Crisis-hit Greeks swing for solace

Six years into a deep recession that shows little sign of abating, hundreds of stressed-out Greeks are turning to the “swing” to dance their worries away.

Greeks of all ages are signing up for courses at swing academies to learn a dance that — with a bit of historic irony — was itself born during an even deeper crisis, the Great Depression that gripped the United States in the 1930s.

“Five years ago, there was no swing scene in Athens and this dance was not part of Greek culture,” said Josephine “Joss” Yannakopoulou, a French-Greek instructor running one of the capital’s two swing schools.

“At the time, we began with eight pupils. Now we have hundreds,” said Yannakopoulou.

It was a difficult start, and the school only began turning a profit last year.

But now, business is so successful that Yannakopoulou ditched her academic career — teaching musicology and history of dance in Edinburgh — to focus exclusively on the school.

Her partner Ben Librojo, who also hails from Edinburgh, likewise abandoned his computer career for full-time residence in Athens.

“At the time, I was wondering if it was worth investing in the school, then someone told me during a financial crisis people want to forget the difficult moments and escape the daily grind,” said Librojo.

“And it turned out to be true.”

There are over 1.3 million unemployed in Greece, nearly a third of the total workforce.

And even those lucky enough to have a job have gone through a four-year austerity gauntlet forced on Greece by its international creditors, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

The situation is expected to even out next year, but such forecasts have been proven wrong before. In fact, the Greek economy was originally expected to return to growth in 2012.

In this kind of gloom, dance appears to be the right antidote.

“My pupils often count the days for the next class,” said Yannakopoulou.

“In a way, it’s the crisis that brought about a swing trend,” said Nasos Dimalexis, a 43-year-old software engineer taking instruction at Yannakopoulou’s Athens Swing Cats academy.

In addition to giving classes, the swing schools also organise street dance displays to attract further interest.

“We forget our problems, we enjoy ourselves and the parties here are affordable, as are the drinks,” said Dimalexis.

Swing dances — sometimes called jitterbug — developed alongside the rise of jazz music in the 1920s, mostly among African American communities, with the Harlem-based Lindy Hop among the best known.

“It’s a social dance, cheerful and spontaneous, and it helps to escape from one’s problems,” said Mariangela Salihou, one of the operators of the capital’s second swing school, Athens Lindy Hop.

But the economic setting is never far away and the dancers have held annual charity events to help the needy for the past three years.

Last year’s proceeds were given to the homeless while this year’s were directed to struggling families in Athens. [AFP]

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