But 2013 has met us -- I and my colleagues in New York's World Dance & Music community -- with the sudden tragic loss of one of our most enduring, beloved members.
On Sunday, January 13, Dino Bakakos, owner of the legendary Lafayette Grill & Bar which sadly had closed its doors just the year before, fell to a brain aneurysm.
For nearly three decades, Dino and his surviving brother Billy created nothing short of a Mecca for the most vibrant and talented musicians and dancers in the city. From their Tango nights to Friday night bellydance to ubiquitous Greek music to countless haflas and showcases, my mind is a torrent of raucous memories, infused with delightful raki or ouzo, which Dino would generously pour for me once I'd changed out of my costume.
"Yeah -- it's Dino -- like the dinosaur!" With this broad-smiled greeting he shook my hand and asked if I'd be dancing that evening in Ranya's Performance Prep Showcase. That was my "official" introduction to Dino in late 2006, but in fact I had met and spoken to him many, many times for over a year without knowing his name or that he was the owner of the venue that was quickly becoming my home in dance.
His rambunctious swagger had told me he was a manager or someone in charge; plus he treated me so warmly, as though he knew me, so I was embarrassed to admit I did not know his name ... until Ranya's hafla.
Making reservations for my family, I gave him my name and he said, "Yeah .. yeah, I know you! ... You know who I am, right?" And I fessed up. "I-- I'm sorry, I don't know your name..." He laughed broadly and told me .... and then offered me a glass of ouzo.
Over the years, he watched me develop as a dancer. In early 2008, after I had danced and emceed a showcase, he said, "Yeah.. you know, I think you're gonna be ready for Friday night pretty soon!" He turned to Magdalena, the dancer/photographer who booked the Grill's professional dance spot on Friday nights, "What do you think?" She agreed, and gave me an encouraging smile.
This was a minor miracle to me. I had started bellydancing to heal from surgery and three herniated discs. I was not young and for two years did not even believe it was possible for me to dance professionally. Who would hire me, after all??
Well, that night I learned: Dino would. And this was a guy who knew bellydance.
I redoubled my efforts, practiced technique, choreographies, learned different styles, props, went mad with my finger cymbals.
And several months later it happened: My first professional gig as a bellydancer at Lafayette Grill!
The room was packed and the band was fabulous as ever (though the speakers were cranked too high for my finger cymbals to be heard -- lesson learned: Get bigger zills!!). And when I was done, Dino congratulated me with a glass of raki and hug. "You were really good!" he beamed, "Beautiful dancer!"
And for the next four years I found myself on that stage frequently, either dancing professionally or as part of a showcase, benefit, or hafla, sometimes emceeing, and sometimes just cutting loose with everyone else on the dance floor into the wee hours of the morning.
Then in early 2012 the bad news came:
The Grill's landlord wanted to sell the building, so he raised the rent astronomically, forcing Dino to close up shop. He and his brother went back to their native Greece shortly afterwards where they rested and recuperated on their father's property.
In late 2012, I sent him a note saying how much we missed him and the Grill and wishing him well. He wrote back:
Carol, hi! It has been some time since we lost our lease. We will always remember vividly the great shows and one-of-a-kind atmosphere of Lafayette Grill. I'm in Sparta Greece taking care my father's land. The internet here has a lot of problems, I'm surrounded by olive trees. I will be back soon, how can I forget you? You have been a great performer with a genius personality. Billy also sends you his greetings.Kind, thoughtful, and flattering to the last...
Shortly afterwards, he and Billy returned to New York and began scouting new venues to re-open the Grill.
A few weeks ago, a friend ran into him near Union Square, near the site of the most hopeful prospect. He was stressed, but coming back to his old self and looking forward to many more nights of dance and music.
That dream can still happen, I believe.
Even at his wake, several dancers and musicians began to discuss throwing a party or benefit in his honor. Maybe we can make it an annual celebration? Perhaps we can join forces with Billy and put together a fund or tribute in his name to support the music and dance that was so dear to Dino's heart...
The possibilities are as endless as the love and generosity he inspired.
When we lose a loved one it is common to think about endings and new beginnings, to stay hopeful in the face of pain. And I believe in that.
Each of us has our own journey which will begin and end in its own time and in its own way.
We have each other for so little time in this life, connections come and go whether by death, distance, or disagreements.
What more can we ask of ourselves and each other than to treasure the connection when it comes (even the painful ones may best be regarded as "learning experiences" ☺ ), and mourn its loss when it goes?
And when it goes... to let it go, and treasure, maintain, and honor what was best in it, and to continue to live, to share, and of course, to love.