Folk dance groups

The first Greek dance group was formed in the early years of this century by the Lyceum of Greek Women, though earlier groups may have existed in the Greek towns of Asia Minor and Egypt. Today there are chapters of the Lyceum in towns and cities all over Greece, as well as in many abroad. The Lyceum of Greek Women possesses the largest collection of Greek costumes, which it began forming well before these had virtually disappeared. The best-known dance company in Greece is that of Dora Stratou, whose name has become associated with Greek folk dance through the daily performances given over the last few decades in the theatre by Philopappos' hill in Athens. Since 1970 a similar company, that of Nelly Dimoglou, has presented a summer programme of Greek folk dances in the open-air theatre in the old town of Rhodes.

There are well over a thousand amateur folk dance groups active both in Greece and abroad. If one reckons that each group has about 50 members then the number of dancers runs into tens of thousands. These dancers attend lessons or rehearsals at least once a week and are instructed by a teacher, usually a former dancer or gym teacher. They perform several times a year, on special occasions and at dance festivals.

Many of them would like to learn more dances and learn them better, but the only way is to find another teacher or spend several years going to panigyria in different parts of Greece. Others would like to learn more about Greek dance, but there are very few helpful books and records and even these are hard to come by. Most are disappointed in their vain attempts and abandon dancing altogether, while the teachers continue to mount the same mediocre and monotonous performances.

There are, of course, several avenues along which Greek dance could evolve. An academy could be founded where dances are taught correctly, accompanied by courses in sociology, ethnography, music, choreography, stage design, costume studies, the history of dance etc. Feed-back from ethnographic research could lead to an improvement of performances, through the introduction of associated customs (e.g. a town-crier could announce the programme, there could be narration in local dialect, everyday scenes from village life could be enacted, exhibitions of local handicrafts arranged, local dishes prepared etc.).

Yet another course would be the stylisation of traditional dances, as has happened with flamenco in Spain. The Russians have pioneered a school of thought in folk dance, with their extravagant staging of their dances by professional dancers originally trained in ballet. Thankfully, this course has not been followed in Greece, despite the deluge of folk dance companies from the Eastern bloc invited to perform here each year. Nevertheless, this is an avenue which has not been sufficiently investigated, perhaps because it involves a great deal of original work and not the slavish imitation of foreign models.

In the last analysis, however, it is imperative that the dances be danced correctly, that the sloppiness seen at its worst on television programmes is done away with once and for all. It must be understood that without sound ethnographic research a proper dance performance cannot be staged. Those in charge of dance groups must realise that traditional dance cannot be taught by dance instructors, however good they may be. It is transmitted along with a whole body of experience which is only found in the place where the dance was born. The teacher can only guide the pupil in approximating to this, not in substituting for it.

Most dance troupes present a thirty-minute programme, the two semi-professional companies of Dora Stratou and Nelly Dimoglou being an exception, for they dance for an hour and a half. Usually the programme includes dances from different regions, with corresponding costume changes. This, of course, ensures variety, particularly appreciated by foreign audiences, but as a consequence the troupe functions superficially. Only if a group concentrates on the dances of a few particular regions can it achieve depth of presentation. There are some such groups, mainly small ones from villages, which just dance their own dances or those of their region.

The two permanent headaches of any folk dance troupe are costumes and musicians. Older troupes have collections of authentic costumes in which they dance (fortunately only occasionally for such precious heirlooms should not be worn too often), but even they, like the more recent groups, need to sew copies. This is an onerous and expensive undertaking: the costumes have to be designed, the few seamstresses who still know how to make the different garments have to be persuaded to do so, fabrics and materials resembling the hand-loom stuffs of the originals must be found. Furthermore, the dancers must learn how to wear the costumes, look after them and a host of other details pertaining to them.

Even if a troupe knows the dances of a region it cannot present them on stage if it does not have the appropriate set of costumes. In the last analysis the richness of a performance is measured in terms of the number and lavishness of the costumes, the number of regions covered and the number of dances from each region. This attitude is endorsed by the organisers of festivals and similar events, particularly abroad, with the result that most troupes are attired in inappropriate and shoddily made costumes in a vain attempt to meet this pressure Again, as with dance and music, the ideal would be to present the costume not just of a specific region but of a specific village.

Musicians are a major problem mainly for economic reasons. Only a handful of troupes are lucky enough to have their own musicians from the village, to play at rehearsals and performances. Most of them rehearse to recorded music and hire musicians for the actual performance. This means that the cost of the performance is, in effect, the cost of the musicians, since the dancers themselves are not paid and the costumes belong to the society. The drawback to this policy is that musicians hired just for the event may not play well - as is often the case - nor play the correct tempo for dancing.

Folk dance performances are given on numerous occasions: the national holidays, the cutting of the New Year cake or the Carnival dinner-dance of a society, cultural events organised by the municipality, festivals. The viability of a troupe depends mainly on the personality and drive of the person in charge and to a lesser degree on the number of performances given. Nevertheless, the troupe thrives on its performances for these unite the dancers and give them a sense of camaraderie, as well as being an incentive to improve their standard. Greek folk dance troupes are in great demand at foreign festivals but very few actually attend. This is a pity, since the young people lose the chance of travelling and Greece loses an opportunity for international publicity. The reasons for their absence are mainly economic and administrative: musicians are expensive (whereas they are usually amateurs in foreign groups), the committee of the society is reluctant to consent to pay travel expenses (living expenses are covered by the organisers), there is no-one responsible for public relations (who can make the necessary contacts and answer correspondence in foreign languages).

As far as folk dance is concerned the system of mutual exchange operates, which is why each troupe ought to establish relations with others. Thus it will be invited to perform elsewhere and, in turn will arrange a reciprocal visit, it will learn about forthcoming dance events also learn other dances. The founding of a federation of dance groups or, at least, an information office, would do much to foster contacts between groups in Greece and those abroad. Several Greek societies have, in fact, become members of the International Organisation of Folk Art, which has its headquarters in Vienna.

The following catalogue is published in the hope that it will help Greek groups to get to know one another and give groups abroad the possibility of getting in touch with Greek ones. It includes most of the folk dance groups in Greece, along with the name and address of the society under whose aegis they exist. It does not include professional troupes which dance in tavernas frequented by tourists, many of the groups among the Greek communities overseas, foreign folk dance troupes specialised in Greek dances and, it goes without saying, those groups we have not managed to locate.