Bradenton’s Tina Whyte remembered being 14 years old when Lakewood Ranch’s Maria Kirlangitis approached her and six other teenagers about performing a few Hellenic dances at St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church’s first Greek Glendi.
Whyte was excited to be a part of a new tradition.
“The funny part is the (dances) we were doing then, that we were so excited about and thought were so fancy, are the ones we have our kindergartners do now,” Whyte said with a laugh.
Throughout the 40 years St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church has been hosting the Greek Glendi, the Hellenic dances have been a major source of entertainment and a tradition.
When that tradition began, Sarasota’s Paulene Soublis said the Greek Glendi wasn’t about their religion but rather all about food and dancing. She said that’s how people who aren’t Greek could relate to them.
But the festival also became a way to raise money so a new church could be built where it’s now located off Lockwood Ridge Road.
The parish council wasn’t sure where to start when it came to hosting a Glendi. How were they going to raise money? What were they going to serve? What would be the entertainment?
As parish council members and congregants stepped up, answers to those questions began to form.
Lakewood Ranch’s Betty Karras volunteered to sell raffle tickets.
Sarasota’s George Soublis offered to cook the food.
Kirlangitis said she would teach some of the teenagers in the congregation Hellenic dances they would perform as entertainment.
The first Greek Glendi in 1994 was starting to take shape, which came with excitement and anxiety.
The biggest question was: What if no one came?
But the volunteers’ concerns quickly dissipated as approximately 500 people attended the one-day event 40 years ago.
The parish council decided to expand the Glendi to two days the following year.
Soublis said the second festival was so popular they ran out of food after the first day. Her husband, George Soublis, spent the night cooking in the church kitchen and sleeping on the floor of the church office.
Over the years, Bradenton’s Connie Chaltis said the volunteers would be so busy it was difficult to keep track of how many people were attending the Glendi.
The festival grew to its height in 2019 when it was a four-day festival that drew thousands. However, in 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic forced the church to reduce the festival to a three-day event.
No matter how busy the festival has been, the volunteers always had a good time.
“Even though there’s so much always going on, a certain song will come on and suddenly there’ll be a dance line going from the food area and the workers are dancing along,” Whyte said. “Or the men are serving coffee or wine and they’re sitting there, enjoying themselves and sharing stories — while still serving the community.”
Soublis said friendships are made as volunteers get to know each other.
The Hellenic dance group has grown to include dozens of dancers. Whyte said her children, now 24-year-old Stephen Whyte, 22-year-old James Whyte and 15-year-old Paulina Whyte, all have participated in the dances since they were children.
The first time Whyte saw her children perform in the dance group, it brought tears to her eyes.
Whyte said Paulina Whyte looks forward to dancing in the Glendi every year as she’s proud to share her culture and history.
Kirlangitis said she loves when the alumni of the dance group are asked to join the group on the dance floor.
“It’s an emotional picture,” she said. “We have all these kids who are coming home from their universities for the weekend to be a part of this because they were part of it at one time. That’s the beauty of it.”
People of all ages volunteer at the Glendi.
“Starting with young kids to the older ladies, they’re making the salads and having a smile on their face as they’re doing it,” she said. “You might have a 20-year-old next to an 85-year-old. You tell the 85-year-old to please sit down and they say, ‘No, no, no, I’m going to do it.’”
Karras said each year the festival comes from the heart of the parishioners. Many volunteers spend 10-plus hours working.
“I remember we used to work three straight days, beginning to end ... crawling into bed telling (my husband) Alex, ‘I’m not going in there early tomorrow. I am not getting up,’” she said. “I would get up, and I would be here when it opened. You just do it.”
Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.