Tina Yavis has been teaching Albany children traditional Greek dances for 38 years, helping to keep her culture alive in the Capital Region.
After seven months of rehearsals, members of the St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church performed for more than 10,000 guests at the church’s annual Greek festival this past weekend.
“These kids rehearse for months to dance at this festival,” Yavis said. “Once they start, you can’t get them to quit. They get so into it, so involved. They become each other’s family.”
This year Yavis chose to retire her dancing shoes and let her daughter Diane take over her classes. But she was still left with one big responsibility — the costumes.
The dancers’ outfits correspond with the nine geographic regions of Greece, Yavis said. All of the outfits are handmade, and some of them are decades old. The girls wore colorful floor-length dresses with long-sleeve jackets, while the boys wore black pants with black vests over white button-up shirts.
“After the seniors did their dance, I started to tear up and I had to stop myself,” Yavis said. “This is their last year of dancing. Some kids go away to college, but the ones that stay local still want to dance.”
The festival ran Friday through Sunday at St. Sophia’s on Whitehall Road. While the dancers practiced for months, volunteers cooked for weeks to prepare for the big weekend.
The event featured a buffet with all you can eat for $22.95. Items on the menu included roast leg of lamb, moussaka (eggplant covered with ground beef and Bechamel sauce) and pastichio (sometimes referred to as Greek lasagna).
Across from the dining room, which was booming with Greek music and covered in the blue and white colors of the Greek flag, stood a long table covered in pastries. The most popular item was baklava — layers of buttered dough filled with walnuts, cinnamon and honey.
“This is the first year we did a buffet instead of serving everyone,” said Peter Melas, an organizer of the festival. “It just took too many people to manage and all of us here are volunteers, some of the volunteers have been doing this for years and are now 60 to 80 years old.”
The event has been held at the Albany church since 1970. In previous years the festival brought in up to $150,000, which goes for operation and maintenance of the church. Melas said he expects the total to be about the same this year.
“Thousands of people come here every year, and it’s gotta be because they are enjoying our culture and because we make it our own,” he said. “We don’t cook these things all the time, so when we do it is a real treat for everyone.”
Aside from the buffet, there was also a giant white tent that housed about a dozen individual stands with people selling … more food. One stand had Greek salad, another had ice cream and the busiest stand served souvlaki and gyros.
A small market area was set up at St. Sophia’s, where more than a dozen vendors sold souvenirs including handbags, jewelry and scarves, much of it handmade. Its name, Agora, is Greek for “gathering place” or “assembly.”
St. Sophia’s is not the only Greek festival held in the region. Troy, South Glens Falls and Schenectady all have their own festivals planned from May through September.
“It’s a blessing to celebrate our culture,” Yavis said. “To us Greeks, everything is a celebration and every holiday is always a party.”