- THE BEST SOUVLAKI ON THE ISLAND
THE BEST SOUVLAKI ON THE ISLAND
by Svetlana Kantarovich
I guess I am biased…
I cannot be fully objective because I only joined this broadly multinational and noisy Souvlakeros family 3 years ago, the first and the second Marathons I didn’t attend, and if there were any minor glitches during these 2 editions, I am blissfully unaware. And the other three editions I attended, I just loved.
The Souvlaki Tango Marathon organizers team has always been a very small and close-knit, and only 3 members of the original team continue working on it from the day one. The amount of job required for the successful event which keeps growing, is huge. I know for sure the team starts preparations for the next year Marathon right after the end of the previous one.
And it is obvious that for Ajit Bubber and his wife Svetlana Nekrasova this event is not only a 24/7 job – it is their favorite baby (OK, OK, their dogs who appropriately named Tango and Milonga share the 1-st place)…
There is one burning question I always wanted to ask the organizers, and to get it off my chest, I just start with it:
Svetlana (S): Ha-ha, yes, why Apple?
Ajit (A): When the Marathon was conceived, we knew that we’d need the name. “Cyprus Tango Marathon” was already taken by Mustafa Elmas. I had even created a Facebook Page under the same name a bit earlier, without knowing that he was planning his event. And he was planning it without knowing that I had that Facebook page. So, when we found out, I just felt it would be right to give this page to him as he already owned the website.
“Limassol Tango Marathon”? Kind of non-descript, a bit boring…
S: We wanted to add some… taste… some local flavour.
A: And we were brainstorming with our original team – George Samaha, Leyla Salafuntidis, Prodromos Chrysanthou, Eva Evagorou, Michalis Pantelides, and Georgina Heracleous, and we were playing with these “tasty” words – Chocolate, Strawberry… What taste can represent Cyprus? And it was actually Prodromos, who jokingly suggested: “Why not Souvlaki then?”
At first, we thought it was too foody… And kept laughing – oh, yeah, we will be changing it every year – next it would be “Halloumi”, then “Kleftiko”, “Sheftalia” and so on… With that in mind we went ahead. But… people liked it!
S: It is unique! Of course for Greek speakers it is always a shock – why food?
Oh, for Cypriots food is a sacred thing! They say only Cypriots can talk over a meal about food they enjoyed last time and about the food they are going to have the next time… But if you wanted a Cypriot flavor – why not “Aphrodite”, for example?
A: It was one of the options.
S: During and after the first edition we got an advice from many well-wishers to change the name, as it sounded too gastronomic, and we were seriously considering to change it for something more romantic, more tango-ish, but in the end we decided to keep it.
A: Now, when we go to any international tango event, when we say we are the organizers from Limassol, people immediately go: “Ah, Souvlaki…” Talk about negative marketing…
S: It already lost its initial food connection, and now it’s trademark, a brand. We also think it is enough drama in tango, so sometimes you just want to be on a brighter, lighter side…
And how does it all “meaty” Souvlaki theme go with Svetlana being a vegetarian?
A: Well, that’s why on top of our vegetarian option in the Sparkling Souvlaki Reception, for the vegetarians we always serve Halloumi!
OK, all clear with the name now. But how did you come up with the whole idea of the event?
A: We - George, Leyla, Svetlana and myself were attending one of big and popular yearly international events in 2014, and on the flight back home we shared thoughts and realized we actually felt equally disappointed - none of the organizers spoke to us, nobody welcomed us, none of the organizers danced with us… They were too busy standing behind the bar and dancing among themselves, we were wondering why they bothered to invite other people…
And we were saying – if we would be organizing an event, we would do it differently, much more friendly, so it would be remembered, so it would make an impact on the tango community, but the first thing – we shouldn’t be doing it for money. We decided all money would be given back to the tango community in some way.
Was that your goal from the very beginning – to return the money for the tango development?
A: Yes, but at first we actually had to create the event! So when we came home, we talked to our friends in tango community, we got a team, we put our own money into it, 500 euro each, to have an initial capital, and we started to work. We’ve lost money on the first two years.
S: The first two years we didn’t even think of getting any money from the marathon, we didn’t know how many people would come. I think it was about 40 registrations only. But it was also because initially we had daily passes for the Cyprus tango community members, and in this case – you know how it goes, especially if it is the first time event. So it was more like a promo…
A: The place was not very exiting either, also the floor was very good. It was the Limassol Sporting Centre, next to Alphamega. They gave us a very big and beautiful room, but it was at the same level with a swimming pool, so we could not avoid that smell of chlorine… The next year we found a different place. I saw a picture of two our dancers from Limassol in a tango pose on Facebook and asked – where is this place? Is it big enough? The girl said it was Moon Studio and it was big, so I asked George and Leyla to go and check it, as I was in India at that time. They spoke with the owner, she said the place is available for that dates. That’s how our Marathon found it’s “home”.
S: Even on the second year we had daily passes, but that was the last time, after that if we wanted to be taken seriously, we SHOULD follow the rules, which exist for tango-marathons. People come from abroad, they pay money for registration, find a partner to register with in order to have some balance, then there are 20-30 followers are coming in the evening of a Grand Milonga, and the milonga becomes unbalanced and overcrowded.
A: From the third year we’ve set down the rules and I think we manage to keep the balance and the level of dancing quite well. OK, we did have a little dis-balance in the last Marathon, but it was only because 5 leaders didn’t come after paying, but their partners arrived without informing us that the guys were not coming, and also several registered leaders from Thessaloniki pulled out because the ticket price was so ridiculously high, we could not even say anything… And we are talking about 9 leaders!
S: My opinion: the leaders who came compensated as much as they could. Our Italian friends, the leaders from Israel, Greece, Lebanon & Syria – they danced like superhumans, hardly leaving the floor.
A: We try to improve every year, and this coming year we made the changes in the enrollment procedure, increasing the minimum tango-experience to 3 years of active dancing and screening unknown registrants via different tango channels.
That’s an important remark, as I was always wondering, why people think they can get away with “adding” some extra tango-mileage to their dancers’ CV – unless they are as extremely talented as they are hard-working and do have several hours of classes, working alone in front of the mirror and practice with a partner every single day for the last couple years, it is all so visible on the dance floor…
A: We must be stricter with the single dancers, but there is also a reason. It’s not that we want couples, because even within a couple the level differs, and it is more critical for the leader’s level.
S: The organizers’ work is not to simply find enough people and make it 50/50… We have to create the right energy, to present a good package, and for that we have to be sort of matchmakers for that several days, so we invite people we know, and if we don’t – we ask our friends who know them, and so on…
A: We had to say NO to some leaders who were stating they were dancing for 3-5 years, because it was not entirely the case. They might started taking lessons 5 years ago but they actually don’t dance, they don’t go to milongas, they don’t know much about traffic in ronda…but we also know some dancers less than 3 years, leaders and followers who are promising and who we have invited on our own, they being hesitant to register.
S: But it’s not all about the level – the main idea is to create a friendly event, we really are a big family, and we do believe there are enough these “snobbish” events in the world. Our idea is to make new friends, to create a new community, where you want to come again and again, to leave a nice memory of our event, that you came, had a great vacation along with tango, that you’ve been among friends, and you’ve kind of become a part of the family…
A: There are SO MANY tango events and possibilities and yet we want our guests to be back – difficult? Yes, it is. That’s why we call it a family – our extended Souvlakeros family… We do want them to come here every year, we do want them to know that we are waiting and we are ready to surprise them with something NEW!
Well, for Russians the dates seem ideal – our long May Holidays.
S: Yes, we took it into consideration, to be honest.
A: Unfortunately, the airlines also take it into consideration, and the prices are higher.
Let’s get back to your idea about making your Marathon a charity event. Because I must say it was another selling point for many people I was talking to. It does send a right message; it does appeal to many of us. How did your team agree upon this?
A: As I mentioned earlier the original plan was to give any earnings back to the development of Tango in Cyprus and it was only after the third year that became possible.
So as it happened that 5 of our team partners decided to pull out for some personal and business reasons. They are in Nicosia, and at some point it became a bit difficult. Michalis and Prodromos got very busy with another projects, but we do feel their support always. Leyla felt it was interfering with her concentration on the school so she pulled out as well. Eva still helps a lot during the event, and we know we can always rely on her support.
So now there are only us, George Habibi Samaha and all three of us consider tango our religion so we decided to donate all future earnings to charity which would change from year to year but mainly aimed at Anti-Cancer, Children’s Health and homeless animals in Cyprus. In this way there would be no disagreement on money matters because not one penny goes into any pocket.
We invited Michalis Kyriakides, who returned to Cyprus after many years in Greece, to join the team seeing his enthusiasm in music and appreciating his organizing skills. And last year we had a lot of help from Julia Bolshan, so now she is officially an associate member of the team.
S: Without her I wouldn’t be able to cope, she is very efficient, proactive, and most of all what I liked about her – I didn’t need to explain much, she just took an initiative and – boom! – got things done.
A: And another thing which normally goes unnoticed – we don’t hire any help, we do everything ourselves – lifting every box or a food container, opening every bottle, moving every piece of furniture… Of course, like in any good family, we get help – Savvas Sergiou, Grigoris Adamidis, Alexander Tuhari (Darina’s husband) help us every year, Elena Gabrielidou helps every year to feed 200+ guests and the last time even our friends from Buenos Aires Maria and Carlos were helping, which was heart melting…
S: And every Marathon we work insanely long hours and suffer from enormous sleep deprivation. Every Marathon we have a good family fight, but honestly – it is only because we try to make everything perfect.
A: Yes-yes, I know, I need to work at my Zen…
S: And every time after Marathon we say – never again, and this year it was such a high level of stress, that I woke up on Tuesday morning thinking: “This is it, I don’t want tango in my life anymore…”
Hah, if you can think about it, I can just relax – I have these tango-crisis moments every now and again.
So, what’s new you preparing for us next year? Any new ideas?
A: Apart from keeping raising the bars?
S: Because I don’t know how it looks from outside – every year we keep finding some mistakes. We try to take notes, what we liked, what we didn’t like, we also have a special form of feedback, we ask people to fill…but we don’t get enough feedback, seems everyone is happy…
Do you think people would say what they really feel, especially if they plan to come back or if they are locals? We are a family, after all… People don’t criticize openly. They can discuss it in a private conversation, but hardly address it.
S: Oh, no, in fact, if we were criticized, it was mainly from locals. But we feel it’s because they know us, and also want our event to improve. We wish we could offer some special terms for everyone of Cyprus tango community, but with our marathon being a non-profit event, on the contrary, we would appreciate any extra support and help from our community enormously! I hope they know that their opinions are important, even if for us it is upsetting…
To be honest, for me the most upsetting thing was to see Ajit being upset at certain point. You guys are too responsible.
S: And that is a problem. And Ajit sometimes just cannot let go. It is a practical joke already that we have to take more vitamin B12 next year… It also helps if you have someone in the team who can say: “Take it easy, guys! Just calm down.” Michalis Pantelides could do that. Habibi can do that. I am a peacemaker and a peacekeeper, because a meeting even of 5 creative people can become really heated… And we manage. But if there are about 200 people with different opinions even about the level of air-conditioner or lighting… It’s not easy to choose what is a right thing to do, if you also try to make all these people happy at the same time... And you have to understand there will be always one or two people you won’t make happy no matter how hard you try. And the format of tango-marathon is not for everyone also. You have to keep it in mind.
A: I think if 90% of people are happy with what we are doing – I am happy.
How many hotels you have an agreement with for the dates of the event?
A: Believe it or not – there are none. We tried, but I always do research every year, and it is always the better prices online than these hotels offer directly. So for more than 50% of the guests we help finding good deals. And when I say I am available 24/7 – I really mean it. E-mails are always answered within 2 hours, WhatsApp / FB messages I answer within minutes if I am not driving or sleeping. That’s why people come back – they feel taken care of, protected, like in a family.
S: Literally, I had to stop his tanda once when one of the guests called and cried for help - they had a hot water pipe broken in their rented apartment. Of course, we help! Calling a taxi, even dealing with the police…
A: OK, it was only once, a neighbour was unhappy. There are not too many houses around, so, naturally, we visited them all way in advance to explain who we are, and even to invite them for the event. And one lady did come, as she said, for 10 minutes, and was happily sitting with us for 2 hours listening to the music and enjoying herself. We kept contact with her, and eventually we found out she was a chairperson in one charity we are give money now.
S: Unfortunately, one of the neighbours from the house of one of the back streets didn’t even want to talk. He just called the police. He could not hear our music from his house but he could hear it when he went for a walk. The cars or motorbikes on the street were louder that the music… But this man even went to police next morning to write a report. Police had to react, but to us they were very polite and helpful, explaining our rights. They talked to the neighbor, and he eventually calmed down and didn’t file the report.
Speaking about music – how do you choose your DJ-s? And will there be any new DJ-s?
A: Six out of nine are new! It is a crucial part of any tango-marathon because there are no shows, no classes; we have people who didn’t want shows or classes, who came specially to dance. What are we obliged to give them? Good music, good DJ-s! That’s why, along with the DJ-s we know very well and whom we are always happy to listen to, we try to offer to our guests a new experience.
S: It’s very nice to hear when your guests say: “Oh, don’t worry about music, you always have good music, but we come for you!”, but we are always on a constant search, on a hunt for new DJ-s! At any event we go, if we like a DJ, we get in touch…
By the way, you might be surprised, but none of the DJs for 2020 will take money, they do it for free, that’s their way to support our charities.
Any other news to expect?
S: Well, it’s definitely “cooking”, you have a right to expect several little surprises…
About the food? By the way, the vegetarian option last time was so tasty, that even our famous meat eaters indulged themselves… Could we expect the same dish next time? I will definitely go for it!
S: Yes, we are planning to repeat it, it was a huge success! But there cannot be possibly Souvlaki Tango Marathon without some meat in the menu? And, of course – only recyclable dishes, cutlery, cups etc.
As I can see, there will be more photographers – a very important part of every tango event! Those people who actually prove your very existence!
S: Yes, we invited new photographers this year – to give our favorite Darina Lyutsinskaya, who will of course shoot, more chance to dance as well. But we also think the photographers are a vital part.
A: Because if you dance, say, 70-80 % of tandas, like I do, for example, and then you cannot find yourself in any pictures of the event – it is ridiculous, disappointing and can spoil the memories of the event for you.
S: As a woman I find it even more strange and upsetting – we always take an effort, chose a beautiful dress, do our hair and make up, have a fantastic tanda, and even see the photographer taking pictures of your couple at that time… But then you find nothing in the event album! So sad! We want to create and preserve these happy memories! People deserve it! That’s why we decided to invite more photographers.
A: But mind you - ALSO WITHOUT ANY FEES.
A: But we want to stick to our schedule, which already differs from your typical tango-marathon, I mean, we don’t have day milonga – break – night milonga – it breaks the crowd, and you don’t expect all the people who came to a day milonga to arrive too early for the night one… And we also invite our guests to the island, which is the Sun and the sea, so we want to give them a great chance to enjoy that in full!
S: Many things, which are now the trademarks of our marathon, also started by chance – the “Sparkling” reception or our famous beach-after-party, for example. On the first event several people who were leaving a couple days later, decided to celebrate the 9th of May. There were Lana Leo-Tanda and Ilya Gorelik from the USA, Tarek Marroushi, Anna Gribanova, Anna Popova, Maria Bodrova, Vladimir Gusev, about 15 people… Natasha Spiridonova brought a guitar, Ilya was playing, we ordered a pizza… We loved it so much, that from the next year we started organizing at the end of every marathon. The same story was with a pre-marathon-party, which is now our favorite tradition – it is nice for everyone to get to know each other before the event starts!
A: Let’s not forget THE WHATSAPP SOUVLAKI CONTROL TOWER!! We started the group 2 years ago, and last year we had more than half a marathon on our WhatsApp group which was updated minute by minute of what was going on, any changes, daily schedules, Felice’s famous lunch parties etc. etc.
And of course - the name stickers… For many people it’s almost a life-saving device!
We laugh… Now, after I’ve learned a lot about Ajit and Svetlana’s most cherished tango-baby, now I am ready to hear the story of the parents… But that story, which began in November 2006 in Umbria, Italy, during – why I am not surprised?!? - a cooking course, I will tell you next time…