Lost art of social dancing is being rediscovered as people look around for new ways to interact
Every night of the week, somewhere in Athens, people are meeting to dance the mambo, tango, salsa, cha-cha, rock ‘n’ roll, even the fox trot and waltz – but not (always) at discos or nightclubs and not (always) with the ulterior motive of meeting someone special (although that happens sometimes). They do it purely for the fun of dancing. The release last year of the movie «Shall We Dance,» the story of a middle-aged lawyer who comes alive again after taking up ballroom dancing on a whim, prompted a rush on classes at the many dance schools that have popped up over the past couple of decades in nearly every neighborhood. Giorgos Babilis, who heads the Gene Kelly School of Dance in Glyfada and is also one of the two franchisers of the Gene Kelly chain (now numbering about 25 in Athens with more in the offing) says that there are approximately 150 dance schools of this kind in Athens. «I would say that over the past five years enrollment has generally increased 100 percent over what it was 10 years ago,» Babilis said. «People are beginning to become more familiar with this kind of dancing as a means of entertainment and as a way of life. Instead of going to a gym, they come here to combine exercise with having a good time.» Party night Courses at many schools consist of a weekly private lesson and/or group lesson of up to about a dozen people who learn a range of dances – everything from Latin to Greek. But it is at the weekly «party nights» where actual practicing is done in «real time,» where pupils are free to make mistakes, to learn, and, above all, to enjoy themselves without the eagle eye of the teacher upon them. «The ‘party nights’ are just as important, if not more so than the lessons,» said Ninetta Vassilopoulou, who opened a Gene Kelly School of Dance in Palaio Faliron two years ago. «You have the opportunity to practice what you have learned, doing each dance several times with different partners. And that’s where the magic lies – in learning to respond to your partner.» Partner dancing certainly became something of a lost art after the 1950s. «Our ‘Beatles’ generation danced about on our own – opposite our partner,» said one 50-something woman, «so this makes for more of an interaction, which is a nice change.» At the Gene Kelly School in Glyfada, the largest of its kind, party night is Friday. When Kathimerini English Edition visited, a gentleman of a certain age was rock-and-rolling energetically with his teenage partner, who was struggling to keep up with him. Younger couples swept around the floor in a fox trot. Changing partners is the rule – the whole point is to practice. No one is allowed to sit out for long. Some young men sitting at the back – non-dancers who had come just to see what it is all about – were dragged to their feet and encouraged to pick up the basics. And if that seems a lot for the first try, there are always the more familiar Greek dances. During a break, three couples danced a demonstration tango. One of the «couples» consisted of two young girls, the one leading dressed in black trousers and a white shirt. Later, after changing into a glamorous gown, she reappeared in an explosive samba with a young man who danced like a matador. Inspiration for beginners, and, for the more advanced, a way to pick up the finer points. Expressing yourself Not everyone aims for the professional standard. Young people like it because it is fun, older people for the same reason. Interviewed about his work in «Shall We Dance,» one of the choreographers, who has a dance school in the US, said a lot of his pupils had told him they had «dropped their shrinks.» «I often leave class humming a song. It really lifts my mood,» said Despina, who has been attending a school in Piraeus for the past few months. «It’s a way of expressing myself,» said university student Evgenia Nikolaidi. «Through dancing you can express things that are often difficult to externalize in daily life.» One middle-aged couple dealing with the empty-nest syndrome said they took up dance as a way of learning to relate to each other again now that they are on their own. Erika Peloriadou, whose student daughter is now living out of town, has just started lessons at a local dance school near her home in Dafni, eastern Athens. «I like it because it’s great exercise and fun at the same time. As it’s a small school, it’s like getting together with a group of friends every week,» she said, although she added it wasn’t easy trying to get her husband to join her. «Men are more hesitant about beginning, but once they start they are better than the women,» claimed Ivan Rodevoievic, who has been running dance schools for 15 years and who now has the «Steps» school in Voula. «But we have a variety of people, everyone from businessmen to housewives, school pupils, even an ice-skater,» he said. Who knows, maybe the next reality show to hit Greece will be a local version of «Strictly Come Dancing,» the British show that pairs celebrities with dance teachers to compete for grades awarded by both professional judges and television viewers. Imagine a footballer such as Antonis Nikopolidis competing in a salsa against TV comic Giorgos Mitsikostas, or newsreader Elli Stai, perhaps, in a tango against morning show host Eleni Menegaki!