Yaya, gyro, opa!

Greek Festival keeps tradition alive

By Karen Ander Francis

Photo: The Nisiotis, a high school dance group, rises up as the next generation to sustain Greek tradition; photos: Bill Franz

Unmistakable rhythms and mouth-watering aromas greet visitors to the annual Greek Festival, transporting them to another world and culture that arrived in Dayton with immigrants in the late 19th century. Still intact today, the community thrives in ways that other immigrant groups have not.

What began as a parish picnic in 1986 on the grounds of Annunciation Orthodox Greek Church has expanded to invite the larger community—about 20,000 people last year—to share their culture.

But what is it that makes the Greek Festival and, more importantly, its heritage, so unique?

“Joy and continuity,” says Dessine Fricioni, whose grandfather arrived here at the age of 14. Now a yaya, great-grandmother, herself, she adds, “But dancing is the heart of it all. Dayton has a very strong dance community; we make it our business to know hundreds of dances—more than people in Greece remember.”

“There isn’t a Greek boy who hasn’t worn a [traditional dance] skirt,” laughs her daughter Jackie Kaiser, chair of this year’s wine booth, as four generations gathered in the home of Dessine Ziehler (Jackie Kaiser’s daughter) and her two preschool-aged children (Mathew and Loula).

Children begin learning the dances as early as age four under the direction of Maria McFarland, who has been teaching for 30 years. On a typical Wednesday evening, there are as many as 75 children, ages five to 10, and 25 in the teen class that follow.

Peter Zois, who danced as a youngster, now brings his sons Jamie and Teddy. Zois encourages their participation, saying, “It is an easy way to connect with their heritage.”

The significance of maintaining a shared cultural heritage through the dances runs deep, even among the children. Julia Ludwig, age seven, says she likes “being with friends and celebrating being Greek.” Her mother, Elisabeth Ludwig, who danced from the time she was six, remembers, “It’s a lot of fun with a group of people your own age, who share a common interest, to celebrate our culture like the generations before us.”

This sense of continuity resides with the church, the hub of the community. “These people become your family,” Fricione explains. Her granddaughter Ziehler agrees, “Even when I go to Greece, I know those people are part of my family.”

“That’s because we all start with the same values,” says Kaiser of her orthodox upbringing. Following on what her mother has said, Ziehler elaborates, “This structural foundation makes life easier. We have a set of core values that we’ve seen lived out in the generations before us.”

Another visible (and edible) sign of the joyous continuity of the Greek community is the food, prepared from recipes that, like the dances, are passed from one generation to another.  “We’re all about the food,” Ziehler says. “Whenever we get together, there is food.”

By early August food preparations for the festival are in full swing. A freezer trailer in the church parking lot already houses 130 pastichios (Greek lasagna) that will be served along with other homemade dishes under the outdoor food tent. Gyros, moussaka, dolmades, and spanakopita, will be just a few of the other traditional items offered. Greek pizza is back this year by popular demand. Among the entrees indoors are lamb shank and souvlaki dinners. And then there are the pastries—some 50,000 last year.

The day Dayton City Paper visited, Nikolas and Sophia Shissias were preparing pasta flora (pastry flower) dough for the next day’s kitchen crew to bake. “Nick was a pharmacist,” explains Sophia Shissias, whose measurements for a family sized-batch are scribbled on a piece of paper. “So, I let him figure out all the proportions for the ingredients.”

Seated on a stool at a counter in front of a commercial-size mixer, Nikolas Shissias measures the ingredients for the flower-shaped shortbread cookies and explains, “The recipes have been in Sophie’s head, but now she is writing them down,” With a nod toward his wife of 60-plus years, he adds with a note of pride, “This is a good cook. She learned from her mother.”

“Each generation thinks it’s the last, but the next one always steps up,” says Michelle Zois, one of the baking chairs, adding that many of once oral recipes are finding their way into print.

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, site of the festival, sits on a knoll behind the Dayton Art Institute, itself a work of art, a breathtaking example of Byzantine architecture. Guided tours of the church are offered that highlight the building’s art and architecture and provide a glimpse into the orthodox faith. As Father Mark Emroll, pastor, explains, “The Orthodox Church has always sought to sanctify the culture it was in.”

“If you have not been inside our beautiful church, it is a treasure to see,” exclaims Deb Pulos, the event’s publicity chair. After working the festival since its inception, Pulos, who “married into the community,” took her first trip to Greece in 2005. “Everywhere I went, I kept saying to myself, ‘This is like being at the Greek Festival.’”

The Greek Festival will take place Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Sept. 11-13, starting at 11 a.m. at Annunciation Greet Orthodox Church, 500 Belmonte Park North in Dayton.  Admission is free until 5 p.m. Friday, then $2 through Sunday. Children are always free. Proceeds fund various community outreach programs. For more information, please visit DaytonGreekFestival.com.


Reach DCP freelance writer Karen Ander Francis at KarenAnderFrancis@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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About Karen Ander Francis

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Reach DCP Freelance writer Karen Ander Francis at KarenAnder@DaytonCityPaper.com

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