Opa! How Dancing Became a Wheeling Greek Fest Tradition

When Wheeling folk think of late summer in downtown, multi-day cultural festivals like the Wheeling Grecian Festival come to mind for its quality and consistency in atmosphere and Greek food and dance. Wheeling has a rich Greek history. At the turn of the twentieth century, Wheeling had so many immigrants from Greece that Center Wheeling earned the name “Greektown.”1 This historical and cultural presence lives on today through the St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church in Center Wheeling, established in 1913. Greek Americans, and particularly those of the Orthodox tradition, take their heritage, culture, and religion seriously, and they find great joy and purpose in serving their communities. Festivals like St. John’s are essential for Greek Americans and occur in parishes and communities all across the country.

Thanks in large part to the Kayafas family, who moved to Wheeling in the 1990s with rich Orthodox upbringings and saw the need to revitalize and expand St. John’s festival, the Greek Fest as we know it today has thrived as a Wheeling summer staple since 2000. The festival takes nearly six months of preparation and planning from its planning committee, as well as heavy involvement from all members of the church during the festival. Gus Kayafas is entering his 23rd year as festival director and Maria Kayafas her 29th year as leader of the Agape Dance Troupe, one of the most prominent parts of the festival. 

Maria sees the festival as a “means of sharing our faith first and foremost,” as well as Greek culture and traditions. Megan Chacalos, NYC-based actress and producer and Wheeling native who remains connected to St. John, explains it this way, “The festival is so special because it’s our chance to invite Wheeling into our world, culture, and our faith.” With that, she adds “Our community is passionate about service, family, and faith. Also food. We love our gyros.” 

The festival raises money for the church and its programs, as well as the Open Door Food Pantry.

Greek Dancers Take Center Stage

One of the centerpieces of Greek Fest is the lineup of Greek dancing that takes pace each night. Taking after her own mother who led the dancing in her parish growing up, Maria Kayafas started the Agape Dance Group at St. John for kids in the parish ages 3-20 because she believes strongly that Greek dancing and festivals are a way of representing and showing, for Greek Orthodox Christians, what life is all about – authentically living out one’s faith and culture such that one’s community is well-served and brought together. 

Maria says that she named the group Agape because “Agape” is the Greek word for “Christian love.” She says, “that’s why we’re doing this.” Maria sees the Agape troupe as a crucial part of St. John that “creates happy memories in the church so they always want to come back.” 

  • Agape Dancers (photo courtesy of Wheeling Heritage Media).

Dancing has been an essential part of Greek culture for centuries. Famous ancient Greek thinkers such as Plato and Plutarch believed that dance is expression, and, today, it is no different. Dancing remains one of the primary ways Greek people celebrate and express joy and togetherness. Constantino “Tino” Kayafas, son of Maria and Gus, says dancing is just “how us Greeks get to know each other.” Maria says simply that dancing is “how we express our joy.” 

Dances vary by Greek island or area of origin and by occasion, whether it be a wedding, a baptism, a festival, or the conclusion to a family get-together on the weekend. Many American dance troupes, including St. John’s, use a mix of dances because the Wheeling parish has families from many different regions of Greece. All of the Agape Dancers learn traditional Greek dances, with the senior dancers (6th grade to age 20) learning more numerous and complicated variations.

The Evzone Dancers are men of the parish between 10th grade and college who dress and dance like the elite Greek soldiers that guard the Presidential Palace at the Acropolis in Athens. Maria explains that being a dancer is not easy – the senior Agape dancers know many dances and variations, and being an Evzone dancer requires strength, coordination, and fitness. 

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The historical and cultural roots of Greek dancing run deep – Agape dancers get to wear the same clothes and perform many of the same dances as their relatives have done for generations. This religious and cultural connection has had a deep and defining impact on members of the church, particularly the Agape dancers, just as Maria Kayafas has sought. Tino says the dancing is the fusion and ultimate expression of pride in Greek faith and culture, whatever the occasion: “It’s not just something we do at our festival, it’s the way we celebrate as a people.” 

  • Evzone Dancers (photo courtesy of Wheeling Heritage Media.)

For Tino, being an Agape dancer allowed him to participate more fully in his own culture and have a lot of fun doing so. Wearing a skirt and tights in July heat every summer taught Tino at an early age not to care about what he was wearing, but instead to embrace his culture boldly. When it comes to Greek traditional dance and wear, Tino says, “you are representing your culture and that’s something you should be proud of. It’s okay to be different.” 

Dancers do not have to be Greek or raised as Orthodox Christians, just members of the community and church. Though Maria sees the troupe and the festival as a whole as something for members to embrace, the festival also functions as church outreach. Maria believes that “life is nothing without church,” and all the good and success from the festival and the Agape group is “not my doing, it’s the Lord’s doing. I’m just glad to be a vessel.”  

City councilman Jerry Sklavounakis explains that though there was not traditional Greek dancing like now when he was growing up in St. John the Divine, “it’s wonderful to watch the children of our community embrace their heritage through traditional dancing. You can see the joy in their faces.” 

Joana Tsuhlares, Wheeling native, former dancer in the Agape Dance Troupe, and current NYC actress and director explains that “Greek dance was a window for me into my Greek heritage and community. First, it let me bond with other Greek-American youth. Second, it opened the door for me to connect more fully with my familial history. When I went to Greece to visit my family there for the first time, I was greeted in the airport by five cousins (who I’ve never met…) and they cried to see me and reconnect the family.” Being an Agape dancer is an intense and serious commitment, and Joana has had many experiences that have made her grateful for her family, heritage, and church. “Being Greek has become a huge grounding force in my identity, and all because of the window Greek dance gave me to explore my heritage.” 

Participating in St. John’s dance troupes are a great way for children of all ages to connect more deeply with their Greek heritage while having fun with their peers. (photo courtesy of Wheeling Heritage Media).

Similarly, Megan Chacalos says “being Greek shaped me. Being Orthodox shaped me. A huge part of who I am is due to growing up in St. John’s Greek Orthodox Church.” Megan was an Agape dancer for 15 years, and she says “I loved every second of it.” With that, “I like to think that my early years in the Agape dance troupe inspired my desire to perform, leading me to where I’m at now.” Megan is currently a performer and producer in NYC, though she is in Wheeling this week for the festival.

Every night at the Wheeling Grecian Festival at St. John the Divine, parish youth will be performing for much of the evening. The Agape Dancers perform at 6, 7 and 8 p.m., and the Evzone Dancers at 7 p.m. Be sure to head to St. John the Divine on Chapline Street for your gyros and baklava, but better yet, to watch and participate in the rich tradition and joy the Greek Orthodox Church has provided for the people of Wheeling for two decades.

Annalese Aderholt is an aspiring educator and community leader interning at Wheeling Heritage for the summer. She is a graduate of Wheeling Park and is entering her senior year at Grove City College, studying Christian theology and history. Annalese leads Young Life, drives for DoorDash, and coaches soccer. After graduation, Annalese plans to get married and make her way back to Wheeling.

References

1 Sean Duffy “The Wheeling Family Vol. 2” Page 147