Greek traditional music travelled along the Frankston train line this month, together with musicians Joseph Tsompanopoulo, John Kostaraki, Dimitri Hoplaro and the dancing teacher of the Greek Community of Melbourne Nick Papaefthimiou, as they sang Greek traditional songs and played gaida, lyra and kaval, koutalia and ntahare on the first occasion and on the second occasion violin, lute, koutalia and ntahare.

The ‘Multicultural Express’ has secured a grant through the Unity Through Partnerships Program, which is funded by the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship. The goal is to celebrate diversity along the Frankston train line by showcasing community-based music, food, dancing and cultural experiences.

According to Nick Papaefthimiou, the passengers reacted in a positive way; on the first occasion an Asian schoolgirl returning from her music lesson pulled out her violin and joined in and a young guy, who initially looked a little intimidating, asked to play the toumberleki.

As Nick describes: “He was fantastic, he was half Greek, half African. We had another young schoolgirl, a Russian Jewish girl with her mother, also join in on toumbeleki. On the second outing we had a teenage girl with an intellectual disability jump up and dance and had the whole train carriage clapping. We have had over 30,000 views of the videos on Facebook and the videos have been shared by many people. Two young girls from Greece commented that they want to move to that city.”

Over the last four weeks, many alternative cultural events have taken place to help promote Greek culture to broader Australian society.

The First Friday Dance Club, held at Queensbridge Square at Southbank Boulevard, is an initiative of the City of Melbourne’s Arts and Participation program and is supported by Outer Urban Projects.

The program provides opportunities for people to come together to learn, share and experience dance. Each month a different dance genre is presented. Ιn 32 degree heat on a Friday afternoon, dozens of people, all of whom were non-Greek, danced in the street under the instructions of dancing teacher Nick Papaefthimiou, who showed them more than forty dances and drank litres of water while dancing in his Greek traditional costume. People were exposed to music and dances from all regions of Greece and were able to experience the diversity of Greece folk traditions.

In another event, as part of the Thessaloniki-Melbourne sister city 30 year celebrations, the dancing groups started Sunday’s festivities at Federation Square with musicians and dancers playing music and dancing along the street from Melbourne Town Hall to Federation Square.
“The atmosphere was fantastic, with people of all ethnicities joining in,” says Nick.

“Unfortunately,” he states, “a vast majority, if not all of Melbourne’s Greek events are aimed at first and second generation Greeks. When dance groups do perform at other events there is generally no opportunity for the audience to jump in and participate.

“With Bollywood and Latin dance classes they are full of people from other ethnicities – this is something that has not been achieved by the Greek community. With examples like this we can see that we can showcase our traditions authentically and not modernised in a tacky fashion and they will still appeal to non-Greeks.”

Nick Papaefthimiou is very passionate about Greek culture and has been studying the Greek folk tradition and dancing for many years. For the past ten years he has been teaching dancing at the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria as well as working closely with the Adelaide Greek Community (GOCSA).

“They started with fewer than 10 people,” he says, “but now have multiple age divisions, and have invested over $70,000 on costumes. Each year we go over and assist in their concert, also giving young musicians a chance to learn and play more songs. I have also worked with the Canberra Greek community dance group for a number of years.”

Each year at the Antipodes Festival, Nick and his dancing group try to showcase things that have not been seen before, such as Apokriatika traditions, Thracian dances from the Black Sea, dances from Asia Minor and the islands. For next year, he reveals they have been working on various forms of tsamika, many of which don’t resemble what we refer to as ‘normal tsamika’.

“In general,” he says, “most people know the zorba dance and that’s about it. But we as dancing teachers, executive producers of radio stations or presidents of associations have big responsibilities to keep well informed and stay in touch, to collaborate and share ideas with other people from the association down the street, other states and countries, in order to come up with better ideas and new things.

“Every day you hear of Greek associations that are closing down. Is anyone wondering why? Is anyone doing anything?” he wonders.

“The light at the end of the tunnel may be the new Cultural Centre at the Greek Community in Melbourne. We hope that with the new wave of migrants a fresh injection of life will come into the community. We were lucky to have had Dimitri Hoplaros here for four years.”

“Once upon a time,” Nick continues, “children fitted in around parents’ lives and kids had either soccer or dancing as activities. Now parents fit their lives around their children and their multiple activities, which if they are lucky include one day of Greek school where, in three to four hours, they are expected to learn the language and dancing.

“If kids don’t fit in with the traditional or folk type of being Greek then they say ‘O Ellinismos den me ekfrazi emena’ (‘Greek does not identify me’) and they become Aussies. They visit Mykonos, Santorini, Paros and Ios when they go to Greece, they go to the Full Moon Party in Bali and they have no idea about the River Party in Nestorio Kastorias, the Houdetsi festival in Crete and countless summer outdoor concerts in every region of Greece.”

Our conversation makes me wonder, though, about the final destination … hopefully non-stop culture (and lots of work!).