Anne Gani Sirota leads a dozen dancers around the room, arms intertwined, in a dimly-lit dance studio in Sherman Oaks, California. In Greek dance, the entire room is your partner, and Sirota takes that honor seriously.
Every Friday night, the dancer's studio at Kypseli Dance Center draws a massive crowd of Greek Angelenos. Most attendees are over 50 and seem to have the moves down seamlessly, welcoming the music of Greece and the weekly respite with open arms. For a few hours, they get to feel like they're in Athens.
Sirota, a dancer and organizer at Kypseli, found her love for Greek dance in Los Angeles in the 1970s, after her grandparents passed away and left her with the desire to reclaim her Greek cultural heritage.
"For me, it was like coming back to my roots," Sirota said. "It was more than just dance. It was rediscovering my culture because I'm half Jewish and half Greek."
Many of the dancers from Kypseli will attend the Greek Orthodox Faith Dance Fellowship Festival (FDF) in San Diego over Presidents' Day weekend. Initiated in the '70s by Metropolitan Anthony – the spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco – the now 40-year-old festival remains a driving force of connection among Greeks in Southern California, bringing together dancers, musicians, directors and performers from across the world.
"Bishop Anthony's goal was to bring Greeks together in a safe and fun environment," Aris Yortzidas, a Greek dancer, said. "People knew it was about religion but it was also about cultural connections. He saw an opportunity to do that with dance."
Yortzidas grew up in Downey, California, where his family belonged to the Greek Orthodox church. He began his affair with Greek dancing in 1982 at the age of six, and has continued well into adulthood, crediting a scholarship that allowed him to travel to Greece to study dance techniques for his success.
When he returned from Greece, Yortzidas began teaching dance teams in the U.S. with the knowledge the scholarship endowed upon him. Eventually, Greek dance led him to his wife who, alongside him, now serves as a judge at the Faith Dance Fellowship.
"It's not just about the spiritual connection to the church, or an emotional connection to friends and family," Yortzidas said. "There's a connection anthropologically. [The dance festival] has helped to preserve things – when I see a costume, I think, 'wow that's from the village…' It's no different from why they organize in Greece."
Like other Greek Orthodox churches in the Los Angeles area, St. Katherine in Redondo Beach is home to four different Greek dance groups that range in throughout all ages; all of whom are preparing for the Faith Dance Fellowship festival.
Helen Spanos serves on the board of directors at St. Katherine and helps organize fundraisers for the dance school. According to her, the presence of dance at the church helps the children stay connected to their history and to their community.
"It keeps our traditions alive from generation to generation," Spanos said. "We want our kids to be in touch with their heritage. The church is a great community for that."
Spanos expects to see dancers from all across the continental United States, as well as from Hawaii, Canada and Greece, at the Faith Dance Fellowship.
"We are all disconnected from the motherland," Yortzidas said. "This is a way to bring it closer to home. It's rich in history and symbolism. There's a beauty in that."
Sirota concurs, stating that her connection with Greek folk dance allowed her to cultivate a relationship with her heritage as an adult.
"The more Greeks I met through folk dancing and the move involved I became with Greek dancing, the more connected I felt with my Greek grandparents and my Greek background," Sirota said.
Now, she travels to Greece every year to do research on her family's history.
"There was one popular song that we used to dance to," Sirota said. "Samiotisa. My father said it was played in the house by my grandmother. She died before I was born, so hearing it made her come alive for me."
Reach Staff Reporter Marie Targonski-O'Brien here.