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Wednesday, 11 October 2006 22:13

Countless Greek dances have been lost forever, others are vanishing even at this moment, as the last persons who can recall them and from whom we could inherit them breathe their last. For those readers who would like to undertake ethnographic research on dance customs, the following guide-lines are intended to be of assistance. What follows is not a manual of instructions, merely pointers which each researcher will modify according to his interests, abilities and the specific circum­stances encountered.


The first step is to choose the village or group of villages he wishes to study, a purely personal decision since the researcher must have serious motivation and must not be readily disappointed. Needless to say, if someone chooses his native village then it will be much easier to make personal contacts. Otherwise ties must be established, he must ferret out villagers who will make introductions so as to have an entree; this is a great boon. It is advisable to begin by investigating a village quite different from one's own, since this sharpens one's critical faculties and powers of observation.

A factor of prime importance is the composition of the village population. If it is homogeneous the situation is much easier but if people have settled there from other regions it is more difficult to determine the original state of the customs and practices since these have been subject to mutual influence. In such a situation the researcher should first gain information from the indigenous inhabitants and then check this against that from co-villagers who have settled elsewhere or emigrated. In the case of refugees from a particular region, one should find out in which part of Greece most of them settled and then proceed to elucidate the nature of their customs before they differentiated according to locality.

Before launching into actual fieldwork the researcher should search the relevant bibliography, that is he should read what has been written on the history and customs of the area. In this way he acquires an orientation, is better equipped to fill in the gaps, refute, confirm or modify what he has read, and to coax the memories of his informants. If the authors of the books or articles are still alive the researcher can get in touch with them and obtain additional information. It is also a good idea to make contact with societies of villagers in the cities for there one will easily meet informants.

Another matter of importance is to establish a period of reference. Wars and consequent movements of population have brought considerable ethnic upheavals in their wake. The decades of the '20s and '40s were two major turning points in recent Greek history. Not too long ago one could still find people in the villages who danced there before 1920, but today one is obliged to look for those who lived there in the inter-war years. Even though some customs lived on after the Italo-German occupation, there is no doubt that they suffered a severe shock. Thus the most promising informants are those villagers who were born and bred there and are now over 60 years old.

Without doubt, the ideal situation would be for the investigation of dance events to be included in a holistic programme of ethnographic research in a particular village, since no cultural expression functions independently of all the others which make up social life. This is especially true of traditional society, in comparison with industrial society where there tends to be a compartmentalisation of events, according to place, time and function. However complete the investiga­tion of the dance customs of a village, the researcher cannot proceed to interpretations and conclusions except in combination with the study of other aspects of village life.

Bibliographical work can only be done in the specialist libraries in the main cities. The researcher should supplement this by finding out whether anything has been written in local sources: the community library, private archives, monastery records etc. Information on the provenance of the population, demographic changes, milestones in local history, the economy and administration of the area, is available in the public archives of the regional towns. Finally, the researcher should complete his preparations by visiting the local folk art museum, in order to gain a picture of the costumes, vessels and way of life of the people in days gone by,


We now proceed to the actual fieldwork. The researcher should find out who played instruments in the old days, or even now, who were good dancers in their youth, who were good singers and who were renowned as the life and soul of the feasts and celebrations. The usefulness of an informant depends very much on his age, his memory and, of course, on his willingness to help the researcher. In most cases there are just a few old men in the village, so there is no problem of selection and the ethnographer will direct his attentions on the younger people too, those who recall the customs after they had already begun to be abandoned.

The best way to start investigating is to get into conversation with each informant separately, in order to record those elements most alive in his memory, uninfluenced by others. At a later stage these same themes can be raised again by asking clarificatory questions in a circle of informants of the same age. Invariably new information and opinions will emerge in the course of such a discussion. An ethnographer should explain the purpose of his research from the outset. He should make every effort to convince the villagers of the seriousness of his intentions in order to wave any hesitation and dispel distrust among those with whom he speaks. Before too long he will realise that they have often learnt to dismiss and despise all those things belonging to the past, which they regard as an obstacle to progress.

This fieldwork method is known as interview but it is really a guided discussion. There can be no fixed sequence since the informant jumps from one subject to another as the images and instances crowd his mind. The researcher keeps notes of the main points, so as to have before him a picture of the course of the discussion, at the same time recording the conversation on a cassette so that he has a complete record for later transcription. These tapes will form an important part of his archive for future reference. There is no need to keep to a particular order in the subjects touched on, nor to fire questions, or for the procedure to be tiring. The interviewer may, for instance, mention subjects from another village, in which case the informant has a pretext for narrating an analogous situation from his own experience.

The subjects listed below in no way constitute a questionnaire in the strict sense of sociological research. They are not lists of questions to be put to the informant and to be answered one by one, by a yes or no. This is intended to be an outline for the researcher, to remind him of the various themes he should raise and to help him order his data at a later date. As questions they are cut and dried and there is a danger that too brief responses will be elicited. This should be avoided.

Fruitful replies are stories, scenes, events, judgements and chains of recollections which the informant recalls gradually as his mind is activated. Ideally all these should be recorded, even if they seem irrelevant to the subject in hand. If the ethnographer tries to insist on a direct, clear answer he risks losing the substance of it for by so doing he obliges the speaker to change his thought process. Village people have their own way of thinking and expressing themselves and old people may also have lapses of memory.

A profitable technique is to accept the first reply at face value and then return to this in a later, elucidatory discussion, perhaps combining it with other answers obtained in the interim. If he can return to his informant after a few weeks have elapsed, he will notice that the questions put in the first interview will prompt much fuller and richer answers.

a) Personal details

Name. Date of birth. A few facts about his life (if he left the village, where he went, what jobs he did, if he plays an instrument, where he learned to dance, where his parents were from etc.).

b) Patronal feasts and public dances

- When held. Where. Who attended. What they wore. What time they danced.

- How did they invite to the dance: with rifle shots, bells, town-crier (delális), shouting?

- Who began the dance: the young men, the old men, the women? How? With which dance?

- How was a dance ordered, what was said to the musician? -Where were the musicians from, what instruments did they play? -How were the musicians paid, how much, when and by whom?

- In what order did they dance: according to sex, age, family, in separate circles?

- Which dances did they dance? The names of dances, or songs which had a special dance. Order of the dances, at the beginning and at the end of a celebration.

- Dances for specific occasions.-Were there male dances, female dances, dances for couples, solo dances, dances for the elderly?

- Did they hold kerchiefs? The first dancer, the men, the women?

- Did non-villagers join the dance, in what position, when?

- How long after mourning could a person join the dance?

- If there were mentally ill, physically ill, deformed or disabled villagers did they dance?

- With whom could each person dance, how did he invite them, did others join on? -Could a young man invite a girl to dance with him, how?

- Did the priest dance, when? The school teacher, the policeman, others?

- How did the others sit around the dance, who were they, where did the musicians play, what was the "dance floor" like?

- How did the dance end, when? How was the signal given, what was the last dance?

c) General

- How was the dance talked about the following day, what was said about what happened?

- What distinguished a good dancer (male or female), what was said about him (her)?

- Were there names for the figures of the dance? The characteristic movements? What was the dancer called who led the dance and what was the one at the end called?

- Exhortations, compliments expressed during the dance, comments by the onlookers, typical words and phrases.

-Quarrels at the dance, between whom, for what reason.

- In what part did the children dance, how did they learn to dance? At what age did they enter the dance, boys and girls? Which dances did they learn at school?

- When was the dance held, what happened if the prescribed dance did not take place, when someone did not dance?

d) Weddings

- The prelude to the celebration, the preparations. At what phases did they dance, who and to what songs, which dances (at the betrothal, kneading of the bread, with the dowry linen, the mattress, at the well or fountain, elsewhere), description.

- After the marriage rite (stefanómata - crowning), did they dance outside the church, in the street, who, in what order, which dances?

- At the wedding dinner. Who begins the dance, in what order of alignment do they dance each dance, which dance was with which song? Which dances came at the end of the celebration?

- Do they dance on the days following? Who? When?e) Other situations

- Did they dance at Carnival time? Who, where, which dances, what did they wear? What did the others do? What did they say?

- Dances at chapels, monasteries, patronal feasts of other villages.

- Dances at the bonfires on the feast of St John, of Lazarus, the carols, for rain, to collect money, at the cradle, on May day, at Christmas, New Year, the harvest, the vintage, in the fields, at the sheep pens.

- Did they dance at home, in their courtyards, at evening get together for work, at family gatherings, on what pretexts? What dances?

- Did the women dance among themselves, at home, at the well, with the children?

- Did the children dance among themselves, when, were there any children's dances?

- Did they dance and sing without instruments or dance without song? -Mimic dances. Dance competitions. Amusing dances. Bawdy dances. Dance


- Dances of certain occupations (e.g. shepherds, sailors, fishermen, guilds).

- Dances of certain companies of friends, families or certain individuals.

- Dances of other ethnic groups in the region (gypsies, Armenians, Jews, Turks, Bulgarians etc.).

- Dances from other villages, from other parts of Greece, European dances. Who brought them, when, how were they received?

f) About each dance

- Name or names. Songs with which it is danced. Tunes.

- Situations where it is danced or not danced. -Who usually dances it, who not. In what order?

- What is said about it (e.g. it is for the young, for drunks, for showing off, vigorous and virile, sedate and serious, is not local etc.).

- How do they order the musicians to play a particular song, what phrases do they use?

- What kind of hold has the dance (hands, clasped shoulders, crossed arms etc.)? -Steps, movements of the hands and body, returns (tsakísmata), variations,

improvisations by the first or last dancer.

-Which is the correct manner of dancing (e.g. erect and rigid, gracefully, emphatically, stamping, on the spot, light of foot etc.)?

- Formations (e.g. inward spiral, outward spiral of the circle, free-form, facing, in a straight line, in a closed circle etc.).

Recording the dances

Whereas all other phases of research on dance can feasibly be conducted by ethnographers without dance education or experience, the recording of the dances themselves depends to a much greater degree on the personal abilities and knowledge of the researcher, as well as his aptitude and talent as a dancer. The recording of the kinetic content of each dance ensures its preservation, either for passing on to a third party or to salvage it from imminent adulteration or disappearance.

The procedure begins with familiarisation with the context, by observing those who dance at weddings and patronal feasts. Those who truly understand the music and express it with their body stand out immediately, as do those who are not attuned to the local idiom, being influenced by dances seen elsewhere. If the culture of the village has been much altered, then research must concentrate on the older members of the community, for undoubtedly they are the most reliable and credible sources of information on the original shape of the dance.

The ethnographer should aim at recording every dance in both public and private circumstances - according to the method outlined below. He should cross-check his sources as far as possible (men-women, old men-young men etc.). Above all he should take precautions to see that the dance is in no way altered on account of his presence, which should always be as unobtrusive and discreet as possible. At the end of a feast it is usually the village "bons viveurs" who linger on, and then the dance is seen at its most revealing. Other times the researcher will have to single out one or more dancers to contact afterwards, in order to ask them to elaborate on certain details or dance a now-abandoned dance for him. This is a test of his personal charm in being able to persuade them and in creating the right atmosphere, putting them in the mood. For it is certainly not easy for anyone - and especially the old - to dance just like that, to order, so to speak, for an outsider and for quite some time.

a) Learning

The researcher must begin by learning the dance himself, registering it in his own body, before committing it to film or paper.

To learn a dance requires time and attention. To learn the steps and body movements so that one can dance alongside others is rather easy, but to faithfully copy the local colour and come to possess it is another matter. By dancing habitually with good dancers one slowly discovers those barely perceptible move­ments and oscillations, the slight deviations from the rhythm, alternations in support and all those other traits and nuances distinctive to the way the dance has evolved in a particular village. Since the ethnographer comes from elsewhere, was not born and brought up in the village, this learning process is of necessity artificial, contrived. His dance will always be an imitation, whereas for the villager the local dance idiom is the exclusive mode of expression. Nevertheless, the better the researcher knows each dance the more accurately he can record it in order to transmit it to others.

If fieldwork is being carried out by a team, e.g. members of a folk dance troupe from the town, they will ascertain later, when they dance together, that each member has learnt the same dance slightly differently. In this way they can pin-point the divergences which may be elucidated on a second visit to the village, so that a clear, commonly accepted framework is arrived at. Anyway, absolute standardisa­tion of the dance is neither desirable nor practicable: not everyone in the village dances alike, for reasons of body shape, age and personality. What is important is to pick out the three "spheres" of the kinetic content of each dance. These are defined below.

The core of the kinetic content of every dance is that nexus of traits which characterise it and distinguish it from other dances. The rhythmic structure, the steps, the hold, the gestures, the formations, set figures, all comprise a whole which is distinctive for each dance. This core is danced by whosoever learns the dance, e.g. members of a folk dance troupe after a few rehearsals, and may be recorded in writing, by using a system of choreographic notation (Laban, Benesh), or taught to others in a few master classes.

Around this core each village has evolved its own kinetic "sphere", otherwise known as "local style" or "local colour". The villagers, dancing together for decades, having a fixed repertoire of dances as the sole means of dance expression, hearing the same music played over and over again by the same musicians, expressing the same social experiences, have arrived at a commonly held interpretation of this basic core. And this commonly held interpretation has been fused with the personal interpretation of each individual to form an entity which they accept and regard as their exclusive preserve. In other words, the personal interpreations of the members of a closed social group have a "maximum common denominator" and this is the "local style".

The third and wider "sphere" of traditional dance encompasses the impro­visations of the accomplished dancers. The most gifted dancers dare to transcend the local idiom but never to betray it. Their exaltations are accepted by the others (who do not follow them but are reflected in them) as long as they Jo not transgress the limits, for then they invoke disapproval. These cognitive limits entrench the kinetic field. All the villagers move within them and each one approaches them according to the degree of his ardour.

Only someone who has completely assimilated the local idiom can improvise on it and move in the third "sphere", as defined above. Otherwise his dance will be contrived and non-local, it will simply be a socially faceless choreography, divorced from the cultural environment it purports to express. Far away from the social unit of the village, the dance, through the intervention of the teacher or choreographer, ceases to be traditional, it becomes folkloric, character, a stage spectacular, or whatever else.

So, to summarise, it is clear that the researcher into traditional dance should ideally begin by registering the local dance idiom in his own body. It goes without saying that to do this he must have a natural aptitude for dance and make a conscious effort not to be influenced by those dances from other regions which he already knows.

b) Visual recording

This includes the photographing, video-recording, filming and sketching of dance scenes. It may be done on its own, quite independent of the other phases of the research, though when done at the same time it undoubtedly gains in reliability and efficacy.

Before even beginning, the researcher should ask himself the question: for whom are these visual records intended? All subsequent moves will depend on the reply, to such an extent that the final result will be substantially different. It is quite futile to try and satisfy the general public, the specialist scholar, artistic circles and one's own creative drives, all at the same time. One must make a choice and stick to it. From our point of view, the ideal would be to give priority to the scholarly approach, but the expenses of a film crew or professional photographer are considerable and research grants are miserly. This drawback can be off-set if the crew, in addition to recording the dances, is involved in work of an artistic or commercial nature. Whatever the case, the distinction from the archival function should be explicit from the outset.

The visual recording of data on film or paper for archival study purposes has two basic parameters: completeness and veracity. Completeness is achieved by recording as many dance scenes as possible, with different protagonists, together with onlookers, in diverse situations. Veracity depends very much on the technical expertise which professional film-makers, photographers and artists assuredly have at their disposal. The completeness and veracity aimed at demand absolute diminution of the personal factor, that is technique is primarily subservient to methodology and secondly to aesthetic considerations.

The remarks in the following paragraphs mainly apply to filming since this is more or less established as the main method of visual recording, particularly after the introduction of video. Photographs and sketches are not only cheaper but much easier to consult, which is why they should also be made as a supplement. A sketch, for instance, is ideal for registering dance formations, that is the movements of a group of dancers on the horizontal level. Photography has distinct advantages for detailed analysis of the more complex, most characteristic or static views. Examples which come to mind are: a scene with many people, the position of the legs and feet in a jump, or the position and pose of a dancer just before the dance begins.

A permanent hazard (indeed a real nightmare during all phases of ethno­graphic research) is the distortion of the subject due to the presence of the researcher. In this particular case, the change in mien of the dance simply because the dancers are conscious that they are being filmed. This is unavoidable and the ethnographer must simply do his utmost to reduce its consequences. First it is essential to have the dancers' sincere permission before each recording. The acceptance of the researcher and acquiescence to his presence is not just a matter of sound methodology but an axiom of good behaviour.

Another point worth mentioning is that is preferable to take long-distance shots, since the cameraman or photographer is less obvious. Such shots, while not distorting the quality of the image, lend themselves to the study of the behaviour of a large number of people in a dance scene. The same is true of pictures taken with a wide-angle lense. Because most Greek dances are circular other problems arise with regard to filming them. When the circle is small the camera-man is too close to the dancer and must come outside the circle, taking additional shots of the dancers from behind. If the dance takes place in the village square then his best policy is to take pictures from a balcony.

Another way of counteracting the possible negative effect of the camera man's presence on the dancers is for him to circulate amongst them prior to the dance. For hours, or even days, beforehand he can photograph - or pretend to photograph - minor scenes, so that the villagers become accustomed to him and the idea. The director and crew should also make every effort to dispel the mystique surrounding the camera and pass it off as something very ordinary. The use of additional lighting is always disturbing and should be avoided, even at the expense of the clarity of the shots, by using sensitive film.

The filming of natural dance occasions is particularly desirable for recording the phenomenon as a whole, as well as group movements. On the other hand, the filming of individual dance movements, for study purposes, demands a different approach. It is best to assemble a group of dancers and musicians in a courtyard and persuade them to perform, while taking more careful shots, under better lighting conditions, with more sensitive sound recording equipment etc. The selection of the dancers is no problem since, as a rule, the villagers agree on who are the best dancers. Indeed, more often than not, these come from a line of fine dancers. If the music is good and the company convivial they will soon be in the mood for dancing and they will dance effortlessly, unaffectedly and with gay abandon.

We shall not deal with the technicalities of filming and photographing since these are not exclusive to the filming of dance but of any situation. One can pick up such tips by asking professionals, reading handbooks or simple trial and error. Suffice it to say that for a specialist film of traditional dance, for study purposes, the cameraman, whether amateur or professional, should be aware of certain points so that the film has the maximum possible use value later:

a)  He should not be led astray by personal preferences, by a desire to impress or please the audience, or by momentary emotions, all of which can be detrimental to the accuracy of the record.

b)  He should fit in with the social ambience and have taken care that the villagers are used to his presence, before he films them. In the ideal case, they should carry on as if he does not exist.

c)  He should not concentrate on just one part of the dancer's body, as usually happens with the feet. Every movement passes through the entire body in a certain way and this is what he should capture on film.

d)  He should always film at least two dancers simultaneously, so that points in common and differences between them are apparent.

e)  He should try to stand in alignment with the main axes of the body, i.e. exactly in front of the dancer, directly to the side, or behind. He should avoid shots taken from an angle, plongé etc., since these do not give a true visual impression.f)  If he wishes to focus on a particular detail, he should either increase the speed of the shot or retake it on different dancers, perhaps also on different occasions.

g)  He should be prepared for unfavourable lighting conditions in shots taken outside. In general he should use sensitive film and have located the light sources beforehand, in order to maneuver the camera accordingly. He should try to achieve a contrast between the dancers' clothes and the background, if possible.

c) Dance notation

In Western music a notation system exists which caters fully for the needs of composers and performers alike. It has been established for centuries and is an integral part of musical education worldwide. Of course there are many kinds of traditional and modern music which are not absolutely covered by the stave, but the development of music would, without doubt, have been extremely restricted without this convenient, concise and commonly accepted notation system. Without the stave the wonderful creations of classical music we enjoy today would have been far far fewer.

Dance, alas, has not been so fortunate, for there is no equivalent system of chreographic notation. As a consequence most of the choreographic works have been lost forever and even today dance education is largely based on copying and memorizing the sequence of movements, and not in reading and writing them down. Each choreographies uses his own mnemonic shorthand to note down his creations, which is of limited scope and is meaningless to anyone else. Since the 15th century several notation systems have been proposed, but not one of them has managed to prevail and persist. Not least because dance education was so limited compared with musical education, which enjoyed much wider recognition.

A comprehensive notation system for dance must be able to reproduce in symbols the movements of all parts of the body (initial position, trajectory, final position) within space. At the same time it should also describe the movements executed in conjunction with time (word, sound, music), the flow of energy (emphasis, effort, mien), the movements with the other dancers, as well as with inanimate bodies (costume, objects, surfaces). Such a system should be anatomically analytical and not shorthand, it should be based on abstract symbols and not conventions. Systems employed up until the 20th century were designed for a particular type of dance, which is why they were not suitable for describing the dances of another era or another country.

Only in recent decades has the need for a comprehensive, objective and international system of movement notation been recognised. Such a system could be used not only for the dances of a particular society, but also for sport, the theatre, the study of behaviour, movement therapy, ergonomic studies etc. One such system is that developed by Rudolf Laban in 1928 and which is nowadays used with increasing frequency in both Europe and America. The Benesh system, though much simpler, is less full and is mainly used for balletic notation. In Eastern Europe various systems are used, some for ballet and others for folk dance. Most of the books published on folk dance use their own symbolic code, devised by the author.

In recent years experiments have been conducted in the field of recognition and analysis of movements, using a computer. Indeed, pattern recognition has advanced considerably, since it has immediate military and commercial applications. However, the recognition of movement, and particularly of the human body, presents especial difficulties which will take some time to puzzle out. Even so, it is only a matter of a few years before we shall be able to feed a film of a dance into the computer and from this produce a print-out of the kinetic content in Laban notation or some other system. But the question still remains, how will we manage to salvage those dances which will be lost by then, and how can we record them in the fullest possible manner so that they can be "read" later?

There is little else to say here, since the ethnographer's approach with regard to writing down the movements depends mainly on the system he selects. He should not be deceived into thinking that the ubiquitous video-camera dispenses with this need. After all, records and cassettes have not abolished the stave. The need is just as great with respect to dance, except that dancers tend to be less cerebral beings than musicians. Finally, there are only a very few people in Greece who have been trained in dance notation abroad and they are the only ones able to record traditional dance in this way.


Some researchers prefer to gather as much data as possible during their stay in the field and proceed to its classification at a later date. Others have a preconceived research strategy, in which case collection of data proceeds parallel with its systematic recording. The second approach, though predisposing the researcher, is preferable because it provides a definite directive enabling the achievement of maximum coverage.

It is essential that the ethnographer have in mind a basic theoretical outline and classification system. Theoretical grounding is obtained by reading the basic bibliography of Humanistic Studies: History, Sociology, Ethnology etc. The classification system is a matter of personal choice, depending on the view he takes of his study. Taxonomies can be based on such criteria as who dances (men, women, the elderly, children etc.), or where they dance (at weddings, patronal feasts, in tavernas etc.), or what they dance (name of the dance), or any other suitable trait.

A card index is recommended for book titles and other incidental pieces of information. Ring files are useful for more voluminous information, such as texts, photographs, biographies etc. Large-scale, intensive research involving detailed data collection and multi-variant analysis requires the services of a computer. Each element (text, film, photograph etc.) is characterised by a series of key-words corresponding to the categories to which it belongs. By giving a key-word command the computer will retrieve from its memory all elements thus characterised and, therefore, belonging to the same category. After the classification of the material one can proceed to its study. The scholar works through the available material, ordering it in a logically coherent scheme. Through analysis and synthesis, diachronic or synchronic comparison, by hypothesis and validation, even sometimes by simple aligning of the material, the objective of the research, which is to shed light on the phenomena, is realised.

There remains the presentation of the conclusions reached as a result of the research. Concerning dance in just one village, an article or even a book may be written, either with or without the notation of the dances. The dance music may be published on records or cassettes. If films have been made too then it is possible to produce an educational film or video-cassette or even a film intended for a wider audience. When such studies for a good number of Greek villages have been published, we shall for the first time be able to form a true picture of Greek dance.
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