Celebrating 30 Years: An Inside Look at the Minoan Dancers

Whether they are at their church’s festival or at the Dora Stratou Theatre in Greece, it doesn’t matter, just that they are dancing together. Effie and Vasilis Fourakis have been married since 1984 and you can easily see the love between them. As the creators and Artistic Directors of The Minoan Dancers from the Nativity of Christ Greek Orthodox Church, Novato, CA, they reached a huge milestone in October 2016 by celebrating the 30th Anniversary of their organization.

Effie and Vasilis, 1994, San Francisco’s Ethnic Dance Festival at the Palace of Fine Arts

In 1986, Effie and Vasilis were approached by parents of the Novato parish and asked to create a dance group. They willingly took the lead (surely there was a mandili in hand), and have successfully led ever since.

From L to R, Odysseas Fourakis, Andreas Fourakis, Effie Fourakis, Elektra Fourakis, Vasilis Fourakis, and Achilleas Fourakis. Effie and Vasilis with their children and nephew Andreas.

Without missing a beat, their three children (Achilleas, Odysseas, and Elektra) have enthusiastically danced alongside them throughout the years. The Minoan Dancers have had the honor of performing all over, with more than 200 performances to their name. Their commitment to the organization is so admirable. When they aren’t dancing, you can find them busy at work with their businesses. Vasilis owns the closet organizing company, California Space Organizers and Effie owns the bakery, Glyká Sweets. To truly understand their passion and zest for perpetuating Greek Folk Dancing, a look at their past, present, and future is a must…

Effie was born and raised in San Francisco, and grew up in the Holy Trinity parish. It was there that she first learned how to dance under the direction of Teddy Halkias. In the mid-70s, Effie saw the Alkmini Kouri Bloom Greek Dance Ensemble, which was directed by Alkmini Kouri Bloom. Effie remembers, “I went and saw the group perform, there was the spoon dance, and she would do this other dance, she called it the ‘ancient dance.’ They would be dressed in ancient, ancient clothing, like a statue when they light the Olympic Flame. She had this beautiful choreography, I was so inspired.” That summer, Effie went to Greece for the first time with her parents. “I didn’t really know what Greece was. It was sort of like, I knew I was Greek, but that was such an eye-opener,” she said. Upon returning, she met Bloom’s son and he suggested that Effie dance with them, inspired as she was, she became one of their dancers. In constructing choreography for the Ensemble, Bloom found inspiration and ideas from going to Greece every summer, “She would go to Dora Stratou and take notes; she didn’t have a video camera. It was what she remembered, but how do you write that down?”  In 1976, Effie participated in the first Folk Dance and Choral Festival.

Born and raised in Piraeus, Greece, Vasilis Fourakis came to the States in 1978. In arriving in America, Vasilis found a piece of home at the Taverna Athena in Oakland with his parea and the lively Greek music and dancing. He vividly remembers going to the Oakland Auditorium for the Oakland Greek Festival and witnessing the high energy performances of the Greek Festival Company Dancers and PanHellenic Dancers, under the direction of Athan Karras and Frosene Phillips.

In 1981, Vasilis recalls meeting Bloom, “She goes ‘Horevete? You dance? Do a little bit.’ So I do a little bit. ‘Eh, you’ve got to come to the group!’” Once Vasilis joined the Bloom Ensemble, it meant training intensely: “I was dancing 16 hours a week to catch up with them, to be at their level because I joined in November and they had February performances.” At the time, the Ensemble was getting ready to perform at the De Young Museum in San Francisco where there was an Alexander the Great exhibit being displayed. With both Effie and Vasilis dancing in the Ensemble together, the stars had aligned; fast forward to 1984 and they were married.

Dancing and training under Bloom set the bar high for Effie and Vasilis, “She [Bloom] was always very professional, in everything we had to do,” Vasilis describes, “one thing we really learned from there was when you give a performance, you give a performance!” The standard that Bloom instilled in them is still evident today with The Minoans. Dancing on tables, tsalimia, spins, and more – their moves wow the crowd and captivate their audience. Unknowingly, the audience plays an integral part to their performances, “We feed off the audience, we like to have fun!” Vasilis explains. Their last performance with Bloom was in May 1984 at the Marin Greek Festival.

The Original Minoan Dancers at the Marin Greek Festival in 1986.

In 1986, the creation of the Minoans was put in to motion, ’ We didn’t know how to teach dance; teaching is sort of a different ball game, right?” Vasilis stated. With Mrs. Bloom out of the area, it left Effie and Vasilis to become self-taught teachers. They became creative and tried their hand out at home first, he continues, “So we start collecting music, we move all of the furniture out of here, trying to figure out what to do. We started the dance group with 10 dancers and then we started an adult group.”

The youth group of Minoans went to FDF in 1987 for the first time, and the adult group went in 1989, when FDF was held at the Oakland Hyatt. The first year, The Minoans brought four performances for the group. By their second year and onwards, they would go to perform sometimes 6-10 performances a year (in 1999 they performed 25 times!). A  few highlights of their performances: travelling to other parish festivals (Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Castro Valley, Vallejo, Oakland, and more),  Greek Independence Day events, Oxi Day Events, street fairs, international fairs, wedding receptions, My Big Fat Greek Wedding screening parties, and the International Day at the Marin County Fair, just to name a few.

Return to Our Roots IV in Rethymno, Crete in 2007.

Most remarkable about The Minoans, Effie and Vasilis have led trips to Greece with members of the dance group four times to perform Return to Our Roots in a series of productions, which even includes performing at the famed Dora Stratou Theatre. Whoever could participate from the youngest dancer and upwards, there were 25 dancers in total. Return to Our Roots I was in 1994, Return to Our Roots II took place in 2001, III and IV in 2003 and 2007, respectively. Detailing a performance at Dora Stratou, Vasilis said, “We did 25 dances, five areas of Greece, with three costume changes. With all the musicians from Dora Stratou, we had Papadakis, [he] plays for Long Beach. We had him because we started doing forgotten dances of Crete and he was the only one who knew them.” He was so moved that he invited them to his wedding. They even overwhelmed relatives that lived in Greece and came to see their family from America perform, they left the performance with tears. Not to mention, the impact it has on a personal level.

“The moment you take that first step: I’m dancing and I’m in Greece,” recollected Effie. “For me, I was raised there, and to go back and dance, oh my God, it was incredible,” said Vasilis.

Imagine the emotion and feelings that would overcome you, to perform in the homeland of your heritage. Adding to the power of the experience is the fact that the Fourakises have always fostered a familial environment in their organization, so parents had the chance to dance with their children in Greece.

Effie gave an example of one family in particular: “The mom had grown up doing FDF in LA, the dad had never really danced. We put costumes on him and taught him a couple dances, and they loved it. At Dora Stratou with their kids!”

Many memories and moments have bonded this dance group, running the gamut. Upon dancing in Metropolitan Anthony’s village in Crete, Rodopou, their dressing room was a room where they were cooking pilafi! Effie describes it as if it were yesterday, “We go in the room and we look and the locals are cooking the pilafi with a burner, with this huge pot, they are stirring in the room!

Metropolitan Anthony of Blessed Memory and Elektra share a moment together.

It was so hot.” Metropolitan Anthony was there with them and he memorably got up to take their daughter Elektra’s hand in the dance line.

On the Return to Our Roots trips, the group allows time for fun and sightseeing, spending a week together with a set schedule. Some of the dancers plan their own vacation in Greece with their family members and extend their vacation there. The Minoans’ resume is chalk full of incredible performances, including performing at The Palace of Fine Arts for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival multiple times.

San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival 2006 at the Palace of Fine Arts.

They first started as a group that must audition, and eventually became so familiar, that they were invited back to perform.

Bringing their children into The Minoans was nothing but natural, Effie and Vasilis’ three children have been immersed in the love of Greek Dancing since they stepped foot in the groups. In fact, Return to Our Roots I provided their first-born, Achilleas, with a memory of a lifetime. “Achilleas’ first performance was in Greece, he was 4 years old,” Effie recalls. Both Odysseas and Elektra followed suit, learning the dances at a young age. Odysseas now directs the middle school age group and is making his parents proud. Achilleas also helps teaching specialized steps.” How do two parents successfully lead a dance ministry growing by the year? The help of YiaYias of course! Both Vasilis and Effie’s mothers have been extremely instrumental in contributing their help and time to The Minoans. In describing the help from their mothers, “We had my mom babysit and help raise the kids, and Vasilis’ mom here making our costumes,” said Effie.

Vasilis’ mom Loula is from Santorini, though as he explains, most of her time has been with Cretans. At nine months pregnant, Vasilis said she was still doing pentozali! She has been sewing since she was 13 years old and went to school to become a seamstress, although she does not use patterns. Loula made many gowns for brides including Effie’s, yet the first costume she made was in 1981 for Vasilis when he joined the Bloom Ensemble. They may not have been in the same country, but Loula knew her son’s measurements, thus creating a costume that as Vasilis said, “fit like a glove two weeks before performances!” That costume to this day is still used in the group.

The Minoans have built up a fantastic inventory of costumes, with around seven regions of costumes and plenty of fustanellas! Adding to the costuming team with Loula, Effie’s mother embroiders, and Effie helps as well.

To create mentorship in the dance practices, “we’ll bring the older girls together to work with the younger girls, and the same with the guys,” Effie said. Vasilis explains that isn’t just about the footwork, there is more to it, he explains: “Projection is 90 percent of the dance, the rest is steps. If you don’t project it right, your face will show it when you do the dance.”

At their 30th Anniversary Dinner and Dance, you truly could feel the love amongst the many generations of dancers. The tables were beautifully decorated with sentiments and nostalgia of the 30 years of the Minoans. Each table had a performance/group photo of the past, igniting wonderful conversation and memories.  As soon as they all got up to dance together, the energy in the room vibrated. Effie and Vasilis led the line, and all of their dancers of past and present, got up to join them. Effie took a moment to take it all in. “What really struck me was looking down the line, everybody doing the same dance, different ages, like they haven’t missed a practice.” Vasilis responded: “When you saw all the kids there that could dance, knowing that all of these kids, you taught them how to dance. This is it.” There were grandparents dancing with their grandchildren, parents dancing with their children, the generations blending into one.

Achilleas, Odysseas, and Andreas (Vasilis and Effie’s nephew) filled the floor with their talent and incredible abilities. Vasilis commented: “They have developed themselves, there is no set. So you do different things. Achilleas and Odysseas have been in Crete like two times just by themselves to go to Panegyri and dance with the local people, and they developed these things. These two boys, and my nephew, they dance from their heart.” It absolutely shows.

Some of the “alumni dancers” have even gone on to direct groups of their own. This includes Kathy Flocas and Zafiro Kyriakis who both currently direct in Belmont, CA.  Nick Lendaris directs in San Jose, CA, two dancers taught at UC Santa Cruz, and another one taught while attending the University of Virginia.

The dancers grow life-long friendships so it should come as no surprise that there have been four marriages to come out of The Minoan Dancers, and as Vasilis said, “I don’t know how many koumbari, baptizing babies!” Most recently, they attended the baptism of Aristea Papageorge, whose parents Despina “Dessie” (maiden name, Fafoutis) and Christos Papageorge got to know each other when Effie and Vasilis directed them to be Sousta partners. Endearingly, with that loving Greek spirit, Effie said, “There is something about putting sousta partners together, matchmaking!”

Wall of plaques and awards from FDF for the Minoan Dancers.

Through it all, it’s culminated into 30 beautiful years, and they look forward to the future. While medals and prizes are nice, that isn’t the bottom line for Effie and Vasilis. In their hearts, it is about teaching the children, transformations in the dancers, and preserving the beautiful costume collection. They have won many awards through FDF and they have dedicated an entire wall at their home to plaques, awards, and trophies (including the Nikos Varvitsiotis Division I Director’s Award to Vasilis and Effie in 1995, Division II Sweepstakes in 1999, and the FDF Heritage Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007). It is a true testament to their directorship.

Effie and Vasilis’ leadership continues to nurture their legacy.. They have wholeheartedly committed themselves to bring Greek folk dancing to the coming generations. To 30 years of the Minoans: Axios, Effie and Vasilis!

For more information, visit: www.minoans.com or LIKE them on Facebook, search “Minoan Dancers.”

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Email the author: Giuliana Harris

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