Young people today literally live and breathe social media, saturate online dating sites to find a partner, and are hardly, if at all, concerned about exposing their lives and identities to the entire world – an extreme contrast to life back in the 1960’s. Back then, flirting and dating was no easy task for the lighthearted, particularly for young men and women of Greek descent.
“Those were challenging times, especially for all of us Greek boys who grew up in a close-knit environment where family honour was paramount to everything else,” recalls 70-year-old expatriate, Spiros Sarris who was born in the village of Sianna in Rhodes and migrated to Australia with his parents at the age of six.
“Back then, dating a Greek girl was almost an impossible task in itself, given young men were not allowed to approach, let alone pursue a romance with a good Greek girl, unless they had already sought and gained permission from the young lady’s father or older brother.”
The pre-existing ‘status quo’ was clear and could be summarised in the prevailing view that it was considered almost a ‘criminal offence’ to approach a Greek girl and therefore ‘ντροπιάσει’ (shame) her and her family, unless one was prepared to agree to the promise of marriage.
“All this was pretty much embedded in the mind of every Greek young man, who in the majority of cases, was still somehow expected to marry a Greek girl. Nevertheless, one was not allowed to go anywhere near another let alone seek to start a relationship – and what an oxymoron that was,” remembers Spiros.
By the end of the 60’s, young men greatly outnumbered the young women on the ships arriving in Australia from Greece, photos taken during that era confirming the disproportionate ratio of men to women.
The gender imbalance, as wonderful as it was for the females, was rather unfortunate for the males creating fierce competition amongst the young boys. Supply and demand meant that strategy and tactics were in full force with the weekly community dances being the only outlet for young people of that era.
“Most Saturday nights were spent attending ‘χοροεσπερίδες’. Those dances and halls were much more than just four walls and a stage for us; they were social homes away from home during our youth. They were places for family and friends to gather, to rejoice, celebrate and possibly the only place that we were allowed to approach a Greek girl, and after gaining her father’s permission, invite her to accompany us to the dance floor.”
That moment was pretty much the one and only window of opportunity to make a lasting good impression.
During the dance, the focus was for the young man to introduce himself and hopefully charm his dance partner, who would then proceed to innocently give away the three most valuable pieces of information that would allow the communication channels to remain open; their name, the suburb they lived in, and most importantly, the church their family attended.
“That last one was by far the most crucial piece of information, because the following day we were able to attend Sunday service at the same church in an attempt to slowly start a romantic friendship with the young lady that had caught our eye the night before,” recalls Spiros, who together with his friends used to spend every Saturday morning flicking through the social pages of the largest circulation South Australian newspaper, which back then used to feature all non-Australian dances that took place each weekend.
At one of those Saturday night dances on 28 February, 1970, hosted by the Greek Orthodox Community of South Australia at the Olympic Hall, young Spiros met a beautiful young lady by the name of Christine Panayiotakopoulos.
“The Olympic Hall’s greatest role in my life was as a ‘προξενήτρα’,” he said.
“But all in all, it fostered and nurtured relationships that went on to last lifetimes, not only between the young men of the Adelaide Greek Australian community but also between the young women and amongst the genders as well.”
Eighteen months later, Christine and Spiros would return to the Olympic Hall for their wedding reception. They have been married for 46 years.
“Despite the fear of rejection and risk of embarrassment, flirting with a young lady back then was a gentle and romantic kind of art that made both young males and females feel incredibly special and empowered,” says Spiros.
“Looking back now, it felt like it was the last step before adulthood.”