Raising a hand in the air, Kathy Skettos shouts “opa! As she takes her place in front of a large room in southwest Melbourne.
Dozens of women clad in sportswear and T-shirts reading “Happy Yourself Dance” wait, as Greek music begins to play.
With arms raised, Kathy steps to the side, crossing her feet again and again to the beat of the bouzouki (a type of lute popular in Greece), stopping every few beats to clap, cheer, and encourage the class to follow.
She is loud, energetic, and dances with an enthusiasm that compels those who watch her to take charge of her.
It’s OPA-cize. It’s part cardio, part disco and, according to Kathy, 100% Greek.
“Some of these songs are the songs that we grew up with and bring back, and we add the Greek moves and aerobics fitness to it, and it works – it’s a great combination,” she says.
Kathy was born in Australia to Greek and Greek-Egyptian parents, she describes her upbringing as “very, very Greek”.
“My parents adopted the Australian way of life, but they were still very Greek,” she says.
“My sister, in particular, loved everything Greek; Greek music, Greek lifestyle, and we were arguing about it. I used to say, ‘Can you be a little more English? We live in Australia.
His sister Mary was the inspiration behind OPA-cize. She died suddenly of heart failure in 2015.
At the time, Kathy was a Latin fitness instructor.
To honor Mary, Kathy designed a Greek dance class to reach out to women who didn’t feel comfortable in the gym, thought they were too poorly coordinated for an exercise class, or struggled with depression or depression. isolation.
OPA-cize was started as a one-time event, but quickly found a niche in the competitive fitness industry.
“Before too long I had sold 300 tickets for that night and I said to my husband, ‘I think there is potential for a business here – it’s crazy the reaction I’m getting.’
Having started with a single class in a Sydney classroom, OPA-cize is now taught in almost every state and territory in Australia.
Dancing to modern and traditional Greek music, participants come from all walks of life.
Valerie Mustafay, specialist in the OPA-cize program, teaches in Brisbane. She says the class has helped her reconnect with her Greek roots and that she is taking her non-Greek friends with her.
“At first, people are a little hesitant because they wonder ‘what is this? Until they walk through the door, I see that 99.9% of people come back because they like it so much, ”she says.
It also allowed second and third generation Greek migrants to learn more about their language and culture.
Dora Stankovic, an instructor in southwest Melbourne, says her father taught her to dance. Now she is passing this tradition on to her daughter via OPA-cize.
“I think I wish daddy saw Dahlia dance, but just to show him the love of my tongue and our appreciation for it and just to understand the beauty behind it.”
Dahlia, who teaches alongside her mother, says Greek music and the Greek words spoken in class helped her learn her grandparents’ language.
“Before I started I had little or no knowledge of the Greek language and now I have learned so much. “
In addition to becoming a hit in Australia, Kathy says OPA-cize has been adopted in the US, Canada, UK, Switzerland, Germany and Japan in recent years.
It is a success that she attributes to her sister.
“I’m blown away. I look over my shoulder to see who this person is who created OPA-cize. I don’t think it’s me. I love the program, it’s wonderful, and I owe everything to Mary. “
Classes were put online during COVID-19 shutdowns but are now back. OPA-cize also runs a senior course for 65-85 year olds, and this year OPA-cize in the water was launched, called Aqua-cize.
While it’s billed as a ‘fun, get in shape’ style of aerobics, instructor Sofie Karas says it is indeed an exercise class.
“Even if you don’t know the steps, even if you can’t follow the instructors, everyone is having so much joy for this hour. It’s a great escape, a great outlet for everyone and they love it. ”
It’s an environment that instructor Tina Marmagelos says is accessible to everyone.
“You feel like you are accepted – no matter your shape, size, age, nationality – we are on a dance floor together.”
And Kathy says that amid the noise and a lot of laughter, new friendships are formed.
“The Greeks are exactly like that and our classrooms are no different. Everyone is welcome at OPA-cize – it’s not exclusive, it’s inclusive – and that’s my biggest message.