The Panigiri

You could feel a shift in the village air in the days leading up to the festival: a slight bustling energy that differed from the quiet tranquility at the time of our arrival a week prior. This was once a time for the milkmaids to meet and dance with the farmhands and other young men of the village. For generations it was a grand spectacle, highly attended by the local community. But as the village population has dwindled, many having moved abroad to seek higher education and opportunity for their children, it seems in large part now to be a time to reconnect and pay homage to the town’s traditions and cultural heritage.  The girls and young women and of the village, some here on a sort of home-coming vacation, dance the traditional dances wearing traditional black dresses adorned with ornate red embroidery. IMG_8254We were fortunate enough to have a brief dance lesson with a few such young women between classes late Friday afternoon. We all held hands as they taught us two of the traditional dances with tremendous joy, grace, and patience. I, in particular, struggled to pick up the steps, but Catarina, who had been leading the lesson, took my hand kept me close until I got the hang of it. I even wondered at one point if she hadn’t been flirting with me, after all, the courting tradition of the Panigiri hadn’t been entirely lost. While I proudly play for the other team, it was fun to partake in the playful spirit of the festival and get a sense for the experience of the local youth.

Entirely by accident, I even got a sense for what the experience might be like for the almost certainly closeted queer youth of the community.  In a conversation with one of the young men, I clumsily disclosed my plans to attend a gay circuit party in Mykonos after the end of the program and was met with avoidance. Not to say the young man was outwardly critical, but he jumped at the chance to shift his focus to a conversation with another apprentice. It was a clear reminder that despite popular knowledge about the prevalence of same-sex love in much of ancient Greece, the subject of homosexuality was, at this particular time and place, taboo.  Rather than feel personally slighted though, I found myself even more curious about the particular historical events that had lead up to this point, and the nature of life for today’s LGBT youth who have to live by the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy I’ve come to be all too familiar with.

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On the second night of the Panigiri, the full value of our dance lessons was realized. Sometime after midnight, there was a moment where we found ourselves encircled by three or four concentric rings of locals, all sharing in the collective joy of the dance we had learned the day before. In that moment, the lines between locals and foreigners, male and female, straight and gay seemed almost entirely blurred.

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