Introduction to Greek Dance

An introduction does not treat the main subject but only its basic characteristics, with the goal of preparing for the rest of the text. It gives a foretaste of what will follow for the reader and supplies what he will need to deal with it. The writer knows the content and gives the reader a synopsis, various definitions, the main characteristics, and the units of the text. He identifies and defines the subject that will be covered in the rest of the work.

However, identity cannot be effectively defined except in comparison to another contrasting entity. What meaning will the identity card given us by the police have if it only contains our first name and nothing else? Thousands of people have the same first name. So, it includes our surname, date of birth and other details that set us apart from other individuals. Unfortunately, however, we nearly always see a subject presented without notation of its exact differences from its neighbours. The best introductions, like the best definitions, say not only what something is – and certainly with some hyperbole due to the writer’s enamoration with his subject – but also what it is not.

Something along these lines is what we have tried to do here:

a) to give basic characteristics of Greek dance, such as to describe it in parallel with dances of other countries, especially neighbouring countries.

b) to see what differentiates the various regions in terms of their dance.

c) to look into – and this is the most difficult – what is indicated by the concept the Greek has about the dance, always in contrast to the concept other peoples have.

In the following text, I will try to view Greek dance as someone who knows it fairly well but who looks at it as if coming from outside, having recognized many forms of dance and especially having discussed it with researchers from many countries. It is understood that, as with every generalisaton, rules and tendencies are deduced but there are also exceptions. I refer to Greece before 1940, when local particularities were still pronounced.

1. Translocations

Dance fluctuates over time – not by coincidence do the elders complain that the younger generation changes the dance it inherits. More generally, the way in which people see the body and its movement changes. It is impossible, then, to speak of any dance without having some idea of the history of the people who perform it. This is true in any country, but for Greece it applies still more – not because Greek history is more important, as some nationalist might claim, but because its recent history has one element which is true of no other country: its successive translocations. The relocation of populations sealed its 20th century identity and rendered the map of the country not only a mosaic but a kaleidoscope.

The main dimensions of this fluidity are:

a) The continual extensions of the political map: Most regions of present-day Greece did not belong to Greek-controlled lands more than a hundred years ago.

b) Emigration: One in three Greeks live outside Greece.

c) Wars: Two World Wars were not limited to Greece, but we do have, in addition to them, two Balkan wars and the failed Asia Minor campaign. And crowning these, the Civil War. Only a few countries in the world have undergone a civil war.

Each one of these three factors imparts a uniqueness, more so if all three are experienced.

d) Internal migration: There is no data, but it is evidently sizeable and other countries have experienced something similar.

e) Certain populations that regularly travel, such as seamen and nomadic herders.

f) Finally, the Greek, throughout his long history, seems to have easily packed up and left, either out of necessity or seeking something better.

Each dance is tied in some way to the place in which it is born, all the more so for traditional dance. Therefore, when the agent of dance, the dancer, changes his group and frequently his place of residence as well, then the whole dance phenomenon becomes more complex. Dances are transplanted into what is for them foreign soil, dance habits are found in sudden juxtaposition with totally different forms, while concepts of the dance which have been considered self-evident now become objects of criticism and revision.

2. Polymorphism

Geomorphology constitutes a configuration of the dance, just as it does of dress, occupations, the possibility of communication with other regions, etc. – this is true of every country. A singularity of Greece is geographical partitioning: one hundred inhabited islands and ten thousand villages, of which the majority once required several hours of travel by mule to reach from the next. Such conditions allow the maintenance of small societies with economic and cultural independence. This explains the enormous array of costumes, music and dances analogous to the population. It is often heard in Greece (and in most other countries): The others don’t have as many dances as we do!

This mistaken impression is due to individuals recogizing little about the range of dances in another country and, even more, to those foreign dances seeming much alike. Countries which now have only a few dances (such as the Scandinavian countries) have probably lost them as a result of urbanisation, but historical data show that they had many dances in the past. In other countries (such as Israel), an array of dances appear because they have been created recently to fill in for what has been lost. Greece is among those countries which have retained a large part of their dances, and in their traditional form, without the stylization which has been done by dance groups in almost every other country.

Certainly, it is inevitable that dances are standardized when they are taught, since instruction requires simplification and standardization. It is equally unavoidable that they are modified for the requirements of performance on the stage. These adjustments, both for the lesson and for the performance, may be great or small, according to the sensitivity of the teacher and his opposing internal inclinations: To remain true, to the extent possible to that which he received? Or to add something of his own?

In Greece, we can say that the situation is satisfactory compared to other countries. In the last 20 years, dance groups may have have multiplied by leaps and bounds, and teachers increased in number from tens to thousands, but the dances have changed little. This is owing to a number of reasons, such as:

a) There are, in addition to dancers who have studied with a teacher, many others who have learned in the traditional way, and they decry each apparent change.

b) If a teacher makes additions or modifications, they will be noticed by others in the performances his group gives. Modernization has not become acceptable.

c) In every country, there is a national dance company which acts as a standard for the others, the amateurs. In Greece, the national company

(because Dora Stratou happened not to be a dance teacher) resisted the temptation for modification. In other countries, however, the national companies, from the moment they were formed, in the decade from 1945 to 1955, took the opposite course.

d) Conventions, lectures, presentations, seminars and publications about dance which have taken place over the last 20 years and which hold to the concept of faithfulness to dance forms and practices of the wider region, suggest by extension the avoidance of interference that had previously prevailed.

e) All this raised the value of the dance in the consciousness of dance groups, which, influenced by the emergent urban prototype, had believed traditional expressions to be outdated and of lower value. Traditional dance appreciated, above all, in the minds of young people, whether they lived in its original locale or had moved to urban centres.

For the above reasons, to begin with, a great number of dances were saved, and in consequence maintained in a form very close to the traditional.

3. Individuality - Collective spirit

Dances express a great degree of association. This is apparent in that:

a) The steps are simple so as to be performed by anyone in the village. Few are the dances whose difficulty preclude participation by an older man or woman, who would simply execute them with less bouncy steps.

b) The same is true of rhythms; most are relatively slow. Then, very often people danced to songs, without instruments. The tempo increased more recently, when the dances passed from the traditional to the folkloric realm.

c) Association also manifests in the formation; the predominant formation is the open circle. The closed circle (which shows an even greater degree of association) may be very rare; the couples dances (which show less association than the circle) are few, and the solo dances even fewer. In contrast, in Western Europe, and much more in the northern part, couples dances predominate.

d) The hand-hold is tight, bringing the bodies very close together. In communities with still greater cohesion, the bodies dance nearly touching. This is true in mountainous regions, where the grip is on the arm, (Pogonisios, Tsakonikos) or in the islands where the grip is crossed, basketweave (Pano Horos of Carpathos, Sousta of Rhodes).

e) The dances last a long time, so that the individual is immersed in mutual effort, to become one with the whole. Let us not be led astray by the current situation in which pieces last two to three minutes, the length allowed by the record companies. On feast days and at weddings, dances lasted ten times as long. So, the dancer had time to relax, to let go, to realise that he was nothing more than one part of a many-faced organism called community. The continual repetition of the melody and movements worked like a lullaby and drove him to a state of group hypnosis.

Conversely, balance is maintained by the great freedom afforded to the lead dancer to improvise. In most European dances, there is little individual freedom, either because that is simply not foreseen (e.g. for the lead dancer in a circle dance), or because it is not efficient because the lead dancer must execute certain formations (e.g. in quadrilles), or because he has practised certain moves with his partner (e.g. in closed couple dances such as the waltz). In fact, in ballroom dances, the dancer has the freedom to choose among a series of figures, which, however, are the creation of his dance instructor. Traditional dances with such a great degree of freedom as the Tsamikos or the Sousta, not to mention the Zeimbekikos or the Pousnitsa, are rare internationally.

It is a matter of freedom which comes not in opposition to common feeling, but which is supported by the whole and which stems from this in each person, when he assumes his position at the head of the circle, controlling the interaction of the individual with the group.

4. Rhythm

Compared to other European and Mediterranean peoples, we would say the Greeks are more interested in the range of rhythms in dance music and less in its melodies. Like others in the Balkans, they are enamoured of assymetrical rhythms, and thus lean toward 5-, 7- and 9-beat measures. They use the daouli, an instrument which not only keeps the rhythm but raises to a high art the rhythmic extension of the music and delineates it, giving clear instructions to the dancer. The tarabouka is much more widespread in the Mediterranean, because it is quick and easy to play, while the defi has found such range that it is not associated exclusively with Greek identity.

The proclivity for progressive rhythms (which traditionally were absent from the islands) tempts us conflate them with the prosodic character of the ancient Greek language. If, however, we accept something like this, we make it more difficult to explain why, on the map, the spread of rhythms does not occur together with the spread of the Greek language.

5. Formations

While for most Europeans the formations, that is the positions of the dancers in a horizontal plane and the paths that each one takes are important, for the Greeks they are nearly inconsequential. They appear very rarely (as in Dahtilidia from Veria, which, furthermore, clearly illustrates an urban dance), and this is explained in that the basic formation for the Greek is the open circle, no matter what the number of dancers.

Here, we must say a couple of words about the determined effort of Dora Stratou to label the formations “labyrinths”, as she called them, in order establish a connection with antiquity. The correct term is “spirals” or windings. The lead dancer in an open circle can continue in a circular path, can move ahead toward the outside of the circle or to the inside, can go toward the right or the left, thus causing the line of dancers who follow him to array themselves in this formation. This is done to break the monotony rather than as an effort to sketch some motif. Frequently, it is simply due to necessity when space is limited and dancers are many, as happens today in night clubs with small dance floors. In any case, it is not at all a Greek characteristic; the French farandoles are dances whose primary aim is the formation of such shapes.

For the Greeks, the particular formation is unimportant, but rather the participants in the dance, the more the better. The strength of a single village depends on the number of its inhabitants and the cohesion of its society shows in the number who show interest by entering into the circle. They take pride in the number of folds (or festoons or circles or ranks or whatever groupings, depending on the village) that the dance has, not on the shape it forms. This is determined more or less by the available space, that is, the village square.

The dance, then, almost always has the shape of the open circle, moving toward the right. The few dances that move to the left are called, consequently, Zervos, meaning sinistral or left-handed. The non-circle dances are not for the square on a feast day or Sunday, but mainly for family celebrations. There are a number of these dances, such as the Karsilamas, danced by couples but without touching, especially from Asia Minor. The free dances (called monachiki or ksetsakoti) in which each person dances alone, without holding the other dancer or even dancing with the other person, are few. The circumstances in which someone improvises are prescribed: either when one is the lead dancer in a circle dance or in the “loose” dances (couples or solos).

Many times the formation is still the circle, but the emphasis is so much on the lead dancer (as in the Tsamikos) or on the lead couple (as in the first wedding dance) that all the others take part symbolically, simply to show their support. However, when the role of the lead dancer is simply one of honour or leadership, the lead does not usually perform improvisations, as in Epirus or Pontos. In the Tsamikos, the lead dancer holds up the line for some time to perform his solo variations, and the others simply stand (I have even seen them smoking!) and take a step forward only when the lead moves on, precisely to show that they are not dancing even though they are taking part in the dance.

The circle in these circumstances is nothing more than a solo by the lead dancer with the others as companions. The others serve either to show support for the lead dancer (They are his friends, supporters in the critical moment when he is giving his performance) or to take their turn (when the circle acts as a waiting queue), or to assume their position among certain persons. When the musician plays for the lead dancer, he looks at the feet – in order to help if he looses the beat – of the person who is paying him.

6. Alignment

What is of particular importance in Greek dance is the order and position of each person in the circle. The circle can be divided into men and women (in the north), or into small arcs (i.e. parts of a circle, as in the islands) where each arc is one group of friends, one family (in the Cyclades), an extended family (the Foumistos dance of Karpathos island), a man with his fellow dancers (in the Dodecanese Islands). In each circumstance, the circle “speaks” of the surroundings and the dancers, not only about the way each one dances but about the position he holds in the social hierarchy. There are innumberable ways that various relatives are ordered in the official wedding dance, depending on the region, just as there are other rules of ordering for dancers in an official dance at a feast (usually according to age for men and to the date of marriage for women).

Unfortunately, things change when the dance goes from traditional to folkloric, when it leaves its natural habitat of the village. Then, the age of each dancer and the family relationships and friendship with the others are sidelined. Then, interest is focused on the moves being performed – and, of course, on the most impressive of these moves, not on their quality – because the audience is in a position to judge neither the quality of movement nor its fit with the music. In other words, not knowing who the dancer is, we see only what he does, while in the village they know who he is and judge what he does accordingly.

7. Theatricality

In Greece, the dance continues to be part of a custom. Its practice may have faded somewhat or been transformed into simple entertainment or tourist shows. It may have lost the deeper social significance that made it necessary. However, something remains. For the Greek, the dance is a serious proposition, it conveys meaning. Because of this, foreigners often wonder why the dancers appear to be frowning, especially in dance groups there they expect to see the permanent smile that has become established practice.

This custom follows a scenario, a prescribed succession of acts, one of which may be dance. They dance then, because they must dance then, and they dance this way because they must dance this way. The elders said to someone who hesitated, “Come on, dance for the good.” Underlying this phrase was a bit of obligation, a measure of challenge, offered to the community. Entering the dance, you know that you are going up on a stage to play the role which fits you in a production, you know that others are observing you just as in a theatre, waiting for you to give them something.

This intense theatricality has nearly disappeared with time in Europe where dance is no more than entertainment or show. One understands this in each amateur dance performance right up to the extreme circumstance of the discoteque where nothing is pre-planned, neither the dancers’ movements or the relationship between dancers on the stage, and of course there is no “scenario”. In Greece, there are, of course, discotechques just like everywhere else, but night clubs abound, with live popular music, where the customers get up and dance and become in some way “a part of the programme”. Moreover, so as not to leave everything in the villages, there are, in the cities, innumerable dance associations, where everyone dances unending folk dances, bringing back to life to some degree the atmosphere of the feast day celebration.

This theatricality has more the meaning of the ritual and less of the spectacle. The dance is turned toward the inside, in large part because it is in the shape of the circle. The dancer dances first for his fellow dancers, after that for himself, and finally for those around him. He pays attention to which position he will take when he enters the circle, he dances in front when his turn comes and he does not depart from the unwritten protocols of behaviour. These remnants of tradition are not discerned by Greeks, who have become so accustomed to them that they no longer see them.

8. Priority of the song

Another vestige of traditional society is that the Greek dances the song, rather than executing the dance. We encounter something similar in Byzantine music; the melody exists to present the words and is an orphan without them. And, again, we should not judge by what we see today. The further back we go, the more we see that they more often danced to vocal renditions than to instrumentals. The old dancer does not request a dance, but rather a song. He knows which song suits him, which one stimulates him or enraptures him (usually it is one the dancer chose when he was young as his model). Usually the musician knows the song of each dancer and plays it for him before it is requested.

The primacy of the song’s lyrics is confirmed by the fact that the words of the song are repeated at least twice, because nearly all are sung as a response (antiphony). Everyone sings, of course; rarely do we have soloists in the dance. Improvised couplets (mantinades in Crete, kotsakia in the Cyclades) which were common everywhere, not just in the islands, but even in the cities, were more important than the dance. Many went only to recite their own and to see what the others would present. When a young Arvanitissa from Elefsina led the Sunday dance, singing the lyrics she had prepared all week, everyone trained their ears and certainly no one was distracted from her by the dance movements.

By the way, Byzantine music affords the opportunity to note yet another feature of the dance: that it is accompanied by a music rare and exotic to the European and American ear, which is habituated to major mode. Like true Greek music, Greek dance is more related to the East rather than the West.

We terminate here this brief note giving but a first approach to a huge subject. The general features of Greek dance, not autonomously but in relation with those of other peoples - at least, those of neighbouring ones - is a difficult subject. Understandably, scholars have not yet turned to it, since it requires not only an overall understanding of Greek dance matters (well beyond dance steps alone) but also of the corresponding foreign ones.