Mardi Gras Party, the flyer on the café counter says, although the date is March 15th, Lent is half over, and the festivities are hosted by the Greek American Folklore Society. $20 for appetizers, dancing, Greek and American music; $15 with costume: we’re sold.
We deck out in front of the three long mirrors in Becky’s Queens apartment – Bailey a remix of 80's workout videos in stretched leggings and a side ponytail, Becky a geisha in silky Chinese pajamas, hair pulled into a knot with chopsticks. I’m a gypsy – thick, plastered eye-makeup, dark head scarf, flowered dress, and every piece of dangling or bangled jewelry I could find draped over my body. We pass around the same bright red lipstick, fogging up the mirror as we take turns leaning in close to smack our lips, and then we take off. Two blocks and a fifteen-minute bus ride later, we find ourselves in Historia; we're led by the music before we even see the building we're looking for.
Inside, it’s smaller than I expected. The walls of the one room are draped in white pleated curtains, pale masks painted with black smiles and rosy cheeks, full-colored pictures of traditionally white-skirted men and blurred black-and-white snapshots of Greek culture parades in the late 90's. A replica wooden ship with white sails full is on proud display near the door, and in one corner a sign on the wall reads: “We’re here to learn dances, not to have issues”.
We’re almost an hour late, but the room is mostly empty. Two little girls in tutus sip on sodas at one of the long tables, a middle aged woman with a large chest straining against the front of an NYPD school safety uniform mills about by the food table, and a mother with wide eyes that make her seem younger than she should be cradles a tiny baby as she comes out of the kitchen. We three, blondes with only one-eighth of Bailey’s Greek blood to boast of between us, float like pale islands in a sea of dark hair and statuesque noses.
From the side kitchen sweeps one familiar face: Annie from the café where Becky works. She is tall and regal, with chunky bangles slipping down her arm and curling grey hair escaping around her weathered eyes. Becky told us she has a tattoo of a naked mermaid covering one arm, but we never see it.
“Greeks are characteristically late,” Annie welcomes us with a warm, deep laugh and sweeps us towards a table laden with food. We layer our paper plates with crumbling pastries filled with feta , spiced meatballs, chunks of cheese, and orange slices, and sit at our own table, distanced from the unfamiliar words tossed back and forth between embracing friends.
Annie joins us and isn’t hard to keep talking. She tells us the story of her native island Icarus, where the petulant son lost his wax feathers before sinking into the sea, a blue zone where people live miraculously long and well on the fresh sea air, the island-fed produce, and the special sweetness of the honey. She tells us there are over 300 dances in Greece – more rigid and formulaic in the north, more flirtatious in the South. She’s lived in Historia for forty-odd years, she says, and hasn’t been back to her home in Greece for sixteen of those.
We watch as an elderly gentleman, grey sweater matching his sweater leads the first string of dancers with serene steps and a blissful smile onto the improvised dance floor. As the music keeps playing, each rush of cold wind from the door brings in more and more people – a couple boisterous young men with cans of silly spray, a gaggle of teenage girls including a Kitty Cat and Little Red Riding Hood, a young, bearded scholar cloaked in a Harry Potter-esque cape, and a curvy young woman dressed in a full-body hamster suit.
We three get up to grab sodas (a beer for Becky) from the cooler by the cash bar as the heat of bodies, music, and alcohol start to do their work. Silly spray erupts through the air, over the streamers hanging from the ceiling; one youth ends up with strings clinging to his chest, hanging off his face, and piled on his head as his two friends cackle and shake their empty cans for one last spray.
The music picks up, and before we know it, we’re pulled (if we’re honest, we’d all been secretly wanting to do it all night) into the twirling circle. Raised arms interlaced, hands on shoulders, shoulders under hands, we kick our feet in time as the music quickens, letting free whooping laughs as we pivot inward, feet flying faster and faster until the music and movement jerk to a climactic stop.
Gasping for breath and regretting the downed drinks now churning in our stomachs, we meet Michelle, the young woman in the hamster suit, the friendliest face in the crowd. We exchange names, a laugh about nothing in particular, and she becomes our first (and only) new Greek friend.
Suddenly the familiar, pulsing bass of Rihanna’s “We Found Love” cuts into the traditional folk music, and we with the other young people swarm to the dance floor like mosquitos on a summer night. Finally it’s a song we know, and we let loose like we’ve wanted to all night. Laughter explodes as a young man with spiked hair, tight white pants, and studded boots tries to pull Annie by her sweater to the dance floor, and she bats him away with a grin. A few minutes later, he’s dancing, thrusting his pelvis, on top of the bar.
The whole family joins in: older woman with puffs of dyed hair and wide hips, Michelle, half of her hamster costume unzipped to a black tank top, and the over-excited toddler (well past her bed time). All shimmy in time to “Gangnam Sta”, “Twist and Shout”, “Jump on it” -- whatever the balding middle-aged DJ with rimless glasses and a skip in his step puts on, we move to.
We three finally collapse into chairs set up across the dance floor, away from the tables full of the gossiping grandparents and worn-out parents. The young mother, even more frazzled at the night’s end, sets down the new baby to corral the toddler, and jerks her head at the bar dancer in white pants who moves, without protest, to carefully pick up the baby. He holds it, serious, calm, as though it's his own – and I realize maybe it is.
“How many generations do you think it will take before America becomes a melting pot?” Becky asks, leaning towards us.
“Will it ever be?” I question in response. For as I watch this room, I see life play out across the span of generations, as well-choreographed as the steps of the circular dances – the young people flirt, babies are made and born and grow up into this room, the same dances are led by the old and learned by the young, the same endless circles spinning faster and faster and faster.
But I can’t ignore the roaming teens who come late and leave early, throwing back their heads to break the air with laughter, nor the ring-less, too-young mother with the new baby against her chest, the bar dancer with his thrusting pelvis who’s now a father. I can’t ignore that the songs and dances everyone always knows have been interrupted with pulsing beats and thrusting bodies – a new dance, with no need to hold hands, no need to follow the steps, no need for anyone but yourself.
The pulsing bass keeps throbbing the floor, but the sounds change to words I can’t understand anymore – Greek pop. As I watch the dance floor undulates with young and old bodies twisting, turning, laughing, leaping, sweating, touching, holding the old world, new world moving in sync.
When we want to say goodbye, we find Annie outside, smoking. We pose for a picture on the dark street, the smoke from her glowing cigarette rising above our flushed smiles. Back inside to grab our coats, we find half the party on the floor, twisting their butts into the ground with wild laughter.
“It’s called grinding the pepper,” Annie shouts over the music with a throaty chuckle. “They do it at the end of the dance.” And I remember again, remember and perhaps understand for the first time why they’re here, why we’re here: not to have issues, but to dance.