Kick, step, kick and one, two, three… And with such patience, dedication and love, “Thea Stella” taught thousands of young Greek Americans how to dance over a volunteer career that spanned decades.
Throughout entire 1960s, 70s, 80s and well into the 90s she was the Greek dance teacher at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Pittsburgh, where I was born, raised and nurtured.
Wednesday evenings at Holy Trinity meant Kalamatiano, Tsamiko, Ikariotiko— you name the region or island and Thea Stella had a dance to teach.
And come festival time once a year— she was always fair and let everyone take their turn leading, kicking and turning at the front of the line.
She also was called to other churches throughout the city to lend her expertise when dance groups didn’t have teachers.
Perhaps it wasn’t “thousands” that she taught. Perhaps it was tens of thousands.
Thea Stella not only taught dance steps— she went to great pains to instill in her students throughout the decades what dancing a “Tsamiko” or a “karsimalas” actually meant.
“Gregory, put your shoulders up. Stand tall, you’re about to go to war against the Turks,” she would scream during rehearsals.
Thea Stella taught us what “Opa!” meant and that we should say it with passion at that perfect moment of the dance.
She used to always say “to dance is to live and to live is to dance.” And this, to me, is what will remain with me. Thea Stella taught me that Greek dancing was more than just dance steps– it was about living your life with love and passion.
She wouldn’t let anyone call her Mrs. Athanasiou, insisting that we all call her “Thea,” or aunt Stella.
Stella Athanasiou, native Pittsburgher born to immigrant Greeks almost a century ago on the heavily-Greek populated North Side of the city, is on her final journey to the other side.
And knowing Thea Stella… she’s probably on her way in Kalamatiano steps, handkerchief in hand, waving good bye to the tens of thousands of lives she touched.
Rest in peace, Thea Stella– even though we know you’ll be dancing away up there!
Special thanks to fellow dance student Penny Balouris for providing the timeless photos.