From a tourist's perspective, the vibrancy of the Greek community of Tarpon Springs often centers on food, a ride on a sponge diving boat and a slow amble through the many little gift shops and bakeries that dot the Sponge Docks.
To many of the resident Greeks, though, dancing is right up there with food — native, traditional dancing that primarily originated in Kalymnos, the Greek island known as the "sponge diving island." It is the ancestral home of many of the Greeks who live in Tarpon Springs, many with a sponge diver or two among their ancestors.
Among those descendants is John Lulias, 59, co-owner with Suzanne Carlson of Carlson Maritime Travel in Tarpon Springs. His maternal ancestors arrived in Tarpon Springs in 1912 and his maternal grandfather, Nikitas Manias, was one of the early sponge divers.
When residents think of Greek dancing in Tarpon Springs, they often think of Lulias. Raised in Tarpon Springs, he has studied with noted Greek dance teachers and has gradually developed expertise in the folk dancing of Greece.
"Growing up dancing was part of our lives," he said of his youth in Tarpon Springs, "and I remain drawn to the idea of dance as a communal activity."
Traditional dancing is even among the ministries of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Eva Athanasatos, 44, is a member of Lulias' dance troupe and a minister of dance for the church as well. She teaches children from first through fifth grades one afternoon a week at the church.
"Dance must come from the heart," she said. "If someone pushes you into dance, it isn't performed the same way."
Athanasatos, who lived in Kalymnos through part of her childhood, said she likes traditional dancing.
"John's group is traditional and that's what we want," she said of Lulias. "He teaches us the background and history of each of the dances."
Lulias has spent much of his time since graduating from the University of Florida in 1974 studying and teaching dance, first in the Greek community of Philadelphia and then locally. He has traveled with his own dance troupes for several decades, beginning with Lavendia, meaning "spirited youth," a troupe he organized in 1979 that traveled and danced together for 17 years.
This year, Lulias is planning a dance festival with his current troupe, numbering about 25 men and women, in conjunction with Tarpon Springs' Epiphany celebration on Jan. 6, the day of the renowned dive for the cross in Spring Bayou. The dance festival is slated for 8 p.m. Saturday at the St. Nicholas Community Center in Tarpon Springs. Lulias said he expects 800 to 900 people.
The troupe will dress in traditional island fashion. The clothing runs from a simple peasant dress in a single color, to neon-bright outfits in intricate designs with many colors. Some dancers also have accessories, such as aprons, in bright colors.
"The public will be encouraged to participate with us," Lulias said. "We have folk musicians coming in from Tampa, California, Boston and the D.C. area."
Among the musical instruments that will be played throughout the night are the santouri, resembling a dulcimer, and a gaida, an instrument similar to a bagpipe.
The dancing appears accessible to the untrained as well as the trained. Dances are performed in a circular fashion with no clear beginning or end point. Kalymnian dancing stops when dancers tire or the music stops.
"The good thing about dance is that you don't have to think about anything while you're dancing," Lulias said. "You just move."
The different islands of Greece have their own styles of dancing, but they were influenced as well by the dances of neighboring countries. The styles of Italy, the Slavic nations, Turkey and the Middle East all have found their way into the Greek dance traditions.
"The dances also were influenced by the nations that took over Greece throughout history," Lulias said. "Modern Greek borders weren't solidified until 1949."
Lulias said he is attached to traditional Greek folk dancing for a number of reasons.
"Dance relieves stress," he said, "but it also is giving back to the community by preserving the culture and trying to pass it on to others."