In ballet you have years of training before trying to execute a complicated step. But when my first high school art project was assigned—clay sculpture—it was like trying to do grande allegro before barre; I wasn’t prepared.
I grabbed an art book and flipped to a page with a barefoot woman draped in a flowing white dress. Below her was the label “Terpsichore, Greek muse of dance.” I’d never heard of the muse of dance, but I liked the idea of making her three-dimensional.
Years later, my clay muse still on the shelf, I got an offer to dance in Athens for a pop star known as “the Greek Madonna”: Anna Vissi. I would have six months in the country that created democracy, philosophy and the world’s first theater. My head spun with visions of art and drama, of wandering along marble roads and floating in the Aegean Sea.
When the plane landed last October, I was greeted with another reality. No Internet, no phone, no Greek phrase book. Coughing in the thick cigarette fog that filled rehearsals—Greek dancers take hourly coffee and cigarette breaks, and Athens hasn’t exactly gone smoke free—I was told that the audience would throw flowers. Filled with oil. Until 6 am. Now my visions were of asthma attacks, being pelted with plants, and twisting my ankle in stilettos on an oily stage.
Then the riots began. The worst of the recent recession had hit Athens and many Greeks were faced with poverty, while the country feared the possibility of losing their spot in the European Union. Police and protestors clashed, trash and graffiti were everywhere, marble was torn from the ground and thrown through windows. Those marble streets, slippery when wet, threw me on my back when it rained.
Bruised, I walked amongst thousands of fans filling the Athinon arena. Even with taxi fares doubled, trams shut down and bus drivers on strike, they had come to our show! Looking around, I felt rejuvenated.
The metallic string sound of bouzoukia music filled the air, and from the balconies a constant rain of white carnations fell. Flower baskets were emptied over Anna’s head until the arena was covered in a carpet of petals.
On her stage, Anna looks like Terpsichore, in a white dress that pours into a sea of flowers below. She sings effortlessly to an impassioned crowd dancing on the floor, on tabletops, on to the stage surrounding their muse.
Like Anna, our choreography is both powerful and emotional: Contemporary, pop, burlesque and a modern tango to the beat of Rembetiko music—the Greek Blues, with its wailing lyrics and swaying melodies over staccato instrumentals. The audience raises their arms for a traditional folk dance, Zembekiko. By the end they are on stage with fingers snapping, and shoulders rolling. I could finally see the free-spirited, art-appreciating Athens I’d imagined.
When the last note played, it was 6 am and the sun had risen. I set out to explore the city with new eyes. Much of the graffiti and glass had been washed away. Merchants sold honey and evilâ€�eye charms. Wild dogs lay under the shade of olive trees. Parliament soldiers performed the changing of the guard in tutuâ€�like uniforms, and statues of artists and gods stood sturdy.
I marveled at the beauty revived. On the slippery ground, all I needed were shoes with traction. If Athenians could juggle celebrations and riots, I would find my center on marble and oil.
Like sculpting a muse for the first time, sometimes you have to be thrown into something foreign and trust that your balance will come—and sometimes with it, an invaluable memory.
Leah O'Donnell is a freelance dancer and writer who lives in New York.
Photo of Leah in Greece courtesy Leah O'Donnell.