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Cortland students learn traditional dances

Greek dancers Tom Papadopoulos (left) and George Tsiagalis show a traditional dance to students at Cortland Elementary School on Monday morning. Elena Grimm –
Greek dancers Tom Papadopoulos (left) and George Tsiagalis show a traditional dance to students at Cortland Elementary School on Monday morning. Elena Grimm –

CORTLAND – Hand in hand and feet in the air, students at Cortland Elementary School got a lesson in Greek dancing.

Two men from a Chicago dance troupe came to the school Monday morning to teach the Cortland students about Greece, a country smaller than Illinois. George Tsiagalis and Tom Papadopoulos are first-generation Greek Americans who perform with the Ellas Dancers of Chicago.

The Ellas Dancers are a nonprofit group formed this year to continue the Greek traditions and dances that have been passed down. They will be performing at the St. George Greek Fest on June 27 in DeKalb.

First-grade teacher Amy Boona arranged the visit because she was intrigued by the traditional dances at her sister's wedding, she said. Her sister married a Greek man, and Tsiagalis was an usher in the wedding.

"The dances were beautiful," Boona recalled. She wanted to bring that experience – the "wild kicks and leg slaps" – to the school.

And after watching the men perform and learning a routine themselves, the students were "slack-jawed," Boona said. It was the perfect end-of-the-school-year activity, she noted, as students antsy for summer vacation need a release.

"They love having something to spice up the day," she said.

The men began their presentation with a slide show of photos, explaining how dancing infiltrates nearly every aspect of life, from celebrating birthdays to preparing for battle.

"The Greeks always danced – during happy times and sad times," Tsiagalis said.

And although Greece is a small country, the styles of dance vary by region, they said.

Dancers usually stand in a circle or a semicircle, and move to the right by crossing one foot in front of the other. Cortland students learned that dancers can link together in three different ways: They can hold hands, cross arms like a basket weave, or place hands on each other's shoulders.

As a group of kindergartners and third-graders formed a giant circle in the gym, they learned a basic dance where they crossed one foot in front of the other and kicked their legs in the air.

Then, Tsiagalis and Papadopoulos took center stage and did a more complicated routine, jumping high into the air and kicking their legs in sync with each other.

Besides the cultural lesson in dancing, students were able to take away a lesson in geography, Boona said, as the men pointed out where their families came from on a map. One first grader asked how long it takes to drive from Illinois to Greece, she said.

And as they left the school gym, Boona's class immediately wrote thank-you letters to the Greek dancers.

If You Go

What: St. George Greek Fest

When: June 27

Where: Hopkins Park in DeKalb

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