Leanne Vorrias: «Mykonians are very hospitable people»
She was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, lived in New York and for the last 14 years she has been living in Mykonos, which she now considers her home. Leanne Vorrias, dancer, dance teacher and photographer, unravels the tangle of her life in the Mykonos Post.
Although she was born and raised in Canada, her passion for travel, arts, history and her marriage to her Greek husband made her love Greece deeply and make it her “home”, as she likes to say. At the age of 33, she visits the Greek islands for the first time and she immediately falls in love with them. Of course, one of them was destined to become her home. A place where she would live, meet new people, make friends, learn about the heritage and culture and experience unforgettable moments. Leanne Vorrias, through the interesting story of her life, comes to prove that although her origins are Canadian, her soul exudes a Myconian air.
How did you become a permanent resident of Mykonos?
I was born and raised in Toronto Canada, living there for the first 25 years of my life. Through a series of events, I moved to St. Petersburg Florida where at age 32, met and married my Greek husband Nikos. He was a busy restaurant and construction entrapeneur. Two years later, business led us to New York. It became our home for the next 34 years. Like many Greeks in America, we visited Greece every summer. I was 33 when I first set eyes on the greek islands… Crete to be exact, then Rhodes, Santorini and Mykonos. For some unexplainable reason, I felt like I was home. When I would return to New York, I longed to be back in Greece. Each summer, we often ended our trips in Mykonos.
Nikos was friends with Vassilis Orologas the owner of the Windmill Bar. In 1984, Vassilis showed us a small traditional home overlooking the old harbour and said it was for sale. We returned to NY showing photos and telling everyone we were going to buy that house. It was unfortunately sold to someone else before we could close the deal. Finding a property in the Greek islands to eventually retire became a goal that Nikos and I shared. As the years passed, we found properties in Aegena, then Poros but both had family owners fighting over the sales. During a visit to Mykonos in 2005 we found a home in Tourlos that seemed perfect. Again the deal fell through. One last trip in 2008 seemed fruitless as we searched. We almost gave up the idea of finding our place in paradise.
Our last night in Mykonos I wanted to watch the sunset over Delos one last time. We drove to Diakoftis where there is a wonderful view of ancient Delos. As we turned the corner and Delos came into view, there was a “For Sale” sign on unfinished homes on my right. We had passed this place many times, but the sign was new. Nikos pulled the car in, called the number on the sign, someone quickly appeared and walked us through the properties. He was the builder who also had completed his home next to the others but had run out of money to complete his construction projects. He finally showed us his home and said it was for sale. As I watched the sun set, Nikos, with a twinkle in his eyes, asked if I liked the house. Of course I did! He turned and shook hands with the owner. The next morning we arranged a small deposit and flew to New York. This deal went through!
Despite the party image outsiders have of Mykonos, there is a back to nature simplicity that I so love here.
Have you made friends on the island? Did you adapt to this big change easily?
I have a huge family of friends on this island, both Mykonians and expats. However I do tend to spend most of my time these days with native residents. Despite the party image outsiders have of Mykonos, there is a back to nature simplicity that I so love here. Friends show up with flowers cut from their garden, or with fresh eggs or preserves for no reason other than to share them with us. Sometimes we find these little gifts waiting for us by our door. Families are close here. Invitations often come to share family events with them. I also consider them extremely hospitable! They are a passionate people I am honoured to become Koumbara for my dear Mykonian friend, soon to be married, Stella Chatziioannou who is also a member of Anemomili. Dancing with Anemomili Cultural Dance Association of Mykonos has brought me closer to the community through classes and festival participation.
Learning the language has been a hurdle for me but English is common here. I had no need when living in America other than some basic greek vocabulary. Since living here, my understanding has slowly increased and I take online lessons. I wish I had started earlier. Learning would have been much faster I think at 33 yrs. old than at 70. Perhaps that’s an excuse, but I try.
What are your favorite places in Mykonos and why?
Agios Ilios Church at the highest point of the island. You can see the entire island from there. It’s a glorious view and a place to sit and commune with God. I went there the day my father died in Canada. I left a candle hanging in a blue vase for him. We were separated but I felt him with me. He never was able to visit Greece. To this day, when I see that tiny white dot at the top of the mountain, I think of it as my father’s church and he is near.
At this point in my life, I cannot imagine living anywhere else. I strive to make positive contributions to life in Mykonos.
Do you consider yourself a Mykonian now? Have you made Mykonos your “home”?
Mykonos is my permanent home. Greece has been in my heart since I married my husband. I converted to Greek Orthodoxy 39 years ago when we married. I was even baptised by our Father Theodore in the Sarasota river! The greek culture and now the Mykonian history and native culture are very important to me. My acceptance into this wonderful community has been truly a blessing. At this point in my life, I cannot imagine living anywhere else. I strive to make positive contributions to life in Mykonos.
What do you love most about the island?
Getting up in the morning and seeing ancient Delos over the deep blue Aegean Sea. I thank God every day for this blessing and vowed never to take it for granted. I love joining hands or being shoulder to shoulder dancing with my fellow Anemomili dancers as the music moves our feet. Sometimes we are outside dancing under the moon or by the sea. I find myself moving back in time to ancient greeks dancing under the stars and smile as my feet and heart move to these ancient rhythms.
I love seeing people enjoy the simple things in life, sharing a drink and singing songs together, losing themselves in a zeibeiko, kissing each other with genuine warmth when greeted and putting an arm around each other in friendship, calling to make sure everything is ok if they haven’t seen you, wishing “kalo mina” at the beginning of each month, celebrating the multitude of name days more than birthdays.
The nightlife is not the real Mykonos. That is the fantasy that people want to experience during 4 months of the year. They miss the real essence of the island.
What is your favorite season on the island? The chaotic summer or the quiet winter?
Definitely the off-season period is my favourite time. I don’t think of it as quieter. It is filled with so many Mykonian events and activities such as the panagias, and numerous Church events, Carnival, Independence Day, the pilgrimage walk by hundreds with the icon of Virgin Mary, gastronomy and dance clubs. It the time when Mykonians can become themselves again and tend to their own lives instead of the tourists. To me, Mykonos becomes alive then.
Do you think that Mykonos, as many people say, is just the island of parties and nightlife or is it much more than that?
It is sooo much more! I wish visitors to our island could understand this better. I have a blog “MykonosDream.com” where I attempt to share some of the Mykonian life that exists beyond the party scene. The nightlife is not the real Mykonos. That is the fantasy that people want to experience during 4 months of the year. They miss the real essence of the island. I see the cruise ships with thousands of people following guides carrying flags. They visit the prerequisite places in the Chora and board their ships again. They are like lemmings and don’t realise or care that the island is bigger than just the town. We have farms, dairy, sheep, goats, horse ranches, cultural societies, events, artists, a thriving community beyond the nightlife.
When you first came on the island, were you impressed by the cultural heritage of the place?
I love their passion for their homeland and history. My family heritage goes back to my great great grandmother, a Canadian Huron indian who lived on Manitoulin island in lake Huron Ontario. She married my great great grandfather, a Swedish settler. Her daughter, my great grandmother lived to be 103. As a child I listened to her stories and those of my mother who loved to study archeology, I developed an interest in things past.
Now I appreciate what I see and learn here from the Mykonians. I have become more accustomed to dancing to the sounds of the traditional tsampouna and acquired a taste for music and rhythms that once sounded strange to my ear. Recently I photographed Mykonians learning weaving and wool dyeing techniques with natural plants. There are many opportunities here given under the auspices of the local Cultural Organisations such as KDEPPAM, GRYPAREIO CULTURAL CENTER and City Hall. There is the Theatrical Group of Mykonos, Choirs and a music school, Theatre, Art classes and galleries, our outdoor Cinema “Cine Manto”. Also, as a member of Anemomili Cultural Dance Assoc. I am part of a group that is always striving to promote the cultural heritage of the island. I am proud to be an accepted member of this Association.
In the past, you were a professional dancer. Tell us a few things about dancing. When did you start?
Dance has been who I am for most of my life. As a child, if I heard music, I would dance. My mother soon enrolled me in my first dance class. My parents gave me a little child’s record player. I would put Tchaikofsky’s Swan Lake on next to my bed and fall asleep dreaming of becoming a ballerina. I was offered a scholarship to the Canadian National Ballet School when I was 10. This was the beginning of very serious training for me. It was rigorous and disciplined but I was ecstatic with learning. The live piano accompaniment in classes filled me with so much emotion. Feeling the wood spring floor, watching and learning from the company dancers, feeling my muscles ache and knowing I was getting stronger…..this was so perfect. Eventually I joined the Canadian Dance Drama Company, and later, The Classical Jazz Dance Co in Canada. I taught movement to Opera Students at the University of Toronto and worked on the Canadian TV show “Hee Haw” as a country western dancer.
When I moved to the United States, I opened a performing arts centre called Dancemakers in St. Petersburg Fla. Eventually 2 more studios were opened. I decided to audition dancers and started The Dancemakers Inc. dance company. It was an eclectic, regional dance company. I choreographed in collaboration with wonderfully talented people such as Barton Mumaw, a pioneer of modern dance in America. Barton instilled in me an appreciation for the history of modern dance. He was in his 70’s, such a strong dancer and so inspiring to me and my dancers. Together we were awarded a grant from the National Endowment For The Arts to reconstruct old Dennishawn Dances from a past era. I brought dancers such as George White from Martha Graham Dance Co., Dan Wagner and Dancers, Repertory Theatre of Utah to my studio and dance company to perform and teach. I even found myself doing choreography for the Playboy Club and Florida Dinner theaters, I was contacted to bring dancers and teachers from New York to Oporto Portugal every two months for two years. I set up dance and fitness programs there. It was another great experience for me outside of America. Teaching dance and fitness classes in New York before moving to Mykonos also kept me busy along with my photography. I now enjoy teaching a weekly morning zoom fitness class for the locals since covid began and of course performing and taking classes 3x’s per week with Anemomili .
Do you dance Greek traditional dances?
I was dancing Greek dances very soon after meeting my husband. We would go to Greek clubs and I would dance. I loved the music. I thought I knew a lot. How wrong I was! I have learned so much since joining the Anemomili Cultural Dancers. Each class has been full of new learning for me. Each island and surrounding mainland areas have their own style and interpretation. There are thousands of traditional dances from all over Greece…the Sousta, Ballos, Sirtaki, Hasapiko, Pentozali, Kalamatianos, Tsamiko and sooo many more! Of course I love the Zeibekiko! This improvised dance comes from the soul. With arms wide open like an eagle, you let yourself go with the music, and your feelings take over. No two zeibekikos are ever the same…..like our lives day to day. Just recently zeibekikos dance was finally added to the Greek Cultural Heritage list thanks to the perseverance of well known dancer and teacher Thomas Kolovos.
I have performed often in traditional costumes with Anemomili in Mykonos and other places. Samos and Patras festivals were wonderful dance experiences for me. We were scheduled to perform in Cannes France but had to cancel due to covid. Prior to that Anemomili travelled to Prague and China as Mykonian ambassadors of dance and culture.
Mykonos is a natural light studio. I don’t often have the need for artificial light. You would have to be made of stone not to feel something special here.
When did photography enter your life and how?
If someone asked me “What do you do?”, the answer was always “I am a dancer, choreographer and teacher”. Dance consumed my early life. There was no other identity for me. Photography was something I also loved but it was more of a self-taught hobby at that time.
I built my own darkroom and spent many hours developing, experimenting and reading about the subject. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I decided to take the leap and study more seriously at ICP -International Center Of Photography. I was in my late 30’s by that time. As time passed I could actually call myself a “photographer” with confidence. My dance background definitely helped me as a photographer. I was aware of lighting, how the body looks best in what angle and with what light, and when to catch the right moment in movement. As a teacher, I could direct individuals and groups to get the right shot. In New York women felt confident to come to me for boudoir and black and white nude art photographs. My portfolio grew and included many newborn infant portraits. I had learned to digitally paint my images and often applied this technique to my work. Mykonos has increased my creative instincts. The Mythological series was particularly fun for me. I could have kept going with it….so many Gods! and willing models, but I had a deadline to produce for the gallery show at the Municipal Art Gallery.
Greece and specifically Mykonos must be the ideal places for a photographer, right?
Mykonos is a natural light studio. I don’t often have the need for artificial light. The sharp lighting contrasts of mid day can be challenging, but I love early morning and evening light. Winter light changes with each day with dramatic clouds and sunsets. I had a lovely photography studio to work out of in New York using artificial lighting equipment the majority of the time. I sold and gave away most of that equipment before moving. Mykonos is a blessed place on earth. It stimulates me to record moments in time and to create my fantasy images. The island stirs the soul of many creatives. That is why you find so many different artists of varying disciplines here. The energy vibrations, the light, the smells of the sea, the sunsets, and ancient Delos stimulate the senses. You would have to be made of stone not to feel something special here.
What do you like most to photograph? Landscapes, people?
Definitely photographing people. Dancers moving, people showing emotion. “We Dance Between The Winds” was my first gallery show. The windy island and it’s people in motion. Anemomiloi encouraged and supported my creative project. Members of the team and their families became my subjects. A second show followed which was Mythologies. Living directly across from Delos makes one think often of the ancient Mythological Gods of Greece. These stories have always fascinated me. The dancers of Anemomili were wonderful models and ready to help me create my photo interpretations of these ancient tales.
On the other hand, Greece has breathtaking landscapes to photograph. Each day is like a painting here. I am always grabbing my camera for those fabulous postcard shots surrounding us.
Do you plan to stay in Mykonos or are your plans to return to America or go somewhere else in the future?
I plan to stay. When my time is done it will be in Mykonos. Our home will pass to our grandson Nico with the hopes that he too will understand and love his Greek heritage and enjoy the simple things in life as we do.
Tell us about the most beautiful memory you have of Mykonos.
There are actually so many special memories made here over the years! Our 25th renewal of wedding vows at Agios Kyriaki Church in Chora. Walking over the threshold of our new home here as owners and knowing we finally did it! We were home.