Traditional dances going strong

If only I could describe the way I felt when I first danced traditional Greek dances at the Dora Stratou Theater. The thrill I experienced when dancing at the classes, held on Philopappou Hill in the capital, on the island of Icaria (at a traditional festival with my fellow-students at dawn), and even on the theater stage, dressed in a traditional costume from Pontus. The circular dance transmits an incredible energy and opens up a whole new world. Alkis Raftis, director of the Dora Stratou Theater as well as president of UNESCO’s International Dance Council, says that it is quite unusual for people involved with artistic dance to turn to traditional kinds. On the other hand, it is very difficult to find information about traditional dancing and music in Greece… Despite this, the Dora Stratou Theater counts 600 students today and just watching the classes is enough to feel their passion. There is also the unique experience of the dance group’s performances, held every night from the end of May to the end of September. Raftis talked about the theater today and its remarkable career, which, without any frills and with many difficulties, is celebrating its 55th anniversary. Tell us about the work that the theater does today. When I took over 20 years ago, I made no changes to the work of Dora Stratou, although I disagreed with a lot of things. The performance remains as it was. I added what we have beyond the theater and the shows. We now combine many things: We are a research center (our researchers travel to villages around Greece), a publishing house (we have released 50 books, 40 CDs and more), we organize two annual festivals as well as an international dance conference, monthly seminars and weekly lectures. We also have a huge archive and a school with 600 students, most of them adults. In a few months we will launch an international dance portal, a website that will cover everything relating to Greek dance – texts, music, videos, scores, photographs, anything you can imagine from antiquity to today. The needlework classes we run at the Dora Stratou Plaka offices have proved very successful. We are about to publish an encyclopedia of Greek traditional needlework, in collaboration with the Piraeus Bank Cultural Foundation. Does the state support you? We receive a symbolic sum of 50,000 euros per year, which is not really enough to sustain us. In Greece, every culture minister after Melina Mercouri has wanted to do things that cause a stir. We are an anonymous theater, there are no leading characters. Our policy is to respect tradition and tradition has no room for vendettas. How do you explain the fact that so many young people attend the school’s dance classes? We are a group of people very passionate about dance and we convey that feeling. In Greece there is a difference between surface and substance. There is a very large number of people who are interested in traditional dances and music about which we know very little. Greek people’s personality is torn… Is the spirit of Dora Stratou still alive? I wish she could see what we have done. What she started we have made much bigger. When I first got involved with dance, people thought I was ruining my career. They looked at me with pity. But I did what I wanted and things changed, society became interested in the things we do and now we can hardly find the time. The school used to run ancient Greek dance classes. That is because traditional Greek dancing is seen as a continuation of ancient Greek dancing, we have also published a few books about that. Over the past few years I have been studying Byzantine dancing too and I am preparing a book about dance in Byzantium. How do you see the future of the Dora Stratou Theater? We are no longer afraid of the future the way we used to be, but we feel sad because tradition is not widespread. Greece could well export culture, but unfortunately our politicians are more concerned about taking care of their own people… Other countries beg us to send them dance teachers. It should be finally understood that culture is at the same time an industry. You have to make an investment and then expect to get a return. What I am about to say will be provocative, but it would be better for us to leave the Ministry of Culture and go to the Hellenic Foreign Trade Board. We don’t need the ministry to tell us what to do, we know our job. They could give us the bare minimum so that we can go abroad and bring foreign exchanges to Greece. Cuba lives off salsa. Tourists visit Buenos Aires to dance the tango, because they tango all year long in Argentina. Abroad, dance is not helped because it is seen as a charity case but because it is seen as capital. If that could be understood by the Greek National Tourism Organization or the Ministry of Culture or the Hellenic Foreign Trade Board…

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