I was born in Rhodes in 1941. My parents’ names are Mihalis and Eleni Vardavas. I have three brothers Yannis, Iakovos and Ilias. I spent my childhood in Rhodes and I attended the Girl’s High School completing four years before we emigrated to Australia.
I was seven years old when I sang for the very first time in front of an audience. At the age of twelve, at the first Dodecannesian Festival held in Rhodes, they made me dance and sing in front of the king.
My grandmothers taught me how to sing. One of them, on my father’s side was from Simi and she taught me Simian songs. The other was from Kastellorizo and from her I learned to sing all the kastellorizian songs. And as I was born and raised in Rhodes, I learned the Rhodian songs from my mother.
When I attended high school, I took a great interest in dancing because my teacher Mrs Mania helped me especially. I remember she used to take me to her house and teach me other dances, from different parts of Greece, in addition to those we learned at school.
I also learned the different customs and the way they were celebrated at different festivities. In Rhodes we used to celebrate the theros (harvest). In Simi they celebrated koukoumas (Saint John the Baptist) or Klidonas as they call it elsewhere. Every year in May, I put this on for the Simians. The Kastellorizians celebrated the Kastellorizian wedding where they sang the songs of stanklidas (otherwise known as songs of the cradle) and wedding songs. The Kalimnians also performed the departure of the sponge divers.
During my childhood, life was very hard in Greece. My father was a shoemaker and he also worked as a bus driver for the vacation camps so that he could support his family of four children. I remember that during and after the war there was a lot of poverty in Greece. That’s why my parents went as refugees to Marmaras, which is located opposite Rhodes. When they came back to Rhodes a year later they didn’t have any property and at that time it was difficult to pay rent and feed your family. For that reason my father decided to emigrate to Australia. He had a koumbaros here who sponsored him. He left in 1955 and in 1957 we joined him. My mother and the four children sailed in the italian ship Toscana.
In Sydney, my father worked as a shoemaker. He worked for some Greeks in Oxford Street making women’s shoes. Those years were really hard for us in Australia. My father earned only sixteen pounds from which he had to pay eleven for the rent. This left us with only five pounds to get us through the whole week. My mother was forced to go out and work as well.
My three brothers attended school, but I wasn’t accepted into fourth grade because my English wasn’t good enough. They wanted me to start from the beginning. So I enrolled at the Technical College of Sydney and for a year learned to type and use “accounting machines”. The following year the College sent me out to a job. That was when I experienced the most disheartening days of my life.
I got my first job in Australia, working in an office in Broadway where I stayed for three years.
In October 1957, almost a month after my arrival in Australia, I met lots of compatriots from Rhodes. I remember asking them why we shouldn’t start an association or a brotherhood, like so many others had done. So, after a lot of discussions, we decided to establish the Pan-Rhodian Society “Colossos” and we held our very first dance in March 1958, the day we celebrated the anniversary of the Union of the Dodecanese. During that anniversary I introduced my very first dance group and we re-enacted the Union of the Dodecanese.
In 1959 and 1960 my dance groups performed at the 25th March Anniversary at the Trocadero. In those days we Greeks celebrated our anniversaries united. We’d present dance, songs and poetry and a lot of people would gather. We had no trouble providing live music because in those days a lot of musicians had migrated to Australia, at least from our island. Amongst them was my uncle Yiannis Koutsoukos who played the violin. They were all eager and they liked to come and rehearse with us. This doesn’t happen anymore. These days a band had to be paid to do a rehearsal with you. In those days they weren’t interested in getting paid. The band Nea Asteria (New Stars), which was one of the best and made up of young guys, used to come to all of our dances and would rehearse with the girls. I used to teach them songs by singing to them and they’d pick them up on their instruments. They had an accordion, violin, guitar, bass viol and a lute. I also remember an elderly man who used to play the santouri very well and he was very good at playing the sousta.
In those days it was very difficult to find costumes although some people had brought costumes with them, as I had with my grandmother’s from Kastelorizo. So we ended up making our own costumes, like the Simian ones which were simple. The Kastelorizian costumes were very difficult to make, almost impossible. A lot of women living here had brought their Kastelorizian costumes with them. We made Rhodian costumes much later. A woman who came from the village of Embonas in Rhodes, made “Embodian” costumes. Later on we made the evzonas, vraka and amalia costumes.
In those days there wasn’t much dancing, nor many dance groups. Apart from my groups I don’t remember any others in the years 1957 to 1959. In that period I used to teach dance wherever they needed me. I taught dance to the Rhodians, Simians, Kastelorizians, Kytherians, Koans, and also at the Greek School of St Sophia. I never asked for money, it was done selflessly. I didn’t believe in getting paid for teaching dance. I never imagined that one day it would become a business, as it is today.
From that period on, I got involved in the Greek theatre, and although I was very young, I performed in a religious play Ora tis Haritos (Vicious Circle) which was performed at the Lawson Theatre, where Greek films were screened in those days. Amongs the many actors were Yiorgos Kazouris, Kikis Efthimiou who was the owner of Kembia (import-export business) Petros Printezis and many others who later continued with the theatre.
In the years 1958 to 1960 I took accordion lessons with Mr Krouklidis. At that time we lived in Redfern where the houses were cheap and a lot of Greeks were buying into the area.
In 1961 I got engaged and later married my husband Manolis Haskas whom I knew from Rhodes. We had been neighbours and gone to school together. We lived in Mount Gambier in South Australia for four years. I tried to establish something there even though there were only a few Greeks. There was no Greek school or church. So I got the children together and taught them Greek and mainly Greek dancing.
Finally, at the end of 1964, we moved back to Sydney. At that time I discovered the existence of the Lyceum of Greek Women. In 1965 the Lyceum established a dance group and I was to teach island dances.
From that time on, I started to get involved with the theatre and dance. I realised that the Greek community was growing and life was becoming much easier for the new migrants in comparison with the 1950’s. We were speaking our language more freely, there were Greek shops where you could buy records, cassettes and Greek goods. You could even hear Greek songs in the streets without fear, whereas in the early years things were hard. Then, even when I was on the bus with my mother, I was afraid that she would speak Greek and people would give us dirty looks. I used to tell her not to speak Greek.
In 1964 there were even bouzouki nightclubs, like “Athens in Redfern”, “Patris” and “Riviera” to name a few. All the associations held dances regularly. There were even singers from Greece, which never happened before 1961.
When we came to Sydney in 1964, I lived in the Greek Community of Belmore for two years, where my artistic activities began. I played in the Belmore Greek Community Theatre where Nikos Christopoulos and Vangelis Papadopoulos were directors. We staged a lot of plays like I Teleftea Analambi (The Last Gleam), Agapi Mou Oua-Oua (Oua-Oua, my love) and To Fioro tou Levante (The Flower of the Levant). Most of the plays were by Dimitris Psathas. My last play with the Belmore Community Theatre was I Golfo (Golfo) which in my opinion was the test play I ever had a leading role in.
Apart from Greek Community theatre, I also acted in films and television programs which were related to migrants. My first film “A pig in a Poke” was in 1974. This was followed by “Oracle” in 1976. In 1978, I played in the film “Caddie” in which all actors from the Belmore Theatre Troupe took part. I aslo took part in the films “Cathy’s child” 1978, “Dancing” 1982, “Earthlink” 1983, “Silent City” 1984 and “The Grild from Steel City” in 1986 and “The Last Crop”.
Throughout all these years I continued to teach dance. In the beginning, I started with the Rhodian dance group which I performed with everywhere. In 1973, I decided to start my own dance school because I saw that other girls, who had come to Australia after me and weren’t even from Greece, had already opened their own schools. I was left behind because I thought you had to have some kind of certificate or diploma to be allowed to start a school. So I opened my first school at the Community of Belmore. At one time I had almost three hundred pupils. Later, I opened another school at St Spyridon in Kingsford. The numbers of pupils there reached almost two hundred. Later, in 1974 I opened my very own school which is called “Sophia Haskas Dance School”.
My dance groups have appeared in hundreds of shows. In Greek and Australian celebrations, in the folkloric festival at the Opera House and at a lot of Greek Association dances. Every year we hold a dance and all profits go towards charities. At the end of each year we also organise a concert with Greek dances, songs and sketches put on by our pupils. Over a thousand people come and watch it. I have also been the organiser of the artistic program for the 25th March Anniversary, in which a lot of good dance groups take part.
In 1974, after many years, I visited Greece with my family. I longed to see the Greece I’d left. Unfortunately, it had changed a lot. In Rhodes, tourism had changed the whole situation and the people as well. The simple and beautiful little island with its peaceful atmosphere, which I’d left behind, no longer existed. When I returned, everything was fast, very commercial, like Europe or a big city. I had to go to villages away from the centre of Rhodes to feel I was on the island I’d left. That’s why when I returned to Australia I continued to remember Rhodes as it was when I left it as a young girl, not the place I saw later. Of course, people have changed there like they have here. But we, who left Greece to come here, have stayed the same. We still think in the old way. We haven’t been assimilated by the Australians, but nor are we the same as the Greeks over there who have changed. We Greeks, who left during those years and have stayed in Australia for so many years, are a different generation, a different generation of Greeks.
When I returned to Rhodes I tried to learn about the different dances but there weren’t many people who knew about them. I kept asking the children and they told me they were no longer taught dance at school. They didn’t know how to dance. Whereas my children who were still babies knew how to dance Greek dances. I am very proud of my three children, Yiorgos, Eleni and Mihalis because they like Greek dancing and they dance well.
I teach lots of different dances from all over Greece. I have learned a lot of dances from videos and from people too. After she finished high school, my daughter Eleni attended the Royal Academy of Dancing. She also helps me a lot with the Greek dances. I hope she’ll continue my work because I want Greek dance to spread.
I have a lot of costumes, enough to dress over six hundred children. Some of them I brought from Greece and are authentic, others are imitations. The authentic ones cost a lot of money, about $450 each. We pay the costs ourselves. I’ve never received financial assistance from anyone. The only exception, the annual sum from the Greek Consulate. Any profits from my work go towards buying costumes and records. We try to keep our costumes as authentic as possible. Even so, we do modify them a bit here in Australia. Not for financial reasons or for the ease of dancing as they say. When the costumes are heavy, the dances are also heavy and slow. Take the Karagouna for example. When wearing the karagouna costume it becomes impossible to dance a Pontian dance because the costumes are too heavy. But you can dance the karagouna which doesn’t have the fast movements of a Pontian dance. On the other hand, with the very light Pontian costumes you can dance the Pontian dances. The same can be said for Cretan and other island costumes which are light.
The reason then that we modify the costumes is that we cannot find the proper material. The local material is not woven on a loom. We buy the braid, although it’s not the same as the braid the old women used to embroider in Greece. Of course in Greece today, embroidery is also done by machine, but the material is still woven on a loom. Quite a number of costumes are difficult to make authentically. We try but it’s difficult. That’s why we settle for something that looks similar. We can make the evzone costume and the vraka (island breeches) look the same as the originals, but heavy costumes like the karagouna or the macedonian tou yida are difficult to make in Australia.
Another reason our dance groups wear somewhat simplified costumes is that they have to perform a lot of different Greek dances without changing costumes. This is a practical matter. Many of the Greek associations don’t want us to stop and change costumes according to the dance we are to perform. Even the young dancers don’t like it because it’s tiring. So we make costumes that are suitable for a lot of dances. And then no one can say “you don’t dance the tsamiko with a vraka, or a sousta with an evzone costume”. That’s why we simplify our costumes.
Dance should be taught with feeling. The history of each dance should be explained to the pupils, as well as the correct way of dancing it. Every dance and every costume from each specific place has its own history. For example, in Rhodes the costumes are short and worn with boots which are knee-high because women used to work in the vineyards. It was essential they wore short clothes and boots which would protect them from thorns. Whereas the Simian and the Kastelorizian costumes, the latter in particular, are heavy and embroided because women were the jewel of the house and weren’t allowed to go out, work in the fields or go fishing. For this reason their clothes were heavy, beautiful and distinguished. Their shoes were also like embroided slippers. Every dance and every costume then has its own history and reflects the way of life of the people.
As far as music is concerned, the older boys and girls are not put off by the ‘heavy’ dances because they understand and have a feeling for them. The young ones on the other hand get easily bored with them and for that reason I don’t teach them these dances. I get them to dance to lively music. We also create figures and choreograph. All these things are useful because the dance must look good on stage. But everything must remain within the limits of the dance and not digress from its basic steps and music.
Of course everyone changes something and adds something of themselves. This has always happened. In fact, it is these changes that have made Greek dances beautiful and made them endure for so many years. Gradually, through the ages, our dances have increased in numbers. Initially there weren’t as many dances as today. They all began from the syrtos or the pirichio pithikto (pyrrhic) and now there are over four hundred dances as they say.
Greek children in Australia today feel proud learning Greek dances. They don’t feel ashamed of it. I believe that in our time, Greek dances will continue to be passed on and danced beautifully and authentically. The future depends on the young people who are learning dances today and on those who will become dance teachers in the future. It will also depend on the extent of visits by teachers from Greece.
Generally, I believe that our dances will continue to be danced in the future. The second and third generation will continue to dance for a long time yet, unless of course our contact with Greece stops completely.
I’ve loved Greek dances since I was a child and I pray to God that I live enough years to offer my services to the Greek children of Australia so that we may maintain our beautiful dances and traditional customs.