleni Kleanthou, Korina Bourantas, Evangeline Antoniou, Vaso Bounelis, Anna Christodoulou, Stella Filiopoulos, Androula Keshes, Lambri Kafouri, Irene Panayi, Maroula Papaleonti, Helen Sfondouris, Christina Stylianou, Eli Yiannoulou, and others. The costumes we had were eclectic in nature so the seamstresses discussed and designed how to make a uniform costume for each dancing age group which represented various regions of Greece. The seamstresses gathered in the shared task of making costumes to preserve part of our Greek heritage and culture.
For the second Chesapeake Bay Region Greek Folk Dance Festival held in 1992, Korina Bourantas along with her mother, Evangeline Antoniou, and Eleni Kleanthou made the beautiful Amalia costumes which is the ornate traditional folk costume created and worn by Queen Amalia in the 1830s. The seamstresses also made white vrakas or loose fitting pants for the boys which are typical of northern Greece and white dresses and headscarves for the girls and much more.
For the Cypriot boy’s costume, Maria took apart a boy’s vraka she had from Cyprus and made a pattern to be able to make lots more. The women often sewed at home after work and worked together when the costume required team work. Maria Pelekanos shared with me:
I remember the first year and I will never forget it. I would put my kids to bed and then took my portable sewing machine to Angela’s basement to work. We never got tired. My mother showed me how to make the vrakas as she knew how to make them because men still wore them when she lived in Cyprus. I made so many vrakas! When we noticed the drawstring design was not working, we added elastic to the waistbands for the boys. And at one of the festivals, when we didn’t have enough scarves for the girls, Angela ran home and made more and brought them back to the festival.
During her interview with me, Angela recalled with such joy:
We made the design for those white little girl costumes ourselves. We made them in my basement… We were having so much fun. We had Greek music playing. Maria and Kyriakoulla came over to work in the basement. We would also take the costumes to our work at the Navy and put the finishing touches on after work.
All the seamstresses worked with such dedication over the years in the evenings after they finished work and feeding their families to make, alter, and mend the costumes which they did repeatedly depending on the dancers’ sizes. Each costume had layers of things to make. For example, the saias also required “vrakas” or bloomers, a “poukamiso” or blouse, a “mantili” or scarf wrapped around the head. My Thea Eleni Kacoyianni embroidered tiny beads on the borders of the girls’ white mantili (See Photos 15-22).
Photos 15-22 Chesapeake Bay Region Folk Dancers and Teachers
A most fascinating part of the costume making is where the Cypriot seamstress found a great deal of the material for the little girl costumes and some of the boys’ costumes. Angela, Kyriakoulla, and Maria were working as seamstresses at the United States Naval Academy (USNA). While they did a great deal of sewing the costumes at their homes, they also worked during their lunch hour at work and sometimes stayed late at work until six in the evening with their supervisor’s permission. They had a very kind supervisor who allowed them to use remnant material that they frugally pieced together to make costumes. The supervisor said to take what they needed from the remnants. They sewed together pieces of scraps such as the gold trim left over from the uniform striping to trim the little girl’s costumes. The boys’ caps were made from the left over material after hemming midshipmen pants. The seamstresses were also able to use the sophisticated sewing machines at the USNA for reinforced stitching and border designs. The supervisor also sold them discarded material such as bright yellow material they used for the aprons which the Navy couldn’t use since the wrong color yellow had been ordered (See Photo 23). The seamstresses paid for that apron material out of their own pockets and were glad to do it. As Angela explained:
Photo 23 Yellow Aprons Made from Discarded USNA Flag Material
We had the energy and the know-how and we made these beautiful costumes. Much of the material came from the Naval Academy. The yellow material used for the little girl costume aprons was the material we used to make the flags for the midshipmen. The gold trim we used for the officers’ striping. We used a lot of scraps. We used duffle bag material to make the little girl dresses which was the leftover material we used for the midshipmen book bags so they could carry their books easily if they were on crutches. The Navy let us do everything there because they knew they were doing it for a good cause. They had a lot to do with making our work possible. Our church is still using those little girl costumes. Every time I see them, I am so happy. It made me so happy that they we were able to design them to last. There were so strong!
Those little girl dresses made from that duffle bag material are still in use today and are now 30 years old (See Photos 24-25)
Photos 24-25 Demonstrating the quality of their workmanship, the same costumes worn for a performance in 1992 (Photo 24) have been worn annually through 2019 (Photo 25). Some of the dancers of the 1990s became parents of the dancers.
The women mended and transported the costumes to the cleaners or pressed them at work when they could. Some stored them in their homes for safe keeping until the next festival. When we ran out of space in the church hall to store the costumes, my mother, Magdalene Pantelides, allowed us to house the costumes in her attic. Kyriakoulla, Maria, and Ted helped to transport the heavy costumes back and forth from the church up the steep steps of my mother’s attic after they were mended and cleaned by a dedicated group of women caring for them. When I asked why they did it all, Kyriakoulla stated:
We got so much satisfaction and it made us happy! I wasn’t even tired. Because it makes me happy when I do things for other people. We knew how to sew. It’s what we knew and we knew how to make the Cypriot costumes. We did it to pass on our faith, culture, and traditions of our heritage and to help keep the traditions alive.
Maria exclaimed, “It was something to bring a part of home to Annapolis–to bring back memories of my village and the events like the Paniyiri. I gave to the church so we can keep our church going.” Angela added, “It was brilliant. I was proud that we did it.”
The women continued repairing costumes until 2018, shortening sleeves on 30 blouses, making handkerchiefs with lace and whatever was needed. They picked up the costumes from the church. Many women in the community assisted in the making and repairing of the costumes over the years (See Photo 26).
Photo 26 Caring for the Costumes
Something wonderful was taking place for our community–a shared task that combined the dancing and the costume making. We all worked together and we did it with love. With the money we raised each year from the festival, we bought more costumes. We were frugal, responsible, and careful to preserve what we were co-creating which extended beyond the costume making. Our joy was watching the children.
It is very important to note that the dance festivals required many volunteers to make them successful over the many years. Joan Goudounis recalled that volunteers included parish coordinators, dance instructors, seamstresses, parents taking children to dance practices and helping with the costumes and anything else that was needed before, during, and after the event, and later craftsmen making cabinets to store the costumes. There was also the Master of Ceremonies for the dance festivals, decoration coordinators, volunteers working at registration tables, volunteers preparing and serving food throughout the event, and a setup, break down, and cleaning up crew. The first Master of Ceremonies for the dance festival was Pauline Leanos Griffith. Pauline conducted research and gave a very detailed description of the dance, region, and meaning of movements for each dance performed on stage. Joan shared:
As the years went by more and more people became involved from other churches…. Networks of communication between parishes were growing stronger and stronger. Dances were shared as well as costumes. An increase in the knowledge base of our culture and dance from different regions of Greece was achieved, as well as the creation of fellowship and lasting friendships. Parishes continue to invite the dance groups from different churches to perform at their annual Greek festivals and attend workshops.
This narrative is memory work which stands out for me. If others can add to the accuracy of this narrative, I encourage you to contribute to this historical saga that spans nearly 40 years. It comes from my personal experiences and felt memories and is focused on the initial dancing and the making of the costumes. Others will share their memory work in the other festival work and costume making that took place over the years. But one thing is for certain. Watching the parents’ and grandparents’ faces of joy and eyes filled with tears as their children danced is a memory that will stay with me forever. I can still see my cousin Irene Sophocles throwing money on her son to wish him a good life as he danced (See Photo 27).
Photo 27 Parent Throwing Money on Her Child Dancing
At the 2019 festival, I watched one of Irene’s grandsons dancing and their grandfather throwing money on him. I thank God for the opportunity to have been an early leader in the dancing troupe and to be witness to this amazing generational passage of dance and costumes. Yet, it has always been our collective efforts and love for our community that has built the church as our other home. No one person could do it alone. And that is a joy to be a part of and to celebrate. Parents wanted their children to learn to Greek dance; to know and preserve a part of their Greek culture for their children; and to wear the outfits their families and ancestors once wore. We did this work of festival making, folk dancing, and costume making together. Others continue to offer this service for the community, for our proud heritage, and especially for our children. There is no greater service than that which serves the future and for a common good.
My many thanks to Angela Nikiforou, Kyriakoulla Kacoyianni, Maria Pelekanos, and Joan Goudounis for sharing their recollections. After conducting the interview with Angela I told her: “Angela, I am smiling! Interviewing you and writing about it reminded me what makes me happy in addition to dancing–researching and writing. “Yes! Angela replied. “Your mind is traveling the whole time. You see the story in the making.” I thank each of these wonderful women for being a part of that story and sharing their stories that I can now share with you. My gratitude also to Theano Panos Platt for encouraging me to follow up on my interest in interviewing these women… “Oh!” she exclaimed… “That is a story that needs to be told.”
This memory work is dedicated to my father, Savvas Ioannou Pantelides who taught me how to dance Greek and to my mother, Magdalena Comsudis Pantelides, who taught me to appreciate it (See Photos 28-29).
Photo 28 Savvas Pantelides and Chris Psomodakis Greek Dancing
Photo 29 Magdalena Pantelides and Evanthia Psomodakis Greek Dancing