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  The Role of Dance in the Formation of Ethnic Identityamong Diaspora Greeks. A Case Study from Australia  

Dr. Vassiliki Chryssanthopoulou

The Role of Dance in the Formation of Ethnic Identity among Diaspora Greeks. A Case Study from Australia

This paper explores the hypothesis that ethnic identity among Greek Australians is expressed and transmitted in practical ways and in ritual contexts, especially through traditional dances.  I approach this broad and complex issue by focussing on the teaching of traditional dances as areas within which Greek ethnic values and practices are transmitted, and the debating and negotiation of Greek ethnic identity among members of different migrant generations takes place.


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The Role of Dance in the Formation of Ethnic Identity

among Diaspora Greeks.  A Case Study from Australia.


Dr. Vassiliki Chryssanthopoulou

Research Fellow, Hellenic Folklore Research Centre,

Academy of Athens


To the memory of my late friend, Meni

a pioneer in the teaching of traditional dances

to Greek Australian children in Perth


1.  Introduction.

            In 1997 while visiting the Acropolis of Athens with their teacher of traditional dances, a group of Australian-born young people of Greek parentage spontaneously burst out singing and dancing a kalamatianos, one of the most popular folk dances of Greece, causing great surprise to the guards of the archaeological site.  They decided to express their sense of belonging to Greek culture by greeting this most sacred landmark of Greek civilization, the Acropolis and the Parthenon, through a medium epitomising Greekness for them:  a popular traditional dance.

            This paper explores the hypothesis that ethnic identity among Greek Australians is expressed and transmitted in practical ways and in ritual contexts, especially through traditional dances.  I approach this broad and complex issue by focussing on the teaching of traditional dances as areas within which Greek ethnic values and practices are transmitted, and the debating and negotiation of Greek ethnic identity among members of different migrant generations takes place. [1]

            The present study is part of my long-term anthropological and folklore research on Greek migration, ethnicity and diaspora in Australia. [2]  The ethnographic material included in this paper derives mainly from two sources:  Firstly, it draws on interviews held in Athens with three Australian-born students of Greek parentage following a programme for diaspora Greek students organized by the University of Athens in 2007;  the interviewees talked of their experience of being taught – and of teaching, in one case – traditional Greek dances in Australia and in Greece.  Secondly, my paper uses material deriving from a comprehensive interview held in April 2007 with Sophia, a well-known teacher of traditional dances in Sydney. [3]  I have also profited from visiting a Greek Australian day school in Sydney and attending the teaching of traditional Greek dances for the primary school pupils of this school. [4]

            About half a million people of Greek origin live in Australia, with the largest communities existing in Melbourne and in Sydney and with smaller concentrations in Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra and Darwin, among other places.  Chain migration from certain islands and villages of Greece started in the late 19c and by the beginnings of the 20c the first structures of Greek ethnic community life had already been established.  They included community bodies, churches, schools and a multitude of associations of social, athletic and charitable nature. [5]  Within these bodies Greek Australians preserved their culture and endeavoured to transmit it to successive generations.  Despite the influx of large-scale migration from Greece in the 1950s and 1960s, today there are relatively few Greek immigrants in Australia, whilst the majority are second, third, even fourth generation Australians of Greek background.  Taking advantage of improved financial conditions both in Greece and in Australia, today’s Greek Australians keep a lively relationship with their ancestors’ fatherland and visit Greece often bringing their children with them.  They seek to preserve or revive relationships with their families’ specific places of origin, where they endeavour to repair any existing houses or buy new ones.  Technology, with improved telecommunications and electronic contact, maintains and promotes links between diaspora and mainland Greeks.  This fact supports the view that globalisation does not necessarity bring about cultural homogenization. In fact, it may have positive effects on the preservation of cultures.

            The ethnic identity of Greek Australians varies greatly according to systematic factors such as age, gender, class, migrant generation and regional origin in Greece, and according to individual personality.  Greek Australian – and Greek -- ethnicity is segmentary in nature, and Greek Australians view themselves as members of the wider Greek ethnic community via their membership of smaller scale ethno-regional Greek communities. [6]  Regional origin in Greece or in the Greek-speaking world outside Greece is reflected by the existence of a multitude of ethno-regional associations with their respective dance groups that maintain and promote the specific cultures and traditions of their ancestral homelands. [7] 

            Greek Australian ethno-regional associations and dance groups have responded to the urge felt by Greek Australians to create spaces within which their respective cultures and traditions may be expressed and transmitted to the younger generations.  The emergence in the late 1970s of a multicultural policy and ideology in Australia has had positive effects on the maintenance and promotion of ethno-regional and ethnic identities. [8]  Australians of different ethnic backgrounds were perceived as integral components of Australian society and were encouraged to have an active input in mainstream Australian society and culture.  Ethnic languages and ethnic dances were taught in Australian schools, both for the benefit of students of ethnic origin and for all Australians, while ethnic communities contributed to national Australian events, such as the celebration of Anzac day or, more recently, the organisation of the Sydney Olympics of 2000

            The situation had been quite different for Greek – and other – immigrants of earlier times.  Sophia remembers an occasion when girls originating from Rhodes, were attacked with tomatoes thrown at them while they attempted to dance in Hyde Park, Sydney, to celebrate the anniversary of the unification of the Dodecanese with Greece on March 7th 1959: [9]  They ran away terrified, poor things.  Now?!  You should have seen the flame, the expression of dignity and pride during the parade of March 25th a few days ago.  “I am proud of being wearing this [Greek national] costume, miss!” [they were saying].[10]  March 25th is the Greek national day, and Greek Australians celebrate it with traditional dances and other festivities in front of the Opera House, the most prominent landmark of their city, with a large participation of Australians of different backgrounds (picture 2).  Today young Greek Australian dancers feel self-confidence, and a sense of distinctiveness and even superiority towards non-Greek Australians by witnessing their heritage being admired and shared by the wider Australian community.

2.  Theoretical inspiration.

            When the young Greek Australians danced the kalamatianos on the Acropolis (see Introduction), by greeting one powerful symbol of Greek heritage with another, they were expressing their sharing of this heritage and their sense of belonging to the imagined community of all Greeks.  Ortner’s influential article on key symbols is applicable to the interpretation of the role of ethno-regional and of ethnic dances in Greek Australian life and identity. [11]  Ortner suggests that every culture has certain key symbols recognised as such by the natives themselves, coming up in many different contexts and subject to greater elaboration and restrictions compared to other aspects of this culture.  Key symbols are expressed in the public system and Ortner distinguishes them into “summarising” and “elaborating.”  Summarising symbols offer a synopsis of the system for the participants and function as objects of reverence and/or catalysts of emotion (sacred symbols).  Elaborating symbols, sort out, as it were, experience by providing the appropriate cultural “orientations” and suggesting cultural “strategies.” [12]

            Traditional Greek dances in Australia function as summarising and/ or as elaborating key symbols of Greek ethnic identity:  A kalamatianos or syrtos danced by the newly-weds and by their guests at a wedding reception is a symmarising symbol, for it declares the Greek identity of those participating in the ritual.  The same thing occurs when Greek Australians honour an important event by dancing their traditional dances, as on the occasions of Greek or Australian national days, on the Sydney Olympics of 2000 or, indeed, on the young people’s visit to the Acropolis mentioned at the outset of this article.  When Greek Australian children are taught traditional dances in their schools or in dance groups, and then encouraged to dance at public performances or at family events, these dances function as “elaborating” symbols of identity.  They provide the channels for the transmission and expression of values, practices and knowledge associated with Greek culture among members of young Greek Australian generations.

            Bourdieu’s concept of habitus provides another useful tool towards understanding and interpreting the centrality of traditional dances among Greek Australians as well as the intentions behind and the methods used in the teaching of these dances. [13]  Habitus refers to the embodiment of social meanings implemented through bodily training and discipline and manifested in everyday practices such as “standing, sitting, looking, speaking and walking.”  The “dispositions” of the habitus are cultivated through systematic interaction of the individual with “a whole symbolically structured environment” and gradually become “inscribed in the body schema and in schemes of thought.” [14]  People, then, think and/ or behave in certain ways instinctively, as a result of the habitus they acquired through life, especially in childhood.

            The learning of traditional dances provides an important way towards acquiring the dispositions of the habitus.  In the past, this used to be done in the home or family environment, with parents and grandparents teaching the young ones how to dance.  This may still occur at times, but it constitutes the exception rather than the rule.  Nowadays Greek Australian children learn how to dance at school or in schools of traditional dances and these environments constitute the main areas in which “bodily Greekness,” as it were, is acquired and expressed (see below, section 3). [15]  Our material suggests an important clarification to Bourdieu’s theory:  Habitus may be non-conscious, but its acquisition is often the result of consciously taken decisions and even strategies.  Greek Australian parents realise that their children can acquire Greekness more easily in practical ways, such as through the teaching of traditional dances, rather than through the teaching of the Greek language of which third or fourth generation children have very scant knowledge from home.  Thus they endeavour to send them to Greek dance classes. [16]

3.       The teaching of traditional dances.  Ways and contexts of learning.

            Australian-born Greeks learn traditional dances by attending family or community ritual events, but mostly as part of training in day of after-hours Greek schools, in the dance groups of ethnic communities or ethno-regional associations or in Greek traditional dance schools.  The occasions on which such dances are performed include celebrations relating to the life cycle of individuals (such as weddings, christenings, name-days and birthdays), or celebrations relating to the history and culture of the Greek ethnic community or their specific ethno-regional communities (such as religious, national or regional feasts).  However, the majority of Greek Australian children learn traditional dances at school or in dance groups.  Young Greeks start with dancing, then they find out about other associations,” Greek Australian students told me in Athens.  Many youth groups belonging to various associations function together with their respective dance groups, [17] this being another indication of the fact that nowadays traditional dances constitute one of the main, if not the most important, expression of Greek Australian ethnic identity.

            At St. Spyridon’s College in Sydney the curriculum of Greek subjects for primary school children includes the teaching of the Greek language, of Greek Orthodox religion and of traditional dances.  It is through the teaching of such dances that postures, movements and gestures expressing a Greek bodily self are transmitted to pupils.  Training in dance also involves learning how Greeks express their feelings and socialises the pupils into the values and practices of Greek culture.  Some knowledge of Greek language and history is also communicated through the teaching of traditional dances.  This is how Sophia, a teacher of Greek traditional dances, describes the process of teaching and the creation of a Greek habitus among her students:   You show them the right posture.  Girls should support their waists with their hands.  Women need strong waists to support the middle of their bodies.  The body needs to be upright, the spine has to be straight.  They do not only do exercise, they learn a culture.  Their bodies are upright, they show pride.  “Be proud.  This is a proud dance” [I tell them].  I saw children coming to me frightened, crying, keeping their heads low.  “Straighten up your backs!”, I told them.  For them to acquire this pride, you need to give it to them

            Together with the teaching of the movements of dances, pupils are given the cultural background and meaning of each dance.  As teachers often draw on Greek history or ancient Greek mythology to explain dances, [18] pupils learn about these subjects and are exposed to Greek language, by memorizing words and phrases as they combine them with movements.  While the teacher talks to them, the pupils follow the movements which dramatize a certain theme from Greek history or mythology:  They did not know about the Thourios of Regas. [19] Now I have taught it to them.  I made them understand it by way of movements,” Sophia said to me. 

            At St. Spyridon’s College the pupils sat on the floor in a circle and answered the teacher’s questions in Greek (picture 4).  For the most part, they were of the third generation and many of them were the offspring of ethnically mixed marriages.  While dancing, they sang the words of the song.  Sophia commented:  When they reach the third year of primary school, I start teaching them the history of the dances.  I tell them about kalamatianos, which was the ancient syrtos danced by maidens round the altar and we [Greeks] have developed it into a faster dance.  I tell them about the kalamatiano mantili, which was a ritual scarf.  Every dance is bound to our customs and traditions.  I give them the story of each dance as if it were a fairy tale.  They take in every word you tell them, in Greek and in English.

            Three prerequisites need to exist to ensure the teaching of Greek traditional dances:  teachers of dance, traditional music and traditional costumes.  Nowadays many teachers are Australian-born.  The first, Greek-born, teachers remember how they started teaching out of a desire for the survival of traditional dances and for the transmission of Greek culture to children of Greek background through these dances.  Most of these pioneering teachers worked in various jobs and offered their teaching after hours, often gratis, thus devoting their time and energy towards promoting Greek identity and culture in Australia.  They embraced this goal with enthusiasm, as they themselves were parents and grandparents of children born in Australia and strove for them “not to be lost to the community of all Greeks.” [20]  The teachers used every source available to learn these dances.  In Sophia’s words:  Since 1974 when I started visiting Greece, I have brought books, records and videocassettes.  Friends in Greece recorded television programmes on dance and sent them to me.  I knew twenty dances.  Now I teach my students about 180.  I would see somebody dancing, I went and asked him to show me the dances of the place he came from.

            Nowadays, the music and singing accompanying Greek dances are secured through CD’s and DJ’s.  As for Greek traditional costumes, they play an important role in the teaching and preservation of dances among the younger generations, by assisting young people in representing the persons and recreating the events of the dances (picture 5).  Australian Greek children learn the backgound of these dances by familiarising themselves with the semantics of the traditional costumes they wear.  As they dance a wide variety of dances, they need costumes from various parts of Greece, which are mostly sewn in Australia nowadays.

4. Key symbols of Greek Australian identity in the dance context.

            Greek Australian children and youths who belong to dance groups, dance at Greek regional and communal events and at events pertaining to all Australians.  On these occasions they develop the different dimensions of their identity by acquiring and expressing three sets of symbols:  Greek ethno-regional, Greek ethnic and Australian symbols (see Introduction) are instilled in Greek Australian youth and form the dispositions of their habitus (see section 2).  Moreover, repeated exposure to these symbols makes them aware of the multi-dimensionality and uniqueness of their own identities.

            Dances or performances of rituals including dances from certain areas of Greece function as key symbols of identity for people originating from these areas, whether they are dancers or spectators at a performance.  Such summarising key symbols are widely recognised as expressing some important values, practices and features of a group, thus they stand for it.  They act as catalysts of emotions for the members of the group and bind them together into a community (see section 2).  Such is the case, for example, of the celebration of Demetria organised by the Greek Macedonian associations of Australia on October 26th.  This is the anniversary of the liberation of Thessaloniki, the capital of Greek Macedonia, and it coincides with the honouring of the patron Saint of this city, St. Demetrios.  For social and political reasons this anniversary has assumed the importance of a Greek national celebration in Australia. [21]  Dances danced in Greek Macedonia, including those of Pontian refugees settled in Macedonia in the 20c, have been adopted by the wider Greek Australian ethnic community and are often viewed as Greek national ones.  While in Perth in 1984 as a new arrival from Greece, my admission that I did not know how to dance a well-known Pontian dance, was greeted with disbelief.  The Greek-wide importance of Demetria first dawned on me when I saw that pupils in Greek community schools were asked to write essays on the meaning of this anniversary.  The Demetria, then, is a summarising or “sacred” symbol of Greek Macedonian ethno-regional and of Greek ethnic identity in Australia.

            Other ritual performances including dancing involve elaborating key symbols of identity, namely those symbols that orient people’s thinking and provide culturally acceptable strategies for them to follow (see section 2).  Such is the case of the Castellorizian wedding, a combination of rituals expressing the principal values surrounding kinship, class, gender and age of the Castellorizian community and its historical and cultural background. [22]  Australian Castellorizians declare their sense of belonging by having at least some of the wedding rituals and customs performed at their weddings [23]

            Nowadays Greek Australian ethnic dances constitute part of the cultural capital of multicultural Australia (see Introduction).  Greek Australian dance performances are included in national Australian celebrations or in events addressed to all Australians.  Greek Australian dancers greeted the arrival of the Olympic flame in Sydney in June 2004 together with Australian Aborigines who constitute symbols par excellence of this country (picture 7).  Young Greek Australians are aware of this acceptance and even admiration of their dances by Anglo-Australians, a fact that contributes to their sense of self confidence and ethnic pride.  It is quite common for their Anglo-Australian friends to attend and even actively participate in Greek community dance events.

            Greek Australian members of dance groups are often invited to other parts of Australia or even to Greece to perform their dances.  Sophia’s group, based in Sydney, has been invited to Perth, Brisbane, Newcastle, but also Greece to dance on celebrations and other important occasions.  The Greek Australian students I interviewed in Athens in 2007 had the opportunity to dance with other Greeks, either living in Greece or part of the wider Greek diaspora.  By comparing the performance of these different categories of Greeks, they concluded that Greek Australians danced generally better than Greek Americans, and more often than indigenous Greeks.  Such exposure to a wide variety of dance environments makes Greek Australians aware both of the cultural variation of Greekness and of their own cultural uniqueness which is a combination of their ethno-regional, Greek ethnic and wider Australian symbols and values.

5.    Socialisation into Greek culture in dance groups

            Greek Australians generally acknowledge the significance of dance groups in forging and maintaining relationships of friendship among youth of Greek origin.  They create Greek parea,” they say, by the word “parea” referring both to companionship and to the actual group of Greek friends sharing it.  The parents of children attending dance classes often become friends and even godparents to each other’s children.  Frequent contact between youth of both sexes often results in marriages, as in the case of Sophia’s school where acquaintance led to fourteen marriages among students.

            Observation of the positive effects of traditional dance groups on the promotion of socialising and of ethnic identity maintenance among young has led the Kytherian Association of Sydney to actively support these groups. [24]  Well before World War II, the Kytherian Association of Sydney organised annual Debutante Balls during which young men and women presented themselves formally to the Kytherian community.  Kytherians scattered in the vast provinces of New South Wales and of Queensland, where they owned or worked in catering businesses, often travelled to Sydney to participate in this important event.  Several elderly Kytherian women I interviewed in Sydney in 2004 told me that they had met their husbands on these occasions.  The institution of the Debutante Balls continues quite strong among the Kytherians of Sydney.  The Greek Australian students of Kytherian background that I met in Athens in 2007 told me that they and their partners were spending long hours in rehearsals including dancing in preparation for this event.

            The Kytherian Association of Sydney has been running dance groups in which more than 120 children of Kytherian, other Greek, and even non-Greek Australian background take classes.  Most of today’s Kytherian youth are either third or fourth generation, thus lacking Greek language skills.  However, they learn how to express their Greekness in practical ways, such as through dance.  Furthermore, Kytherian parents encourage their children to participate in dance classes of the Association so that they may have more control on their children’s friends.  Above all, parents believe that in this way they lay the foundations for their children’s Greek socialising:  If they do not make any Greek friends while they are young, it is difficult to do so later,” the President of the Kytherian Association told me.  These Kytherian children later provide candidates for the Debutante Balls, thus expressing their ethnic identity through a different structure according to their age. [25]  Young Kytherians realize the importance of socialising in dance groups for the shaping of their ethnic identities and consider this as part of their community tradition and heritage that they need to transmit to their own children.  I will do for my children what my parents have done for me,” a Kytherian student told me in Athens.

6.  Dance and migrant generations:  “Authentic” tradition and change.

            Traditional Greek dances are systems of symbols generally recognizable by the dancers and by most of a Greek audience.  However, such dance movements and postures often have different meanings for members of different migrant generations.  According to Cohen, the commonality of symbols shared by the members of a community, is a commonality of forms whose content may vary considerably.  Symbols manage to create feelings of belonging despite the variety of meanings attached to them. [26]  One needs to investigate what occurs when changes in the basic structure and form of a traditional dance are such that its entire style changes to the point that it may no longer be recognizable as a “traditional” and “authentic” Greek dance.  As Peterson Royce defines it, style is composed of symbols, forms, and underlying value orientations and it therefore refers to culture and identity itself. [27]  Thus the discourse surrounding changes in the performance of traditional dances that has developed in the Greek Australian community is simultaneously a discourse on transformations of Greek Australian culture and identity.

            For first generation Greek teachers of traditional dances, the creation of “hybrid dances” constitutes the worst deviation from “tradition.”  Such hybridity occurs when one Greek dance is combined with another, or, even worse, when it is combined with a non-Greek dance.  Greek Australian dance teachers consider that such transgressions of “boundaries” undermine Greek identity and the survival of the Greek community in Australia. [28]  Sophia expesses her disappointment at such initiatives undertaken by younger, Australian-born dance teachers:  They do not keep them distinct [literally: “clean”].  Take modern Greek dance motifs, yes, but don’t include Latin American stuff [in your choreographies].  I keep my dances clean.  I include new movements, but I do not change my dances.  I will not destroy  karagouna to turn it into sousta.  Many people tell me:  “When you go, we do not know what will happen to[Greek] dance”.”  “Karagouna” and “sousta” are dances from different regions of Greece, Thessaly and the islands, respectively.  Sophia considers the creation of such hybrids as a kind of “pollution” in the sense developed by Mary Douglas, i.e. as “matter out of place” which causes “formlessness” and “disorder” in society. [29]

            According to Kroeber’s classical definition,“tradition” is “the internal handing on through time of culture traits.” [30]  An essentialist approach suggests that there exists an “authentic” version of tradition, since these culture traits can be defined and described.  An instrumentalist approach, on the other hand, views tradition as a continuous conceptualisation of the present through reference to the past. [31] When Greek Australians talk about “authentic tradition”, it seems that their understanding lies somewhere between these two perspectives. They view certain traits of traditional Greek dances as basic and vital for the expression of Greek identity.  Their transgression defies the very meaning and symbolism of dances.  A certain amount of innovation is allowed, but it should not affect what are viewed as quintessentially Greek aspects of the dance.  The choice of these basic traits of traditional Greek dances, however, varies according to migrant generation, among other factors. Thus not all Greek Australians’ opinions coincide with regard to what constitutes “authentic tradition” while judging each dance. [32]

            The following account by Sophia presents a first generation teacher’s view on the issue of authenticity for traditional Greek dances:  This is what tradition means.  There are some dances that do not change, because their movements are intextricably bound to the meaning of the dance.  Take the gaitanaki of Rhodes, for example.  As my teacher had explained to me when I was at school, it was created by girls who were embroidering and knitting the gaitanaki [type of stitch and/or knitting pattern].  It was Easter and the girls said:  “Can’t we create a dance following the patterns of our embroidery?”  So they did three stitches (three steps), then the needle passes under the thread, to the left side, then another three stitches to the right and a loop, as if you were making the central, round part of a rose, a small flower in the middle. This is how I teach the gaitanaki dance to the children.  How and why change these movements?”

            Australian-born parents and teachers of traditional Greek dances, however, do not worry so much about the semantics of movements or the explanation of each dance, in the same way as they do not worry about young children learning Greek grammar when they go to a Saturday or after hours Greek community school.  The children are often taught traditional Greek dances which contain new elements.  In their parents’ view, it is enough that the children do “something Greek” and mix with other children of Greek background (see section 5).  Dance classes for children organised by the Kytherian Association of Sydney offer the teaching of Latin dances, too, yet this is condoned by the Association since it is seen as a strategy towards attracting young people to the community. 

            Moreover, “tradition” for Australian-born parents and teachers of dances differs in content from its equivalent for first generation Greek Australians.  Debutante Balls for Kytherians and the celebration of the anniversary of the liberation of Greece in front of the Sydney Opera House on March 25th, constitute events invested with ethnic symbolism and are perceived as part of their tradition, to be handed to their own descendants.

            Changes in the values and practices surrounding the teaching of traditional Greek dances have also occurred within the first generation.  Sophia recalls that from 1958, when she migrated to Australia, till 1974, she was never paid for her teaching of dances:  I felt that dance was something that I had to give rather than sell.  She recalls her school teacher on Rhodes, who had discerned Sophia’s talent for dance and was to invite her to her home to show her more traditional dances.  In 1974, however, Sophia created her own traditional dance school on noticing that ex-students of hers were making money out of teaching dances.  To recall Mauss’ influential theory on gift exchange, from being a case of “generalised reciprocity” involving a vague sense of obligation binding giver and receiver of the gift/dance, the teaching of traditional dances has gradually become a service and a commodity characterised by “balanced reciprocity.” [33] 

            The subject of traditional costumes worn by Greek Australian dancers also illustrates adaptation to new needs and circumstances in Australia.  Sophia proudly showed me the costumes that elderly Greek women from Ebonas, a village on Rhodes, had sewn for her.  The stitching was done by hand,” she said, and proceeded to explain that nowadays most costumes are sewn in Australia.  The original materials, such as cloth woven on the loom, cannot be found easily, but dancers prefer to wear lighter costumes for greater comfort so that they may dance a variety of dances without needing to change

7.  Conclusions.

            “We consider dance like a lighthouse.  I can see it in front of me and I advance towards it, but cannot reach it.  You know that your roots are there, you wish to reach this point.”

            This statement by Sophia sums up the symbolic significance of traditional dances for Greek Australians.

            Traditional dances constitute landmarks and key symbols of Greek Australian identity, both ethno-regional and that of the wider Greek ethnic community.  As such they epitomize identity and/ or orient Greek Australians towards ethnically appropriate values and strategies.  Dances have also become part of the collective cultural capital of multicultural Australia, thus being shared by non-Greek Australians and contributing to the repertoire of Australian national celebrations and events.

            The form and manner of learning traditional dances has changed over the years in the Greek Australian community, reflecting its social and cultural transformations as well as those of the wider Australian society.  First generation teachers of traditional dance, in particular, have endeavoured to transmit the knowledge of dances combining it with the teaching of Greek language, history and ancient Greek mythology.  Members of younger, Australian-born generations, have been introducing new practices and new movements to the teaching of Greek traditional dances responding to current needs and values.  The discourse surrounding these changes revolves round the notions of “authenticity” and “tradition.”  These concepts involve selective interpretations of the past in the present, which differ according to generation.     


I wish to thank Sophia Haskas for sharing with me her insights on the teaching of Greek traditional dances in Australia and for providing most of the photographs for this article.  I would also like to thank Ilias Marsellos, in charge of the University of Athens programme for Greek diaspora students, who brought me in contact with Greek Australian students.  Finally, my thanks are due to the staff and pupils of St. Spyridon’s College, Sydney, for allowing me to observe the teaching of traditional dances and other school activities and projects relating to the teaching of Greek culture.


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Dr. Vassiliki Chryssanthopoulou

Research Fellow, Hellenic Folklore Research Centre,

Academy of Athens


[1] By general acceptance the people who migrated to Australia are known as the first generation, while their descendants constitute subsequent generations of Greek Australians.  The migrant generation of people studied is crucial when dealing with matters of identity, especially in the cases of the offspring of mixed marriages, who partake of more than one cultural backgrounds.

[2] Selectively, see Chryssanthopoulou 1993 and  2003.

[3] This is Sophia Haskas, who has been teaching Greek traditional dances in Sydney since 1958, when she migrated to Australia at the age of 16.  She started her own dance school in 1974 and still teaches hundreds of children in two Greek Australian primary schools and in other establishments.

[4] This is the College of St. Spyridon at Kingsford, Sydney, functioning under the auspices of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, in which education in the Greek language and in the Orthodox religion is provided for the students within the context of their Australian education.  It was Tuesday of the Holy Week, so I had the opportunity to observe and photograph the students’ festive preparations to celebrate this most important Greek cultural event.   

[5] See Price 1963 and 1975, Bottomley 1979, Gilchrist 1995, 1998 and 2004, Tsounis 1975 and 1988, Doumanis 1999, Tamis 2000 and 2005, Tamis and Gavaki 2002.

[6] See Chryssanthopoulou 2007.  On the segmentary model of political organization see Evans-Pritchard 1940.  See also Herzfeld 1985 for an application of this model to his analysis of Cretan identity.  Greek Australians’ socio-economic and/ or symbolic attachment to their regional homelands within their overall belonging to the “imagined community” of all Greeks (cf. Anderson 1991), should be understood as “nesting dichotomizations of inclusiveness and exclusiveness” (Cohen 1978: 387).

[7] On the ethno-regional dimension of ethnicity among Greek Australians see Chryssanthopoulou 2008a.  On Greek ethno-regional associations in Victoria, Australia and the teaching of their cultural traditions see Baltatzis 2003.  See also Dimen and Friedl 1976 on regional variation in Greece and in Cyprus.

[8] See Australian Ethnic Affairs Council 1977 and Jupp 2002, especially pp. 21-40 and 83-104.

[9] The islands of the Dodecanese in the southeast of the Aegean sea became part of the Greek state on March 7th 1948.

[10] On “Anglo-conformity,” a term used by Gordon referring to the philosophy of assimilation of migrants that “demanded the complete renunciation of the immigrants’ ancestral culture in favour of the behaviour and values of the Anglo-Saxon core group” (cf. Gordon 1964: 85), see Bottomley 1979: 8-12.

[11] Cf. Ortner 1973.

[12] For a detailed analysis of key symbols in the rituals of Greek Australians see Chryssanthopoulou 2008 a.

[13] Cf. Bourdieu 1977.

[14] Bourdieu 1977: 15 in Cowan 1990: 23.

[15] Cf. Kritsioti – Raftis 2003: 119-132 on the teaching of traditional dances as part of the socialisation of children on the island of Karpathos.

[16] Similarly Kritsioti – Raftis note that grandparents and parents on Karpathos endeavour to teach children how to dance by realising that “only at this tender age can habits and values be embodied and transferred to the future through the body” (Kritsioti – Raftis 2003: 132).

[17] Cf. Baltatzis 2003: 101.

[18] For the use by 19c and early 20c intellectuals of the mythology, history and culture of ancient Greece to stress continuity between ancient and modern Greek culture within the context of the formation of modern Greek national identity see Herzfeld 1982 and Danforth 1984.

[19] This is the famous poem by Regas Feraios, an 18th century Greek intellectual and follower of the ideas of the Enlightenment who contributed to the creation of a Greek national consciousness that led to the Greek revolution of independence from the Ottoman Empire.

[20] The same thing happened with the pioneering teachers of Greek who taught Australian-born Greek children how to read and write in Greek in Greek community or church schools operating after normal school hours and on Saturdays.

[21] This is due to the “Macedonian issue” dominating relations between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) since the break-up of Yugoslavia and even before that time.  Both Greece and FYROM use the term “Macedonia” to refer to territories, symbols and identities of their respective countries, thus leading to cultural and political antagonism.  New world countries, such as Australia, which have received immigrant populations from both countries, have been subject to ethno-nationalist competition between the two sides.  On this issue see Danforth 1995.

[22] Castellorizo is a small, one-settlement island in the southeast Aegean sea, where a significant chain of Greek migrants to Australia came from (cf. Chryssanthopoulou 1993: 31-49, Chryssanthopoulou-Farrington 1986 and Yiannakis 1996).  On the history of Castellorizo see also Pappas 1994.

[23] See Chryssanthopoulou 1993: 350-423.

[24] Kythera is an island in the south of the Peloponnese where one of the earliest and largest chains of migration to Australia originated from.  On Kythera and on Kytherian migration to Australia see Leontsinis 1987, Vanges 1993 and Chryssanthopoulou 2004b.

[25] Community organisation according to age is prominent among Greek Australians and there are clubs and associations catering for different age-groups (cf. Chryssanthopoulou 1993: 185-201 and 208-223).  For a detailed analysis of the diverse perceptions of ethnic identity and approaches to rituals by Greek Australians of different generations see Chryssanthopoulou 2004a and 2008.  On age stratification in Greek culture see also Hirschon 1983.

[26] Cohen 1985: 20.

[27] Peterson Royce 2002 [1977]: 157.  On dance style as an index of identity see also Panopoulou 2004.

[28] On the concept of “boundaries” in ethnic identity construction see Barth 1969.  Barth defines ethnicity as a process of “continuing dichotomization between members and outsiders” (ibid, p. 14).  As Stokes points out, “music [and/or dance] is used by social actors to erect boundaries, to maintain distinctions between us and them ...” (cf. Stokes 1994:6).

[29] See Douglas 1966.

[30] Cf. Handler and Linnekin 1984: 274.

[31] On the discourse surrounding tradition and authenticity see Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983, Handler and Linnekin 1984, Linnekin 1991 and Chatzitaki-Kapsomenou 2003.

[32] Stokes views “authenticity” as “a discursive trope of great persuasive power ..... It is a way of saying to outsiders and insiders alike that ... “this is the music [and/or dance] that makes us different from other people” (cf. Stokes 1994: 6-7).

[33] Cf. Mauss 1925.