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Dancer Celebrates 60 Years With Holiday Folk Fair International

Oct. 31, 2013

In November 1953, Virginia Topitzes danced at her first Holiday Folk Fair with the KavKas Russian Dancers. Since then, she hasn’t missed one, taking on the role of either dancer, director, or both. This year’s Holiday Folk Fair International, a program of the International Institute of Wisconsin, will be held Fri., Nov. 22 – Sun., Nov. 24 in the Wisconsin Exposition Center at Milwaukee’s State Fair Park.

Topitzes doesn’t dance professionally anymore. “I’m going on 80 and my legs gave out,” she said, but she still is the choreographer for the Iberian Spanish Dancers and Dorian Greek Dancers. Topitzes is the founder of both those groups.

Topitzes has spent a lifetime dedicated to dance, beginning when she was four years old. She studied ballet, tap, acrobatics and character dance and continued into adulthood adding ethnic dance and flamenco when she moved to Milwaukee in 1953.

Topitzes and her late husband, Agamemnon (Memo), operated a grocery store featuring imported foods in Walker’s Point for nearly 60 years. Between the two of them, they were fluent in five languages and became a resource for immigrants to the area. “We would make phone calls for them, act as translators if needed, and direct them to the International Institute to help them with other services. The International Institute used to call us for help too. We were like their south side branch,” she said.

Memo Topitzes died a year ago, just after the Folk Fair. He was in a nursing home at the time and Virginia remembers that the family went to the facility in costume. Their son, Paul, his wife, Mari Mollner Topitzes, and their three children also are performers with the Dorian Greek Dancers.

For this year’s program, Virginia Topitzes has chosen for the Iberian dancers Ernesto Lecuoana’s “Malaquena” on the Music Pavilion’s stage. She explained that “Malaquena” is a march or procession to a bullfight. “Spanish is very technical because there is the zapateado (foot tapping work) and body movements, use of fans, shawls, and castanets and a variety of things that accompany the dance. That is much more involved than other forms of dance.”

For the Dorian Greek Dancers, Topitzes has chosen “Zorba” on the All Nations Stage. “Zorba” (popularized in the movie "Zorba the Greek") is “a favorite among a lot of people,” she said.

The Music Pavilion performances will include a medley of “Zonoraidikos” and “Pentozali.”

“Zonaradikos” is a traditional Greek folk from Thrace (Greece) that is named because dancers hold the adjacent dancer's zonaria (belt) during the dance. The “Pentozali” is the trademark folk dance of the island of Crete, taking its name from its five basic steps and very fast pace.

Planning the dances is a months-long process. “We perform in other venues and between shows, we start figuring out what we’ll be doing for the coming year at Folk Fair,” she said.

Topitzes has done more than dance at the Folk Fair. From 1975 to 1991, she was the coordinator of the event and she is a Certified Festival Executive, conferred by Purdue University and the International Festivals Association. She appreciates the opportunity Holiday Folk Fair offers to showcase the diversity of ethnic groups through performance, food, and cultural exhibits.

Besides Milwaukee, she has been active in other folk festival committees. She has served as secretary of the USA Steering Committee for Council International of Folklore Festivals (CIOFF), a worldwide organization dedicated to the preservation and presentation of folk arts through research and festivals internationally. She is past president of the National Folk Organization of the USA and is a member of the International Council of Dance (CID), and the International Organization of Volkfests (IOV).

Topitzes’ love of dance has led her to travel widely in pursuing her education and career. She has studied dance under a wide array of world renowned teachers, performers and choreographers, including: Jose Greco, Nana Lorca, Roger Machcado (Spanish); Madelyn Green (Portuguese); Basil Thompson (ballet and character); Atanas Kolorovsky (Macedonian); Vyts Beliajus (international folk dance); Irene Jimenez McLean and Estella (Mimi) Ortiz (Puerto Rican); Tom Bozigian (Armenian); Bora Ozkoack (Turkish); Dora Stratou Dance Company teachers (Greek), Nelda Duree (Mexican); and Yves Moreau and Dick Crum, (Balkan).

She has presented papers internationally. “Change and Innovation of Traditional Music and Dance in Folklore Festivals” and “Limitation of Choreographer’s Role on Traditional Music and Dance in Folklore Festivals,” were presented in Seoul, Korea in 1988. “The Role of Women in the Transmission of Cultural Heritage” was presented in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1996.

Holiday Folk Fair International celebrates the cultural heritage of the people living in southeastern Wisconsin. This year’s theme, “Celebrate the Culture of Community,” will allow Fair-goers the opportunity to learn the ways in which music, food, dance, and art bring together people from different backgrounds.

Special attractions in 2013 include a 70th anniversary Holiday Folk Fair Retrospective featuring memorabilia from previous events, “The Power of Exchange” Sisters Cities international arts exhibit, the “Rights and Freedoms - There and Here” United Nations exhibit, a “Human Rights” exhibit in words and pictures, the Wisconsin Woodturners, and a bonsai exhibit.

The three-day event features the All Nations Theater with traditional music and dance, the World Café offering traditional dishes, the International Stage where young people perform their ethnic dances, the Music Pavilion with a variety of musical styles, Heritage Lane with unique traditions and customs through interactive exhibits, the International Bazaar where cultural artifacts create a unique shopping experience, and the Callen Construction Chef Demonstration Stage featuring local chefs preparing traditional cuisine.

Holiday Folk Fair International will also host the “Around the World” 5K Run/Walk benefitting The Salvation Army of Milwaukee County on Sun., Nov. 24 at 9:00 a.m.

For more information on the 2013 Holiday Folk Fair International, visit www.folkfair.org or call the International Institute of Wisconsin at 414-225-6220.

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