To thousands of East Valley children accustomed to a daily dose of television and video games, Persephone Dimson is imagination personified. For 16 years, Persephone has donned whimsical costumes and through her music coaxed children back to a place where play is all make-believe and requires no batteries.
“She has an amazing rapport with children,” says Judith Kunkel of Paradise Valley. “I first saw her perform at the Metro Center kids club, and I was amazed at how she captivated the audience. I don’t know that there’s anyone quite like her. I think there’s an inner child in Persephone that in some respects never grew up. The children sense that. She speaks to them at a level they relate to.”
To keep a group of children rapt for any period of time is no small feat, but it is only one part of Persephone’s professional life. Parents who bring their children to see the Scottsdale resident perform would be surprised to learn that Persephone is a classically trained musician and a music therapist who works with the developmentally disabled. She’s also a dancer, gardener and an accomplished ventriloquist.
“A lot of people don’t even know the other side of what I do,” says Persephone, who was born into a Greek family and raised in Canada. “They only see me in goofy hats onstage.”
Walk up the driveway to Persephone’s Scottsdale home and you get the feeling you’re entering a secret garden. The flowers are in full bloom, and the tree branches bend slightly under the weight of their fruit.
“This one here is my favorite.” Persephone gingerly grasps a ripe pomegranate drooping lazily from a tree branch. The tree in question was barren and near death when Persephone moved in. Rather than scrap the tree as a neighbor suggested, Persephone the gardener brought it back to life. She had no idea what fruit it would bear.
“When I saw the pomegranates, I knew it was meant to be,” she says before falling into her signature belly laugh.
If you’re familiar with the tale of Persephone’s namesake, you’ll see the connection.
For those of you who aren’t, it goes something like this: The Persephone of Greek mythology was the beloved daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. Persephone was gathering flowers in a meadow when Hades, the god of the underworld, sprang up out of the earth and kidnapped her. Overwhelmed with grief, Demeter searched the earth for her daughter and refused to allow anything to grow for an entire year. Zeus, king of the gods, eventually persuaded Hades to release Persephone. But before letting her go, Hades tricked the girl into eating a pomegranate. Consuming the seeds meant Persephone would be tied to the underworld forever and would spend four months of the year with Hades, during which time the earth would fall into winter.
“Arizona blooms all year,” says Persephone before turning on her heel and heading into the house, her long skirt and dark hair flowing behind her.
Persephone’s companion, a white cockatoo named Maimou (Greek for monkey), begins rattling his own cage. All visitors must meet the noisy bird.
“This is my Mu.” Persephone reaches into the cage to bring out the bird. Maimou perches on Persephone’s finger, and Persephone beams like a proud parent.
The startling thing about Persephone’s house is how organized it is. Boxes filled with Persephone’s numerous costumes are labeled and neatly stacked on shelves that reach the ceiling. She owns more than 160 pairs of earrings and keeps them lined in rows on custom-made racks.
“Everything has to be organized,” says Persephone, who refers to herself as “ageless.” “If I wasn’t organized I couldn’t be successful.”
Persephone runs her company, Demeter Music, from this office, and it’s a one-woman show. She is talent, publicist and booking agent — and one of the most sought-after performers for children in the state. Her performances for the Westcor Kids Club and Tempe’s PB&J concerts are packed with children who know her music by heart. But her music isn’t exclusively for children. She has released five adult contemporary albums and performed around the country.
“I’m continually amazed at what she is able to do and how hard she has worked over the years,” says Persephone’s cousin, Fred Fotopoulos. “It’s taken a long time to build up her reputation and her career path. Music isn’t easy to succeed in.”
Persephone runs another venture from this office — her music therapy practice. She treats children and adults who are developmentally disabled.
These are one-on-one sessions with patients who have autism or cerebral palsy. At times, she has worked with survivors of near drownings.
The difference music therapy made in 22-year-old Todd Person’s life was evident to his mother, Laurie.
In the beginning Persephone’s sessions with Todd could last only 30 minutes. Now the two spend at least an hour together playing the piano or the drums.
“Before we knew Persephone, (Todd) was nonverbal, really into himself,” says Laurie Person. “Music therapy has really been important to his life.”
And to Persephone.
“One of the things I’m really grateful for is the music therapy,” says Persephone. “To put a smile on someone’s face means so much. To know that you’ve made a difference in someone’s life.”
THE HOUSE ON THE LAKE
Persephone Dimson grew up in a house on the shore of Lake Ontario. She was the youngest of five in a large Greek family living on the outskirts of multicultural Toronto.
“ ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ was a movie I really related to,” says Persephone with a laugh that tends to interrupt and punctuate her sentences.
Her father, Angelo, was a physical trainer for the Canadian army. Her mother, Sofia, was a stay-at-home mom who nurtured her daughter’s artistic inclinations.
“My parents were one of the most loving couples,” says Persephone. “I saw nothing but love in the two of them. I was very nurtured.”
Her childhood was filled with music, ballet lessons, gardening and outdoor adventures with her father and siblings, Nicoleta, Alexander, Frederic and William. Hiking and canoeing were Dimson family pastimes. The house on the lake sat on ground that cultivated a young girl’s imagination.
“I lived in the same house through high school,” says Persephone. “I think it’s important for children to feel rooted, which I certainly did. Even though some of our friends might have gone traveling all over the place, my dad made a little house by the lake. We never felt we missed those giant trips around the world.”
Sundays her grandparents would come over for an afternoon of gardening, Roses and other flowers sprung easily out of the earth around the house. Her mother was a gifted gardener and a member of the local horticulture society. She imparted her love of nature and music to her youngest daughter.
“You couldn’t have found a closer relationship,” says Persephone’s aunt and Sofia’s sister, Jennie Metrakos. “They gravitated toward each other because they both loved the arts.”
Those Sundays were capped off with dinner and a show. Persephone and her siblings would perform, singing silly songs or imitating each other.
“I’d make up funny words, sometimes making fun of my brothers or sisters, but it was all in good fun,” says Persephone. “These little performances were an extension of my imagination.”
Like her mythical namesake, Persephone was separated at a young age from her mother. She was 7 when Sofia died.
“Right before my mother died I did a play, and I remember I waved and they (her parents) had these big smiles on their faces,” says Persephone. “Somehow I knew something was wrong with my mother, but there was a feeling of elation and happiness because that’s really a moment no one will ever be able to take away from me. How wonderful that my two parents who supported and nurtured me so much had given me this drive. My parents were so bonded and I equate that with who I am today.”
Metrakos became Persephone’s surrogate mother. Persephone’s father made sure that family members watched his children while he worked. Metrakos took the young Persephone to ballet, Brownies and piano lessons. The two remain close to this day, talking at least three times a week. Her mother’s death “had a big effect on her,” says Metrakos. “She missed her very much, and we tried to make it up to her, but it took a long time until that could happen.”
MUSIC AND MEDICINE
Persephone left the shores of Lake Ontario to pursue a college education in Arizona’s temperate climate (asthma had been a problem for her as a child). She applied to and was accepted to the Herberger College of Fine Arts’ jazz program at Arizona State University.
“I was the only woman in the department,” says Persephone. “It was an eye-opening experience because I was doing things I’d never done in music.”
In the early 1980s, Persephone played the local jazz scene. She earned a reputation for herself as a virtuoso — she could sing and play the piano, sax, flute and harmonica.
“It was a blast,” she says. “I played a lot of clubs in Tempe and the officers club in Tucson. I would play until 1 or 2 in the morning. Of course the band members I was with didn’t have school the next morning or a biology class at 7:45. I was doing all that work, sometimes performing seven nights a week.”
Persephone, who described herself at the time as “this Greek-Canadian alien,” says playing the club scene helped her grow up. “I hadn’t been exposed to a lot of things. I learned a lot about being streetwise, and I always kept my morals and ethics.”
But the ego that went along with performing in clubs was something of a turn-off. Persephone discovered music therapy almost by accident when group of deaf people came into the club one night. They could feel the vibrations of the jazz and began dancing to it.
“Part of my healing through childhood was music,” says Persephone. “That’s when I thought about giving the gift of music to others and understanding some of the healing properties. So that’s when I went into music therapy.”
Her father had always said that for the Greeks medicine and music go hand in hand. Persephone began studying music therapy at ASU. She graduated in 1985 with degrees in music and music therapy.
To make herself more employable as a musician, she decided to dabble in a little bit of everything. She played the jazz circuit, performed at weddings and found her way into children’s entertainment — a ripe niche for someone talented enough to make it their own. Persephone even branched out into jingle writing and composing soundtracks for television. All the while she continued her practice as a music therapist. She managed to do what most people only dream about — creating a unique job for herself. She is her own boss and answers only to herself.
“I don’t feel exhausted,” she says, her eyes widening. “I’m excited. Every project has been exciting and fun.”
As Persephone looks to the future, she only sees more adventures to be had.
“I want to learn more and do more,” says Persephone. “I want to be able to do a full concert in Spanish. I mean, there’s tons of stuff.”
IF YOU GO
Persephone performs for the Westcor Kids Club 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Thursdays at Superstition Springs Center, 6555 E. Southern Ave., Mesa, 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. the second and fourth Mondays of the month at Fiesta Mall, 1445 W. Southern Ave., Mesa, and the first Monday of every month at Paradise Valley Mall, 4568 E. Cactus Road, Phoenix. For more information contact Demeter Music (480) 315-8863 or www.demetermusic.com.