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‘I was born dancing and would like to die that way’   
An interview with Olga Black


Olga Black is the youngest child of Constantine and Efstathia Mavrokephalos Black and the youngest sister of the late Nina Black. Her father came to Melbourne from Ithaca in 1902 and went back to serve in the Greek Army during the Balkan Wars of 1912 – 13. He came back to Melbourne with his bride in 1914. He was a successful businessman running a restaurant in Swanston Street but he lost his business during the Great Depression. Olga was born in 1930, attended the after-hours Community Greek School and was always fond of dancing. Among her other jobs she taught Migrant English classes and opened her own Greek Dancing School , the first in Melbourne , wanting to teach Greek dances to Greek Australians and Australians. She visited Greece in 1959. In 1972 she went back to Greece for a short visit but stayed for 18 years, teaching English and being a dancing member of the well known Dora Stratou’s folk dancing theatre. She also participated as a volunteer in the Olympic Games of Melbourne in 1956, of Sydney in 2000, of Athens in 2004 and the Commonwealth Games of Melbourne in 2006. Now she lives in Melbourne and takes an active interest in Greek Australian Community activities, in aspects of Brighton local history and is planning to write her autobiography.

Olga, what are your memories of the 1930s and 1940s in Melbourne ?  

Ooo, that is straining the brain! I was born in 1930, bang in the middle of the depression. I am sure I was born dancing, and would like to die that way. I was the last of 5, Regina (Nina) Marguerita, John and Ellie were born at home, ‘modern me’ was born in a hospital! I grew up differently to the others – they in affluent times in Royal Parade, Parkville . I, in poverty in Moreland Road , Brunswick . They were happy times. Maybe distressful to my mother, but I never remembered her in ‘woe-is-me’ mode. My first recollection is in a high chair pushing ‘mush’ aside with a spoon looking for Miss Muffet etc., while mother patiently waited to shove her spoonful of the ‘mush’ into my mouth. When the scene at the bottom of the bowl was exposed would start - one spoonful for Nina, one for Marguerita and so on, then A BIG ONE FOR θεία Μαριγώ,  the largest person I knew! The official name of the ‘mush’ was weetbix and hot milk.

      On Sundays after lunch, our neighbourhood boys gathered with the Dads (ours was in Greece ) who made a football out of tightly rolled newspaper, firmly looped through and tied with string or twine. It was smallish and cylindrical, and footy would begin! Mothers and siblings hung over their gates of wood or wire shouting encouragement.

      I had straight hair except on Sundays –hair washing day. No shampoos in those days, only Palmolive soap. The drama of hanging over the bath on knees, soap stinging eyes was worth the row of ‘sausage’ curls. I stayed stiff-necked all day in case I shook them out. They were never there Mondays to show school friends. Other mothers would curl strips of rag round the curls which, then, stayed in longer.

      I remember Ithacan picnics. Canvas covered furniture vans at pick-up points en route to whatever seaside; fruiterers picnics, so many Ithacans owned fruit shops, they could take friends so there was a good Greek representation. We would board the ‘Waroonah’ at Port Melbourne to Queenscliffe. I was always sea-sick and on a diet of lemons! There were butchers’ picnics to go if you knew a butcher. Those picnics traced back to Byzantine times, when the HASAPIKO was born.

      I had a boyfriend called Allen next door. A loose paling in the back fence gave us quick access to each other’s yards. About three times a week Allan would go howling up his ‘fancy’ garden and through the hole to our unkempt one just ahead of his mother’s hairbrush! The noise brought us out, mother would pacify Allen, we would go off to play, mother would sooth his mother and they’d chat through the hole in the fence.

      I remember cable trams down Bourke street . The electric trams had seats of wood with many small holes and ran in an unbroken line under the windows on either side of the compartments. I spent the journey (like all the children) on my knees looking out of the window. I always sang softly ‘Old Black Joe’ –my favorite song about a horse! When we children got off, our knees were full of ‘pimples’ from the holes.

      Neon lights were invented. One evening I was in the tram with Father’s nephew Gerald Black, and saw my first neon sign. How did the lights go on and off? Gerald assured me ‘little men’ were behind the board whose job it was to turn light switches on and off – it gave them work which was hard to find! Was there cover at the back if it rained? No, they were issued with raincoats and sou’ westers!

      Trams didn’t run on Sundays. We left the house near Nickolson Street , to another in Moreland Road close to Sydney Road . By then I was going to Church with my sisters. A carriage and two horses waited on the Sydney Road corner, when it filled up it took us to town. I was sent on ahead, when the driver saw me he knew another 3 or 4 were coming!

      By the time I was six, finances eased a little. I was sent to learn the piano –a waste of money. I wanted to tap dance. I finally settled for Greek dancing. In the 40s I went to Greek school. Mrs. Sarafis, a lovely gentle lady sat at a desk. A room full of yelling children sat at long black desks on either side of a central aisle. She called us out one by one, we read from our καθαρεύουσα books, explained the words she had underlined, recited the verb given to learn, and off we’d go back to our seat and speak English. Mrs. Vrahnas was in the room through the archway with the older girls. I didn’t like the system, nor the noise, and learnt very little. A teacher came from Greece after the war. One day she twisted my ear, and called me ψεύτρα, and nothing would entice me to go again. There were many shops in the city owned by Greeks, and a lot of fruit barrows owned by Ithacans, became well known.

      The Red Cross held an annual Fair at the Melbourne Town Hall . One of the busiest stalls was the Greek Sweets’ Stall supplied by the Greek Ladies Auxiliary – and butter and sugar were beaten by hand in those days (Mother’s right hand was always ‘butter soft’), no household electric beaters. There was also Youth Week each year at the Town Hall. The Greek School danced at both events.

After 1945, the same venue and the Royal Exhibition building held international pageants. Ellie always represented HELLAS . I banged Red Cross tins on different corners in Swanston Street wearing National Costume –there was always a big trek of people homeward bound for Flinders Street Station, bang went the tin, ‘where is that costume from?’ Greece . My tin filled immediately with pennies, threepences, sixpences. The stories of the heroic deeds to help Australians to escape mainland Greece and Crete were well known by then.

      Women had replaced men in factories and on farms. Snoods, which I thought ridiculous, became fashionable so mother crocheted many for Nina and her friends. Women’s hairdos were awful. Full of burns or ‘sausage rolls’ as I called those rolls that went round the head like an attached halo! Marguerita became the family dressmaker. It seemed every Greek family had one. She made my clothes; didn’t believe in tacking, fittings were painful affairs; dressmaker pins scratched so badly, one would think we had a cat!

      During the depression, although I thought we had nothing, Mother would hear of someone who had less, and she’d be there next day with me in tow, and a bag of things to help. During the war I had to sit on the back step after school until she returned from Red Cross. John was tall, handsome and in July 1939 turned 17. In September he joined the Scottish Regiment with his 18 year old Scottish friend, by putting his age to the required 18! The unit was discontinued, so he joined the Air force. When he came home full of pride that he had joined up, Mother had the ‘vapours’!

      School closed because of infantile paralysis (in the 30s). A brother and sister filled our school with fleas. I loved killing them on the specialflea-comb, Mother loved killing them by dousing my head with methylated spirits and rubbing it into my scalp amid my protests.

      Wheels of fortune sprang up in every shopping strip and through the city. Volunteers would sell passers-by tickets for threepence each, the country was just recovering from the depression. The tickets had different colours, when all of one colour sold, there would be 3 spins and 3 people would go home with a donated prize. A lot of money was raised ‘for the war effort’ that way. Nina and Marguerita helped at the Flinders St. Station wheel, after work.


How do you remember your parents, sisters and brother?

Always grown up! Not that I minded. I had my school friend Norene, up the street, to play with. My father left for Greece when I was two and returned when I was seven, died when I was 13. Photos show him as handsome. I remember him as a sad ‘broken’ man, as though things had not gone as he envisaged through his life. Mother –even today people say ‘your Mother was a lady’- she was, but she could ‘nag you to death’ if she thought that the suggestion she’d made for you was ‘for your own good, my dear’! A very capable woman, would have made a great social worker. Once we got a phone it always rang with people wanting her advice. She was an unusual Greek mother of her day I think, because as soon as she arrived here in 1914, she set about teaching herself English by skipping off to the silent movies, matching the captions with the actions then going to Father to check if she was right. Soon she interpreted for worried parents at doctors and the Children’s Hospital. She lived on a farm in Rumania and learnt a lot of handy household hints. She had time to sit me on her knee for an hour each day even after I started school. We sang songs in Rumanian, French and English, also songs and poems in Greek.

      Of the girls -they all knitted and sewed; were competent at school and work and played the piano. Marguerita was the best at thumping out marches, Nina and Ellie classical music, Ellie and John at duets. John realized the advantages of being handsome, he kept a little black book of names and description of girls so that when he rang them systematically he wouldn’t mix them up. I disapproved and mimicked him when he got off the phone then ran for my life. He was supposed to be looking after me and studying, but all he studied was the little black book – we wore a track back and forth to the post office telephone over the road! He was a great personality guy, he’d drive anybody home in his F.J.Holden after a meeting or a ball no matter where they lived. Often there were 10 of us – 3 in front, 4 in back and 3 on knees, no bucket seats or seat belts in those days – great fun!


What were your impressions of your first trip to Greece ?

Lovely! My first trip abroad was in ’59 for 12 months. The last four in Greece . I caught the new ‘MIAOULIS’ from Brindisi in the evening, next morning we were slowly going through the Isthmus. I had just dressed to race up on deck when a woman burst into my cabin! She was full of authority and words I didn’t understand. I’d never heard ‘τελωνείο, διαβατήριο, διαδρομή, etc. I told her so. Να μην κάνεις την έξυπνη! I couldn’t believe my ears! I was a shy, polite person in those days. Τι κρύβεις;’ Very full of her position as a customs official she made me open and empty my seven cases (I can’t believe I travelled with so many), went away dissatisfied she’d found no contraband, and we’d passed through the Isthmus by the time I had packed and gone upstairs! ‘Πειραία μου, Πειραία μου’, I silently sang as we approached the dock still in its bombed state, tears streaming. At last I was going to fit in! Not going to be asked ‘Where do you come from?’ which was the constant question in Melbourne all my life; or ‘don’t forget you’re Greek!’, and what did THAT mean? But now I’ m in Greece , I’m Greek, I’ll fit in – I was so glad.

      Sadly, I was the only one in Greece who said I was Greek, everyone else, as kind, as hospitable as they were, called me ξένη. Of course I expected the Athenians to be dancing in the streets. What! If you want dancing go to the χωριά, this is Athens ! But Athens was marvellous. I had the streets to myself during quiet hours. Very few tourists. Lots of houses with αυλές, evening strolls, neighbours sitting in those αυλές embroidering together; click, click of τάβλι at the καφενεία; superb souvlakia; black-clad grandmas in villages afraid of my movie camera. Anywhere in Greece in 1959 was vastly different from Greece in 1972. I found another breed. Actually I think the ’59 τελωνείο lady must have populated the nation!


Why did you start your own Dancing School ?

Because I thought the children of my contemporaries were another generation away from the source and might never know the joy of their dancing heritage. From the school I formed a group, because I wanted to build bridges between Australian and Greek cultures. We danced at Australian and Greek Balls, dinner dances etc. I helped break the belief of the Australians that Greeks did not know anything more than fish shops and steak and eggs cafes.


Why did you decide to go to Greece in 1972?


That’s a sticky one. Essentially to avoid a nervous breakdown, also I had two jobs to pay off my house; I found the interest had been doubled; I could go away for two years and let the house, if I stayed longer it would be considered an investment, the interest would go up, higher. Mother died suddenly; Whitlam came to power, put interest up from 5 to 11% with no restrictions, so I stayed 18 years as there was no urgency to return.

What were your experiences of your stay in Greece ?

Many! The highlights were being the first non-born-in-Greece Greek chosen to dance for Dora Stratou; being chosen to tour India; teaching a group of Japanese ladies dances they did so gracefully; watching and guiding my pupils from not knowing a word of English to speaking fluently; a privilege to be at the D. S. theatre and know the woman who was quite a character. She would stand outside her open-air theatre, look up at her name in lights, thump her chest like Tarzan and, in Greek, say to us, ‘this theatre is MINE, it has two doors (exits). If you don’t like it, you can leave by either one! The lasting friendships of parents and pupils, and dancers; leaving rehearsal to find the Polytechnic horror taking place; nearly goaled with promise of torture by policeman during Junta. The evening the Junta fell, Athens filled with people with lighted candles softly singing Χριστός Ανέστη!

What were your experiences of your participation as a volunteer in the Olympic and Commonwealth Games?

Many and varied. At the ’56 Melbourne Olympics, all we did was sit in an enclosure at M.C.G. with other nationalities wearing our costumes; at interval people queued for autographs! At Sydney 2,000 in the mobile unit we had many venues to go to; work was very interesting; Games wonderfully organized; volunteers well looked after; hot food choices in well run canteen; great opening and closing ceremonies; posters signed by M. Klim and N. Cook. Athens , 2004, another story; after 3 phone calls to Athens was told to arrive on 3rd July; I did; was told nothing for me to do! The secretary I’d spoken to over the phone was suddenly too busy; on the surface Games were splendidly conducted, but volunteers badly organized; much money wasted, that’s not unusual I suppose; was finally given job at a Piraeus hotel; food money was never given me; Athens was a-glow every night.

      Commonwealth Games, 2006 I had many jobs, all to do with Opening and Closing Ceremonies; I began in 2005 when performers were interviewed; worked in workshop sewing costumes; in charge of equipment for rehearsals and opening night for river crew in fish, etc; was honoured as one of 200 representing 15,000 volunteers at M. C. G. Closing ceremony; was astonished to receive one of the few pins given which read – “Outstanding Volunteer Achievement”!; new experience was at Fina Diving Championships.

Did you participate in any Greek or Australian Organisations? What was your experience of that participation?

When young I belonged to the Olympic Club, essentially a sports club, – there were competitions cricket, football, tennis, basket ball, squash and later soccer. There was also a dancing group, and lovely lively debates. I instigated a Hobbies Exhibition –we surprised each other with what we enjoyed making. It was a happy social club too; our Balls at the Delphic were great; fashion parades –hilarious affairs where the boys were the ‘ Paris models’!

      I was a member of the Victoria League –it was rather ‘mock English’, but I enjoyed the difference to anything Greek. I joined the Daughters of Penelope, decided words of initiation worthwhile to live by so 50 years later am still there! Am member of the BOITE for 16 years, it promotes folk singers, musicians and dancers. Kostas Tsikaderis, Apodimi Kompania, Anthoula Sidiropoulos, Habibis, all performed there. In 2005 was thrilled to receive their ‘Volunteer of the Year’ award. I sing in their millennium chorus concert each year at the Concert Hall; am member of the Emergency team of Brighton Red Cross; am treasurer of Ithacan Historical Society; life member of Brighton Historical Society; belong to Red Hat Society, Brighton – we must wear purple clothes and red hat, great fun at bi-monthly dinners; you have to be over 50 to join. I’m a member of St Paul ’s Cathedral. When in my early 20s I went to Evangelismos church for tuition in Orthodoxy the priest told me to go to my mother to learn! Years later I went to the then new Constantino and Eleni, Prahran, asked the priest same question. He told me to attend church every Sunday. I told him I’d been going for months, but didn’t understand what was going on –his reply, “Do you think the rest of the congregation understands? I have just finished a 3 year course in 2 ½ years in Theology at the Cathedral. It is an off campus course run by Trinity College , Melbourne University . I could not understand the mentality of those Greek priests and wonder how they got into the priesthood – by asking their mothers, or by standing in the congregation? The mind boggles.


Tell us your views (both positive and negative) of some people that had some impression on you in various stages of your life

In 2nd grade was a young advanced –for those days- thinking teacher who had me on the platform to explain what it was like living in a Greek home! I was the only Greek child in the school. Did mummy use garlic; put onion in salads; use olive oil? Yes! (didn’t everyone?) Going home that day two boys were ahead of me. One said “Here comes the dago.” I had never heard the word; didn’t like it; was curious to see who it was; saw no-one; he must have meant me, but he knew my name, why call me that? So I casually walked up behind them, they turned at my footsteps. I calmly punched my fist into the offender’s nose, and walked between them without looking back. I asked Mother what dago meant. “Never use it” came her stern reply. So I hadn’t punched in vain. To this day I don’t know what it means though. The insinuation yes, the word, no. And where does it come from? W.O.G means Worthy Oriental Gentleman brought from Egypt by WWI soldiers, but dago?

      The eyes of the dictator Papadopoulos during his regular appearances on Athens T.V. are hard to forget – they looked manic. When Mrs. Vrahnas played the piano and had me lead the dances on stage, she always stopped when we had our back to the audience, that irritated me. My last English teacher’s knowledge of, and ability to impart the language impressed me, and miraculously I learned it well enough to teach it years later for the migrant Ed. Dep., and also in Athens. Also a State School English teacher with pronounced buck teeth loved reciting ‘Drake is in his hammock and a thousand miles away’ –then turning in her desk, bending her head to look at the floor –“Captain art thou sleeping there belo-o-w-‘! The scene, with the ‘sea’ spraying out of the sides of her mouth, had us all transfixed, the words embedded themselves into my brain!

      Mother – How wonderfully she managed to get her family of 5 through the depression for 5 years never receiving a penny from father in Greece . Her accent was detrimental for job seeking. The girls brought her piece work so she embroidered collars, cuffs, sleeves and blouse fronts. I learned to sit beside her. There was no time to chase a pre-school child round the house. As a teenager Carry Grant could ‘put his shoes under my bed’ any day, and I posted pictures of Ingrid Bergman into many exercise books. While Theo Marmaras was President of the Greek Community, I admired his efforts to lift the profile of Greeks in Melbourne . His foresight in buying property in St. Kilda Rd., and adjacent property across the lane in Queens Rd. ; having an Athenian architect (in Melbourne at the time) design a building complex of church, hall, basket ball court, school, reception room etc. Imagine if the Community had THAT property today! But small minds won the next election; sold the land; bought that miserable affair cnr Lonsdale and Russell Sts. Unimaginative, visionless people seem to have won elections ever since, and none over the years bought adjacent blocks to expand –so the building remains proof of our tiny minds. The high priority we give to in-fighting, petty jealousies, petty politics; the low priority and ignorance –even today- we have on how to smoothly and efficiently run the Greek Community; is it any wonder hundeds of Greek professionals don’t come near it? I remember the ridicule Mr Marmaras received back then for buying a Rolls Royce to take Australian dignitaries about. The Greek people didn’t get it. It went above their heads, that he went to the expense for the prestige of the Community. When he wasn’t elected, he sold the Rolls and bought an F. J. Holden, which was all HE needed. It closed a few mouths. The saddest thing I find that filters through all the years since I’ve known what day it is, is, instead of building character we build ego –prick ego and it bursts into yelling and nonsense talk. Try to prick character –you can’t. I want to cry in despair when I hear the self-satisfied phrase, ‘Εμείς είμαστε ΄Ελληνεςδεν αλλάζουμε’! All I can say is, what a pity. What a Greek tragedy!  

November 2007
Christos N. Fifis is an Honorary Research Associate, School of Historical and European Studies, La
Trobe University
.

Reproduced with the permission of the author.

 




By Christos N. Fifis 
 

 

Konstantinos Mavrokephalos Black in 
1913 in Greece , during the Balkan Wars.


Konstantinos and Efstathia Mavrokephalou Black with their daughter Nina, circa 1917, in Melbourne . Konstantinos at the time was the President of the Greek Community of Melbourne.



In the front row little Olga Black, first from the left and her brother John, back row, second from the right , with friends, in their Brunswick home. Circa 1936.

 

1943 in Melbourne .  Efstathia Mavrokephlos and her daughters. In the back row Efstathia and Rita. In the front row Nina, Olga and Ellie. Brother John was in the Army at the time.

From the left, Mrs Efstathia Mavrokephalos Black, Olga and Nina. In the right row, John, Ellie third and her husband second from the left. Melbourne in the late 1940s.

 

Olga Black, third from the right, in Dora Stratou’s dancing group in a Naousa folk   dance, circa 1975.

 

Olga Black dancing at taverna during carnival in Soho village, Macedonia , in 1982

 

A Pioneering Icarus in the Antipodes  
An interview with the Greek-Australian Historian Michael Tsounis  





 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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