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Cyprus in London: The Philhellenes Dancing Group and the Yasar Halim Bakery

Journalist Marina Soteriou is a long-term London resident. Writing as part of our World in London series, Marina adds her experiences of Cypriot culture in the capital.

Every Thursday evening at a church hall in Waterloo, a group meet to perform dances which have been danced for centuries. They are the Philhellenes Dancing Group.

I joined nearly three years ago as I wanted to feel closer to my family on the other side of Europe, in Cyprus. The only thing I can remember from my dancing class at primary school in Nicosia was somebody finding a centipede in their shoe, but last October I performed seven Pontic dances at the annual Dance Around the World Festival at Cecil Sharp House in Regents Park.

The group has been running for 21 years, and has performed in Cyprus, Athens, Lesvos and Andros. In London, they’ve danced at the Royal Festival Hall, the Barbican and the British Museum.

Cypriots love a debate and since the so-called “Cyprus problem” has remained unsolved since 1974 – as a result of a Turkish invasion which followed a coup by the junta ruling Greece at the time – we are never short of a topic. Following the division, thousands of Cypriots came to live in London, when the Greek Cypriots fled to safety in the south and the Turkish Cypriots went north.

My grandfather, Andreas Soteriou, was from the beautiful village of Agios Epiktitos in the Kyrenia district in the North, perched high with breathtaking views of the coast. But being born in 1982, these lands were not known to me. The Cyprus I knew stopped abruptly where the rusty barbed wire and UN soldier was. The bullet holes in the Nicosia church we went to every Sunday morning were testament to the violence which was followed by decades of stalemate.

It was not until 2003 when the border crossings opened that the link with my ancestors could be restored and I could visit the house where my grandfather was raised, see his father’s grave and share gifts and stories with the Turkish Cypriot neighbours.

There is something restorative in folk dancing, knowing these intricate steps, double steps and jumps have been replayed for thousands of years and that now is just another dot on the timeline. Although we do not know what the future holds for Cyprus, we know these dances will survive.

Whenever I go back to Nicosia, one of the first things I like to do is go to Ledra Street in the city centre and buy a Papaphilippou ice cream and do as the locals do and promenade.

On one such visit, the first thing I saw was a group of Pontics in traditional costume performing their dances in the public square, the very same dances I have performed with my Bulgarian, Greek, English and Cypriot friends in the church hall in Waterloo on a rainy Thursday night.

For another slice of Cyprus, you can choose one of the many Cypriot restaurants all over London, but I prefer the hive of activity at the Yasar Halim Bakery in Haringey. The bakery was opened by a Turkish Cypriot in 1981 and has everything you can imagine, from the sweet Tahini tachinopites, to the Cypriot doughnuts dipped in syrup, “loukoumades”, which are eaten with the semolina-filled shiamishi at fairs.

To join the class or attend a Greek folk dancing workshop visit www.philhellenes.com or email greekdancing@philhellenes.com. The next Dance Around the World folk dancing festival, which has performances and workshops, takes place on 20 and 21 October. Visit www.datw.org.uk to find out more.

Do you know any other instances where you can sample Cypriot culture in London? Let us know in the comments below.