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Troupe wins gold in Phoenix

The Greek dance mihanikos honors the men whose livelihood it is to dive for sponges, as well as symbolizing the physical toll the water can take on their bodies.

"It's a dance well known in the Tarpon area," said George Kouskoutis, a member of the Levendia dancers, a local Greek folk dance troupe.

And it's one of the dances that helped the troupe claim first prize at a folk dance festival and contest last week in Phoenix put on by the Greek Orthodox diocese of San Francisco.

About 85 dance troupes, which included 1,600 dancers, came from around the nation, and from as far away as the island country of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea, to take part in the 18th annual festival.

But it was the Levendia dancers that dazzled the judges, said Bishop Anthony of the diocese in the West.

"They were magnificent, they were great," Bishop Anthony said. The dancers beat out eight other troupes in their category to win.

The judges, Bishop Anthony said, look for grace and technical skill, as well as the authenticity of the dance. The dances originate from different regions of Greece.

For example, the mihanikos was part of a suite of dances the troupe performed that originated from the island of Kalymnos.

Some of Tarpon Springs' Greek families come from Kalymnos, which is part of the Dodecanese Islands, said John Lulias, the troupe's director.

So for the troupe and some of its longtime members, performing the ethnic dances has become second nature.

It's that familiarity with the dances, they say, that led them to gold medals.

"We go up there and put on a show," said dancer Emmanuel Gonatos, 26, who lives in Tarpon Springs. "We're very loose, very natural."

"You can tell they enjoyed doing it," Lulias said.

Other dances performed during the competition, which was held Feb. 17-21, had their roots in central Greece.

The Levendia dancers performed a 10-minute semi-final round of dances and then a 12-minute final suite, said Lulias, who started the Levendia dancers about 15 years ago.

Based in Tarpon Springs, the coed troupe has about 35 members, although only 24 performed at the competition.

Although the troupe has performed around the country, as well as in Canada, Greece and the Caribbean, this was its first venture into competition.

So did they think they would win?

"We had a feeling we would do well, we didn't realize we would receive first place," Kouskoutis said.

Lulias said the troupe also won an award for its costumes.

But for many of the Levendia dancers, their performances reach far beyond just the movement of their feet.

For them, dancing is a way to preserve their Greek heritage.

"It helps keep us in touch with our past, our ties with Greece," said Kouskoutis, 32. "I don't want to lose my ethnicity."