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Hellenic Society for the Performing Arts a Detroit Legend
Society for the Performing Arts:
An interview with Hellenic Society for the Performing Arts founder, Penny Voudoukis, takes Malista down memory lane...
When looking back to the early 70's, it seemed that the Greek community was at a peak, alive and vibrant, filled with dances, conventions, picnics jammed with cars overflowing from the parking lots. The economy was not booming, actually 1974 was one of the worst for the car industry, but it did not seem to impact attendance at the Greek community's events. The city was under the leadership of Roman Gribbs, and the first lady of Detroit, Katherine Gribbs, was of Greek descent. His early mandate was to salvage the city from the ashes of the 1967 riots, he chose as part of his leadership team a dynamo from the Greek American Community, Mary Georgelas Ball. In her position as Events Director with the City, she was able to infuse the administration with just that right touch of "Greek Passion".
Working with local area churches and the International Institute at Wayne State University, Mary instigated the first Greek Riverfront Festival in 1973. On the heels of the first festival, was the formation of the Hellenic Society for the Performing Arts, for what was a festival without music and dance? There to fill the void was a vibrant young Greek-Canadian, Penny Voudoukas, a former member of the Fashion Academy of Montreal, Canada who had spent many years researching costumes and the dances of Greece. With her background and a supportive "assistant" at her side, husband, Dr. Ignatios Voudoukas, she was a natural to start the wheels in motion. In the spring of 1972, the Hellenic Society of Performing Arts accepted its first members at a costume ball hosted at the St. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church then located on Oakman Blvd on Detroit's Westside. The group became a registered non-profit organization of the State of Michigan in September of 1974.
In an article, published in the ATHENS Greek Language Weekly News on September 9, 1977, Editor, Vasilios Liakakos, reported about the Society's accomplishments and major goals, which were to strengthen and perpetuate those artistic and aesthetic aspects of the Hellenic Culture. The historic weekly, itself a story, continues, "The society provided instruction in Hellenic folk dancing with a brief story of each dance. (see attached photo, Kalamatiano) It sponsored a performing troupe of folk dancers and assembled a wide-collection of regional folk costumes. Registration was open to singles only, ages 13-15 and 16-25 with one parent needing to be of Greek descent." Students and dancers were all members of the eight Greek Orthodox Churches of the Metropolis of Detroit with over 1,000 participants during the group's tenure.
The performing troupe represented the Greek Community at many official City and State functions throughout Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Ontario, Canada. The young people proudly opened the 1975 National AHEPA Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio and participated in several district conventions in Michigan; they performed at countless Greek Festivals throughout the Detroit Metro area. The highlight of 1977 was the opening of the Renaissance Center and an all-ethnic performance at the Heritage Ball.
Penny recalls, "We wanted to introduce Hellenic Culture to the general American Public, and we used music, dance and song as our instrument. While we may have had an impact on the general community, the Society's influence went far deeper, and perhaps more importantly, by educating our Greek American young people about their rich Hellenic heritage through dance."
The Founding Board of Directors included: Penny Voudoukis, President, (Assumption), Alethia Christopher, Vice President, (Assumption), Luke Lucas, Second Vice President, (St. Nicholas), Eleni Lygizos, Treasurer (St George Lincoln Park), Mary Ball, Public Relations, (St. Nicholas), Rev. Father Ernest Blougouras, Metropolis Advisor, (Annunciation Cathedral), Alex Marinos, Emblem Design (Assumption), Nicholas Kallas, Finance, (Sts. Constantine and Helen), Thomas Demery, By-laws, (St. Nicholas), Theodore Monolides, Legal Advisor, (Sts. Constantine and Helen) James P. Diamond, Corporate Advisor, (Assumption), Harriet Hanzakos, Special Events, (Assumption), Michael Simon, Music Director, (Annunciation Cathedral), and Polyvios Panagopoulos, Choreographer, from the Athens School of Dance, Lykion Ellnithon.
Penny reflects, "The group represented the entire Metro area, we had young people participating from all over the city. They were active in all areas of the Greek Community, GOYA, Sunday school, the Metropolis Summer Camp, Maids of Athena, and the Sons of Pericles. They represented our finest." Penny continues, "The group began with 10 costumes provided by Mary Pisley and GAPA, and then in 1974, I remember setting up five women with five sewing machines at the St. Nicholas Church. They began the daunting job of creating the authentically replicated traditional Greek Costumes, Evzone, Amalia, Kalamata, Epiros, Crete, Corfu, and Zorba (Xasapiko). We even visited Dora Stratou in Athens and copied as much as we could to achieve a truly authentic costume. Each season we averaged between 60-80 performers and there was such a demand, we created a junior company for the younger children." Penny has saved countless photos and press in storyboards, displayed in the foyer of her Grosse Pointe home.
A testament to the Society's major social influence on the youth of the Greek community comes from one student dance member, Olga Tsielos Tecos. She shares that she had been dancing through the summer and was about to return to Greece permanently in the fall with her family. But fate took a hand, while she was dancing, a young "palikari", playing the violin with the band caught her eye, and instead of going to Greece she stayed and married her Rhodian, Peter Tecos. "If it hadn't been for the Hellenic Society, I would have never met Peter, and would probably be back in Greece today. It was very extraordinary, how God took a hand in our fate." As Olga begins to reminisce the words begin to tumble, "Don't forget to include the wonderful trips to Tarpon Springs for dance recitals, and Workshops, Dora Stratrou's Athan Karas came as an instructor from Greece!" "Ms. Voudoukis really stuck with the authenticity. She would never do a Corfu dance in a Cretan costume. She was a purist. It was awesome. Today the dances have become influenced by so many different cultures, Turkish, Arabic, and American. We need to stay authentic." She skips forward, "We even participated in the Detroit Thanksgiving parades, I remember we had a wonderful float modeled after the Parthenon, we danced at the Manoogian Mansion, these were very prestigious events. Weekly practices, came rain or shine, you could count on it. There weren't the conflicts that the young people have today. I was so impressed with this group, and so proud to be a member, I couldn't wait to get together."
Choreographer, Polyvios Panagopoulos, now the owner of Uptown and Old Parthenon Restaurants with his brother Jimmy, recalls, "We were the very first dance group in the area. When I came from Greece, I was 20 years old, and entering Wayne State University's Electrical Engineering Program. I had gotten four of my friends together and we were dancing for college money, when Penny approached me and offered me the position of Choreographer for the Society. It was a good fit, I loved being able to teach dance and the Greek language to these eager young people." He continues, "They were really listening, they all were thirsty to learn, especially after the first Riverfront Festival, they understood what it was all about." When asked about one of his favorite memories he smiled and shared, "I remember we were beginning to perform a new dance step from Corfu, when I realized that, Michael Simon and the Rhodians had a pretty limited Greek repertoire. They had started to speed up the rhythms and the dancers were still doing the slower entry step progression, I jumped on the stage, and started playing the trumpet with them. They picked up everything by ear. It was amazing. The dancers got back in sync and we were off." That was one way to make an impression on his young students, and they continued to listen. Polyvios sighs, and continues, "After I left the group to finish my masters and open the restaurant, my students would come to the Mykonos Club together and dance, when they performed the patrons were astounded! Those were the days."
Basil Simon, a member of the Rhodians, agrees that the days on the Riverfront were very special. "Yes, I remember listening to tapes to learn the newer, post-war Greek numbers, up until that time, we had been playing the songs that our fathers had brought with them from Rhodes in the 40's and 50's. We had to really expand to bring ourselves up to date, and Polyvios was a great help."
Alex Marinos, remembers when Penny came to him and asked for him to design the organizations new logo. "I was at GM at the time, I worked in miniatures, and I still do. I designed most of the emblems still being used on GM products today. I had been working with symmetrical drawings at the time and so; I approached the project from that angle. Working with the H and the S, I crafted a lyre, with the strings on angled parallels. I think that it took me a pretty short time, I don't remember." But Penny remembers, "I was awed by his quick hand, and how he captured the essence of the organization in that logo, I was so impressed. The logo still reminds me of those days."
The group's major fundraiser was an annual Thanksgiving dance and hundreds of young people from all over the Detroit Metropolitan area would attend.
The Society held its final performance on October 1, 1992, fittingly at an acknowledgement dinner for founder, Penny Voudoukis, members gathered from all over the United States and Canada to participate. The Grosse Pointe News coverage headlined, "It's all Greek to her," and highlighted Voudoukis' 20-year contribution to the organization. The spirit of the program continues however, the churches now each have their own groups. There are hundreds enrolled and many of the instructors and current participants were students of the original Hellenic Society. They have inherited the torch, lit by these founding members; they are the bearers of the legacy. Will they too look back and say, "Those were the glory days?" For each of us has our time and place, and we must together, remain connected as a Greek Community, to create our own legacy to honor those that came before and those that will follow.
So, join in, get involved in your Greek American Community, remember and create your own "glory days", while we still have the strength and ability to do it. Remember that time goes quickly, at one moment it is your time and in the next, it is your past. The founding members of the Hellenic Society made their time count; we owe it to them to continue their legacy, before the parade passes by.