Irini Plantenberg leads rehearsal for the Greek dancers Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, who will be performing at the Fort Pierce Greek Festival at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. The 39th annual festival runs Feb. 9-11 at the church at 2525 S. 25th St. in Fort Pierce. XAVIER MASCAREÑAS/TCPALM
Once a year, I pretend I’m Greek.
I gorge on authentic Greek food, stock up on homemade Greek pastries and buy just one piece of Greek jewelry.
It’s an annual tradition to immerse myself in the culture at the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church’s Greek Festival. The church started the festival in 1979 to do just that — teach us non-Greeks about their history and local community.
Even though I dream all year about the food, my favorite part of the festival is the Greek dancing. I always plan to go to the three-day event at a time when the children are scheduled to perform.
This year, I took my cultural immersion a step further when I asked to attend a dance practice.
I ended up spending hours watching them dance at one of their last mandatory practices and finding their traditions run much deeper, especially for the new dance director.
Irini Plantenberg, 20, took over teaching the kids from her aunt, Maria Zambigadis. Plantenberg told me just to call her Irene, but I’m still trying to say her Greek name properly.
Not only is it her first year as director, she also is in charge of all three dance groups — four little ones, five middle school kids and 10 seniors.
Plantenberg said she’s meaner and stricter than her aunt.
“That’s because I grew up dancing at this church,” Plantenberg said. “I love Greek dance. This has been my life for years.”
Born in upstate New York, she started Greek dancing at age 5. Plantenberg’s family moved to Florida a few years later, and she started dancing at the Fort Pierce church at age 8.
Plantenberg performed at every festival until she was 19 and went to Florida State University for a year. In Tallahassee, she joined an adult Greek dancing group. She said most Greek churches have dancing.
Plantenberg then moved home, started working in a radiology office and began studying healthcare management. She also took over teaching the kids at her small church.
Most previous dancers had moved away, she said, so there wasn’t a local adult dance group she could join.
“They don’t have enough of an adult dancer community in the church to get an adult group together or else I’d do it,” Plantenberg said. “I love dancing.”
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Greek dance instructor Irini Plantenberg (right) works with Stratos Zambigadis, 14, of Vero Beach, during their final rehearsal Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, before the Fort Pierce Greek Festival at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. The 39th annual festival runs Feb. 9-11 at the church at 2525 S. 25th St. in Fort Pierce. Fellow dancers (from left) Ryan Wilson, 14, Aviana Ketchum, 18, and Emilia Thiele, 16, all of Port St. Lucie, also rehearse. Plantenberg credits her mother — who died three brief months after a cancer diagnosis while Plantenberg was still in high school — for instilling her love of Greek dance. “It was always something that she loved…I feel connected to her through the dance program,” she said.
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Photos from last year’s Greek Festival in Fort Pierce
Zambigadis was involved with Greek dancing at the church for 11 years and was director for the last five. She said the dances come from different regions of Greece and honor various aspects of the country’s history.
Some show the darker side, including a dance remembering mothers who would jump off cliffs with their babies to protect the young from being taken and trained by enemy soldiers, Zambigadis said. Others are happier, such as Zorba’s Dance written for the 1964 movie “Zorba the Greek.”
“They all have a significance to them,” Zambigadis said.
Because the songs come from diverse regions, they also have different sounds. Zambigadis said northern Greece is close to Italy, so I asked her if there’s a musical influence.
Her response couldn’t have been more Greek.
“Actually, no, they took it from us, honey,” Zambigadis said. “We were first.”
She joked she was like a character from the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
“We’re crazy,” Plantenberg said. “We’re loud. We dance.”
Although I was surprised to learn there was so much history behind the dances, Plantenberg said, most non-Greeks probably didn’t know either.
“They’re just enjoying seeing the kids out on stage,” Plantenberg said.
I couldn’t stop smiling at the practice I attended, getting a front-seat, behind-the-scenes look at the dancing I’ve watched for so many years. I wanted to jump in and join them, but I resisted.
I had to remind myself I haven’t put in the time the kids have on their routines.
Starting in September, they practice every Sunday and have four long, mandatory practices closer to the festival.
Inside a small community room — before the outside stage was set up — Plantenberg clapped her hands loudly for the kids to keep the beat. She sometimes mouthed the Greek lyrics along with the songs.
The dancers held hands as they moved in sync, tapping, kicking and stomping together.
Older kids gave tips to the younger ones. The little kids watched the older ones and tried to follow along off to the side.
They all worked hard on their routines, wiping sweat off and drinking water between songs.
“My calves!” one girl exclaimed.
My favorite moment of the practice wasn’t when they were dancing; it was when they took a short break.
Zambigadis, who still helps her niece a bit, brought a sandwich ring for Plantenberg and the kids, and they started gabbing about cooking.
Plantenberg turned to me and laughed.
“See, Greeks really do talk about food all the time,” she said.
Maybe, in the end, we’re all a little Greek.
Laurie K. Blandford is TCPalm’s entertainment reporter and columnist dedicated to finding the best things to do on the Treasure Coast. Read her weekly column, Laurie’s Stories, on TCPalm.com. Follow her on Twitter at @TCPalmLaurie or Facebook at faceboook.com/TCPalmLaurie.
39th annual Greek Festival
When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, 2525 S. 25th Street, Fort Pierce
Admission: $3 each; free for kids ages 12 and younger; free admission 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday; free parking
Dance performances: 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Friday; 1 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Sunday
Church tours: 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Friday; noon, 2 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Sunday
Info: 772-464-7194 or fortpiercegreekfestival.com