Deep down inside, most Americans cannot be Eastern European or Russian in any true sense. If I do anything truly spontaneously, I set aside time to sleep in later on. I’ve been called Anglo Saxon, whatever that means, even though there is nothing remotely Anglo or Saxon about me. Normally, I follow a sensible schedule and have a fondness for oatmeal. However, I’m a connoisseur of those nationalities who, in my view, know how to have a good time. These include Italians, Greeks and Russians to name a few. Many people from these countries share certain sayings such as opa! which I have not been able to fully master. In parallel, I’ve noticed that some nationalities dance in a certain way, with their hands above their heads. I’ve concluded that some expressions and dance styles go hand in hand, based on many years of observation and careful analysis.
Opa is said by a number of nationalities when the time is right, to lift the mood. To be able to say it effectively, it helps to be born in certain countries or raised by certain parents. My home state of Oregon is not on the list. Many Americans assume this word is Greek, which is true. Opa has reached such a level of popularity in Greece that a Greek song was popular in which opa was repeated over and over, one reason I think it did not do well in a Eurovision contest a few years back. Like salt, opa should not be overused. Meanwhile opa is very much of a Russian word, putting the Russians in the same camp with Greece, much of Eastern Europe and Gypsies.
When dancing is going on, someone might shout out opa at a certain point, giving things an oomph on the dance floor. It’s said by men when a woman is dancing, less so the other way around. It’s said by one person at a time. Crowds of people never say opa together, in a group. That would be ridiculous. One person shouts it out when the going is good. It can give folks the feeling, as a result of which several dancers might put their hands above their heads and move their fingers about in an Asian way. This is how dancing is often done in Russia.
Such Asian style dancing doesn’t come naturally to Anglo Saxons or Oregonians. Here is how it’s approximately done. First, put some gypsy music on. Don’t simply wave your hands around towards the ceiling, like you are hailing a taxi. Instead, pretend you are taking ahold of two mayonnaise jars in front of you. Then, imagine pouring the contents over your head, one jar at a time. One jar should be held above your head with your thumb pointed away from your forehead. Shake it around so that everything comes out on different parts of your head. The other jar should be held in front of you, top side up, just above your belly button. Shake it around a bit to get the contents ready. After that, switch arms and repeat. As all this is going on, move your hips to the music. It helps to lift up your legs one at a time, dramatically. Your left leg goes up when your right arm is above your head and vice versa. Cock your head to one side, as if you are getting ready to take a selfie. Close your eyes half way and stick out your lips. Pretend you are Zorba the Greek and the women can’t get enough of you. Meanwhile, keep shaking those jars and moving them around. It’s possible, as a variance of this dance move, to hold both jars above your head at the same time, shaking them over different parts of your head, thumbs pointed forward. During these moves, shout opa.
At this stage, you might think you are dancing like a Russian. You are not. Please don’t use these moves in public for the sake of your national reputation, unless you are not sober or don’t care. Instead, if you are a Protestant, Anglo Saxon or Oregonian, keep your arms below chest level and forget about channeling your inner Zorba.
There is another version of dancing with your hands over your head which I have been unable to master and cannot describe with a jar analogy. It involves holding your hands above your head and moving them around as if you are an Indian or perhaps a Japanese dancer. I’ve seen such dancing in India, Arab countries, Asia and Spain. If your relatives from the old country don’t dance this way, avoid trying to replicate it.
Opa is also said when something goes wrong. Russian children, dressed in six layers of clothing, are pulled around in the winter by their parents on their sleds. The parents puff away while children with bright red cheeks sit on the sled, enjoying the view. Sometimes such sledding happens when there is very little snow, ruining the skids. I was called upon to do this kind of sled pulling when my daughters were little and from time to time, I’d take off running and make a quick turn, causing the children too fall off, laughing. At this point I could say, opa. It came out with a certain amount of satisfaction. Probably not the right usage but you get my drift.
Oi is another Russian expression, shared by many nationalities around the world. Cockneys apparently use it, as do the Japanese and Indians, making it reasonably global. In my home state, oi is not used other than among the Jewish neighbors who are in a category of their own, with respect to oi-ness. It does have a high rating among non-English speakers as being a favorite word. Apparently, this would disqualify Cockneys as English speakers.
Around the world oihas a range of meanings. In Brazil, people say “hello” by using oi. In India, I’ve read it is way to call out to someone – something like saying “hey” in English. Swedes say oi (spelled oj), to express astonishment. Good to know should you find yourself among astonished Swedes.
In Russia, oi is said when people are surprised. In my household, we have mice. They live somewhere under the floor and have a habit of leaving evidence of their existence on top of the microwave oven. My wife feels sorry for the mice and doesn’t like the idea of removing them with the use of traps. Instead, we try to not leave any food out for them. To relieve their frustration, the mice can be heard chewing loudly on our house, somewhere out of sight. From time to time, they come running out into the kitchen at which point my wife says oi. This is the correct usage.
Two weeks ago, I got fed up with the mice and had little to do during the holidays. I caught several of them, using traps. That allowed me to say opa when I showed them to my wife. I’m not sure this is the correct usage of opa, in connection with murdering small rodents in cold blood, but it felt right.
As a foreigner, I mostly avoid using these words intentionally. It’s as if the Greek Orthodox world is born with an ability to say certain things and dance a certain way while many on the other side of the divide have to do without. When dancing, I stick to the moves I learned several decades ago without putting my hands above my head at all. Often, when using oi and opa, I get looks that say, give it up pal. Leave those words to people who know what they are doing. You don’t.
Daniel Brooks, 15 January 2019