Patronal and Public Feasts
In every village, however small, there is a church and on one special day of the year the patronal feast of its saint is celebrated. In larger villages there are several churches, as well as chapels scattered on the periphery, and feast days are more numerous. On one of these patronal feast days the villagers congregate - even those who have moved away and settled elsewhere - at a fair or communal meal, and dance. The dance is usually held in the church forecourt, the village square or even a nearby threshing floor, known as the chorostási.
A typical panigyri lasts three days. On the eve preceding and the day after only the villagers take part in the festivities, but on the actual day people flock from far and wide to join in the merry-making. When there are large groups of visitors from other villages they form their own circles and dance to the tunes of their own musicians. In some places there is a brief spell of dancing just after morning mass, but the main dance invariably takes place in the late afternoon and continues until the following morning. Those who have come quite a distance either lodge with relatives or sleep in the open-air in the summertime.
Emigrant villagers will travel for hours or even days to attend their village feast, expatriates from Canada, Australia, the United States and other far-flung corners of the globe delight in bringing their families to this event. It is an opportunity to visit relatives, settle family affairs, inspect their house, fields and other property. Above all they nurture the hope that their children will find an eligible marriage partner from the village. Thus the patronal feast functions simultaneously in the many spheres of village life: agricultural, religious, family, professional, social, personal and even political.
Feast days are celebrated outside the village too, in nearby chapels and monasteries. Then each family loads its mule or donkey with bedding, food, goods for sale and sets off with the others, singing as they go and dancing whenever they stop. On arrival they prepare their makeshift beds, for they will stay overnight, and sometimes they cook a communal meal, the kourbani. The musicians wander from one family to the other, playing for them to sing and dance, for which they are remunerated.
When the musicians are invited to play at a feast they are usually paid a basic fee, either in cash or kind, but they earn much more in tips from the dancers. The village offers them hospitality and they are obliged to keep on playing for as long as the dance continues. Now and again itinerant musicians, often gypsies, call at such feasts and fairs and play according to demand. However, it is the village musicians who have priority and it is always they who play at the main dance, since they are familiar with the village songs and the villagers' preferences.
The prelude to the dance is the meal, followed by "table songs", and when everyone is in high spirits the signal is given to dance. Usually the first dance is the general village dance in which all the villagers, but only the villagers, take part; a mustering of its inhabitants. Everyone has his set place in the dance, this is his birthright and there is a strict order of precedence which must be observed. To avoid confusion and possible misunderstandings, someone familiar with the kinship links acts as a self-appointed master of ceremonies.
The order of the dancers in the circular dance merits closer study since it varies from region to region, though, in general, the men are commonly at the beginning, in descending order of age, followed by the women, also ranked according to seniority. Sometimes the married men come before the unmarried ones, and likewise for the women. Since everyone's age is common knowledge in the village there is no confusion, positions are fixed and a man knows that if he lives long enough he will one day be the oldest inhabitant in his village and thus have the distinction of leading the first dance. In the islands the circle is usually formed of groups of kindred; the husband leads his wife who is followed by their eldest son, his wife and their children, the second son and so on.
It is not unusual for the priest to be invited to lead the first dance, thus "formalising" or "blessing" it, and despite the official proscription of the Church he willingly dances a few steps, or even a few rounds if he is a "bon viveur". In olden times a man never held a woman's hand, but a kerchief or scarf, and this etiquette even applied to married couples. In some regions where local mores were particularly strict and a woman could not dance next to a man who was not kin, there was often a problem at the point where the women link with the men in the circle. This was resolved by inserting a child or an elderly couple there.
For a young man to invite a girl to join in the dance was quite unimaginable, it was tantamount to an off-hand proposal of marriage and regarded as a grave insult. A young girl's debut in the public dance signals that her parents consider her nubile and are thus willing to consider proposals of marriage. All dance occasions, not just the general dance on the patronal feast day but family dances, weddings and the regular Sunday dances, were an opportunity for match-making and in many places these were the only occasions where the boys could exchange glances and veiled whispers with the girls.
The public dance reflects the social order and values on which village society is founded: permanency, respect for the elders, gender discrimination, equality of rights. Everyone has his place, determined by birth and marriage and guaranteed for life. Everyone has, in turn, the right to summon the musicians to play just for him so that he can dance, the rich man simply pays more than the poor one. The emigrant who left the village as a lad knows that when he returns some forty years later there is a place for him in the dance and that he will link hands with those same comrades as he did in his youth. Dance is an eloquent statement of those reasons why Greeks, wherever they may be, maintain such close links with their native village throughout long years of absence.
The general dance is followed by personal requests. Each family head gets up, throws his money in front of the musicians, and orders them to play a particular song to which he will dance along with his family. His wife never makes a direct request even though, very often, it is she who holds the purse strings, in order to prevent her husband from squandering money. At first the father takes the lead, then gives way to his son or even his daughter if local custom allows women to lead the dance. Friends and relatives also throw money for the musicians, as a token of their esteem for the dancers and especially if the father has a daughter of marriageable age.
As the merry-making continues and one family follows the other, the protocol is gradually relaxed. Friends of both sexes dance together and individual dances, dances in pairs and faster dances are called for, particularly by the young people who are eager to display their prowess. And so the celebration continues well into the night until everyone has had his turn and is satisfied. It is not uncommon for the dance to end with quarrels. Indeed, in some places public dancing is invetiably followed by brawling. Someone will take offence because another ordered a dance out of turn. Someone else has had too much to drink and before their more sober friends can separate them they will come to blows. If things really come to a head knives may be drawn. Dance throws into relief all kinds of social relations, including latent hostility and suppressed rivalry.