For over 60 years, Savannah has enjoyed the delicious food offered at the annual Greek Festival. And rightly so.
But this year we thought we'd pay some attention to another key part of Greek culture very much in evidence at each year's gathering at the Hellenic Center: The dancing.
Three different dance groups, derived mostly from the congregation of St. Paul's Greek Orthodox Church, are featured performers each year. There's Ta Pedia, the children's group (the name literally just means "The Children"), the adult group, and the high-school age group comprising members of the congregation's Greek Orthodox Youth of America (always called GOYA or Goyans).
They come out in turn onto half-court of the well-traveled gym floor of the Hellenic Center and entertain the feasting crowd with the distinctive, counterclockwise circular dancing of the Greek folk tradition. It's accompanied by Greek music that's simultaneously festive and mysterious, winding through non-Western scales and asymmetrical time signatures.
The most common and easiest dance — and the one that brings out the most non-Greeks to the dance floor during the Festival — is the Kalamatiano. Named after the Kalamata region, the Kalamatiano, despite its happy nature and ancient origin going back to Homeric times, has quite a somber backstory.
"The women of Kalamata refused to submit to Turkish rule," explains Stamata Karfakis, a congregation member helping to organize the dancing this year. "So they danced the Kalamatiano off the side of a mountain, committing suicide rather than surrender."
Indeed, Greek dancing is traditionally separated by gender. "The girl's dances are often to show how attractive they are to boys, to sort of show themselves off to attract a boyfriend," says Karfakis. "While the men's dances are more about movement, more about jumping and athleticism."
Then there's the tradition of solo male dancing, the smoldering, slow, zembekiko of "Zorba The Greek" fame, acting out age-old legends of gangsters and passion and proud Balkan machismo.
The only problem — similar to the problem faced by many a ballet troupe across the country — is that there are just never enough boys to go around. So expect to see girls and guys dancing together at all of the performances this weekend by all three local troupes.
"Sometimes we'll call something a boy's dance, because there's a lot of movement and jumping, and girls wouldn't do that traditionally," Karfakis says. "But because we don't have so many boys, we do incorporate that."
When you watch the Goyans dance this year, you're watching a part of congregation history: For the first time, St. Paul's GOYA is sending dancers to a Greek dancing competition in Orlando this coming January.
"A lot of churches have their own dance groups, and they get together and compete with each other, but next year will be our first time competing with them," says Karfakis.
Except these competitions are very different from the informal gatherings at Greek Festivals.
"The actual competitions are very strict," Karfakis explains. "The dance you perform has to be authentically from a certain region, the costumes have to be from that region and have to be exact. You can spend hours and days going over them all."
To make sure the Goyans are up to speed for the Orlando regionals, "We're actually having someone come from Charleston to this year's Festival to watch the kids to see if they're prepared," says Karfakis.
"But the kids will be ready. They really enjoy the dancing."
Savannah Greek Festival
When: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Where: Hellenic Center, 14 W. Anderson
Cost: $2 Thurs. and Fri. after 4 p.m. and all day Saturday