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‘Being Folksy’ Isn’t In Anymore’ : Dance Cafe’s Fans Take a Final Turn

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Times Staff Writer

A cultural monument of sorts closed on New Year’s Eve.

It went out not with a bang or a whimper, but with jubilant yelps, syncopated stamps and dizzying whirls around a worn wooden dance floor.

The monument was The Intersection, America’s first international folk dance cafe.

To thousands of dancers in Southern California, the unobtrusive building in Silver Lake was more than an ethnic night club; it was the heart of an alternative cultural movement that went hand in hand with the alternative political movements of the 1960s.

Seven nights a week for nearly 20 years, The Intersection offered dancing ranging from Zorba the Greek-style hassopikos to Swedish hambos before it fell victim to what its devotees can only describe as changing times.

“Being folksy isn’t in anymore,” said Mitchell Allen, 33, executive director of the prestigious Aman Folk Ensemble, a professional folk dance troupe that drew many of its members from among the regulars at The Intersection.

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“Today, America is interested in things stylized, things patriotic, things internal to our own country. Times have changed, and with them, The Intersection has closed. For dancers, it’s like having your security blanket taken away.”

Hundreds of nostalgic dancers returned to the Intersection on Saturday and Monday nights to meet old friends and dance one last time.

“It’s hard to explain all this place meant to people,” said Pamela Heiter, 35. “It’s like coming home, it’s been here so damn long. I practically lived here in the early 1970s. I danced here four or five nights a week. I even got married here.”

But, like countless others, she drifted away. She had a child, became a production manager for an animation firm and found other interests. “Now that it’s closing, I feel guilty, like if only I had kept coming, The Intersection might have stayed open,” she said.

The Intersection, whose name signifies the meeting of cultures, opened in 1964.

“Twenty of us each put up $5 a month to pay the $100-a-month rent,” said Athan Karras, a Greek-born dancer who has run the cafe for most of its 20 years. “It cost 25 cents to get in and with your quarter you got free coffee. It caught on like wildfire.”

Shortly after it opened, The Intersection became so successful that Karras and a partner, draftsman Rudy Dennes, bought a lot at 2735 W. Temple St. and built today’s Intersection.

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For Karras, it was the culmination of a dream. Born in Greece, he emigrated to the United States at age 12 and ultimately became a professional dancer and actor.

“It was just before World War II, and my teachers used to tell me that I couldn’t be Greek anymore because I was an American,” he said. “But after the war, that attitude changed. People began to be interested in other cultures. Then, in the 1960s, airfares were so low that kids could travel around the world and meet other peoples.”

The folk dance movement was spawned at a time when things folk--ethnic dancing, peasant dress, folk ballads--were in vogue.

When the movie “Zorba the Greek” came out in 1964, Anthony Quinn’s intoxicating, finger-snapping performance lured moviegoers to dance. Folk dancing, once little more than an esoteric alternative to physical education classes in college, became popular with women and men.

“Friends asked me to go, and I didn’t want to because I thought folk dancing was just for creeps,” said Susan Curtiss, 36, then a student at the University of California, Berkeley, and now a linguistics professor at UCLA. “But I tried it anyway.”

What she found were men and women dancing in long lines to enchanting music from such history-book regions as Serbo-Croatia and Macedonia. Without anyone to call out the steps, as in square dancing, the folk dancers performed in unison dozens of intricate steps from memory. Many sang along to traditional Eastern European ballads celebrating harvests and loves in villages they had never seen.

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Curtiss also found certain social advantages to folk dancing.

“There was no pressure to meet men as there is in singles bars,” she said. “But, you dance a line dance holding hands with someone you might want to talk to afterward.”

Curtiss and her husband, John Gresham, 33, met while doing a Balkan dance, she said. Karras estimates that several hundred couples met at The Intersection. More than a dozen decided to get married there, he said.

Susan Curtiss joined a semi-professional international women’s folk singing group. Her husband learned to play a Turkish mandolin called a tamburitsa and joined a folk orchestra.

Others joined dance tours to eastern Europe and Greece, collected tapes of authentic village folk music and followed renowned teachers to weekend folk dance camps.

“Travel, friendships, romances--everything--coalesced around folk dancing for many of us,” recalled Allen. “And folk dancing coalesced around The Intersection.”

Soon, other folk dance cafes opened. Longtime folk dance clubs of older members who danced in school gyms at night were invigorated by eager young members. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from around the world moved into Southern California, establishing their own churches and community centers where they could dance.

Since 1964, Karras said, more than 50 Greek dance troupes besides his own sprang up throughout California.

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Then, somewhere around the 1970s, the “movement,” as fans call it, declined.

“Customers wanted strobe lights and $100,000 sound systems,” Karras said. “What had once been a tremendous social consciousness declined. It started with disco and designer jeans. Then came country and western music, and jogging. The ‘me generation’ came in.”

The very success of international dance splintered the movement. New immigrants did not mix with Anglo-American dancers. International folk dance cafes, at best marginally profitable, closed one after another.

Today, most of those remaining specialize in, say, Israeli or Greek dance. From now on, casual dancers say they will have to organize their own folk dance events or return to dancing in school gyms. The Intersection is being leased to new owners, who plan to open a private club, Karras said.

“The times, the 1980s, want something else,” Karras said. “The folk dance movement isn’t dead, but it’s going through a phase of re-evaluation and nobody knows quite what will come out.”

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