By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
In the 1970s, San Diego’s Greek immigrant community, which accounted for less than 1% of the population, was struggling to find a way to preserve their heritage and connect their youth with other Greek American young people. The solution came in the form of a folk-dance festival that attracted Greek youth from across the nation. It is now the largest Greek folk-dance festival in the world outside of Greece. Its founder, La Mesa resident Peter Preovolos, recently produced a documentary tracing the history of the Greek Orthodox Folk Dance and Choral Festival, also known as FDF.
For the first few years, just four churches participated. The event was held in the only Greek Orthodox Church in San Diego at the time, St. Spyridon in North Park. Now in its 44th year, the festival ballooned to 3,000 participants and thousands of attendees annually. The 2020 FDF was held in Anaheim over Valentine’s Day weekend. A week later, the documentary “Kefi” was shown at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.
Preovolos spent the last six years working on the documentary, which included conducting around 50 interviews of people involved in the festival. This work was imbued with a sense of urgency because many of the people were elderly and their voice needed to be captured before they died. The documentary includes quotes from many of the original organizers, dancers, parents and church leaders overlaid with video footage of the dances through the decades.
The idea of FDF first came to Preovolos when he lived in Los Angeles and was at the Rose Bowl when the Church of Latter-Day Saints hosted a square dance competition in which 5,000 youth competed.
“I turned to my wife and said, ‘Can you imagine 5,000 Greek kids in the various costumes that are worn throughout Greece?’” he explained.
Four years later, he moved to San Diego and led the youth program at St. Spyridon. One year, the youth came to him and asked if they could perform at the annual food festival held at St. Spyridon. Typically, the church hired professional dancers from Los Angeles for the event. Preovolos got the church to agree to the idea of letting the students see if they were as talented as the professionals. The students became a wildly popular addition. From there, more churches were invited to participate and the folk-dance festival was born.
According to the documentary, in many of the villages in Greece, people were illiterate so they passed down their stories through song and dance.
As the festival grew, choreographers and dancers were sent to Greece to research the variety of dances there. Instead of a simple Americanized Greek dance, the dancers began to showcase the differences in costume and folk dance from each of the islands and villages in Greece. The dance became more authentic and competitions in choral singing and costumes were added.
The documentary also shows some of the difficulties of an organization calcifying after initial innovation. Scholarships to send dancers to Greece who could not afford to go dried up. The student-leadership aspect waned away. When Preovolos was in charge, he set up a council of around 25 teenagers to run all aspects of the program with some oversight and support from adults.
“We made sure that all the kids were responsible for all the money and program. When I finally retired the program, [the] annual budget was $750,000,” said Preovolos. “We don’t do enough with kids. We don’t give [them] enough responsibility. As parents, we all try to do it for them.”
Many of the former student leaders interviewed in the documentary explained that planning the event taught them skills they would not have learned elsewhere and set their career trajectory decades later.
Director Patti Testerman and Preovolos are now applying for the documentary to be shown in film festivals in Greece, Europe and across the U.S. So far, it has been shown at the TCL Chinese Theatre Hollywood while competing in the Golden State Film Festival.
Preovolos hopes the film will inspire other ethnic groups to start festivals of their own that could preserve part of their culture.
“It’s impossible to preserve 100% of it. By the third generation, your language is generally gone. Maybe there’s some culinary aspects still in play, but most of it is pretty well starting to disappear. I think that’s kind of sad because one of the great things about America is this magnificent quilt that has made America what it is. All of the ethnic groups, parts of their culture are very valuable, very vibrant. That makes this quilt so magnificent,” Preovolos said.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.