Greek Dance

By Athan Karras

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Athan Karras 1955 The age of mythology in Greece at its first awakening was ushered in to the rhythm of the dance. In all ancient cities, at all religious festivals, the "dance was set." In those days, dance was religious, it was prayer and worship, an act of faith They could be referred to as "folk dancers," as they were participated by common folk, or a community of people, who sought to express common feelings among themselves.

this feeling persisted among the Greeks throughout the ages, from the times of the polytheistic religion to the monotheism of Christianity. The Greeks in their awareness of the celebration of life and the splendor and joy in it that sought its due expression, continued their dances, not as part of the ritual anymore in the temples, but outside the church in the courtyard.

In Homeric times, the dance spread beyond the precincts of sacred ritual and was utilized in expressing warlike exaltations, feelings of love, joy, and recreation. Terpsichore, patron muse of the dance, made it into an art, a noble contest where the honors and awards knew no distinction of age or station.

In the ensuing years, the Greeks were forced to become introspective about their identity. In their dire effort of restraining, they reached hard to strive to maintain their forms of expression, which depicted the essence of their heritage. Therefore, dance, the unspoken language, became a very vital source of communication in a society that felt burdened. Movement took on a significant role, as the feelings related within were of the utmost importance for a people that needed to seek some identity with his fellow man. The power of non-verbal communication existed in man throughout the ages, and its earthshaking viability can be seen even today in a time where progress, science, and the written and spoken word have dominated all our communication media.

Dance was never restricted to any group of people and certainly not to any age, as in the words of the poet Anacreon, "When old age leads the dance, his white hair only tells his years, but youth is in his heart." The poise, the steps, the motions of the ancient dancers are the same today in the Greek folk dances, and are executed with the same fervor and passion, as those legendary tales and heroes that wer sung and danced to exalt the spirits of the ancients. No doubt that the same kind of communion and happiness that was exuded from a "syrtos" in Homer's time can still be extracted today. This kind of circling where people are brought together, with the undulating movements of to-and-fro, this progression and digression, is seen in life itself. The strong bonds felt by people holding hands in the circle, gives one the sense and strength of belonging to the human race, and where negative and hostile forces are minimized, and the feeling of abandon relents into the flow of rhythm together.

Specific ideas that are expressed in the folk dance, such as in the "tsamiko," took on striking importance at different times in history, as with the cause of the Greek Independence in 1821, the rhythm of the dance strongly identified with the heroic beat, was utilized and dramatized to recreate aspects of heroism, which obviously were necessary for a people under that particular struggle. The 6/8 rhythm found in ancient poetry gives us enough reason to believe that this form persisted throughout the ages, for when man seeks to express heroic antics, always reaches deep not only into his own unconsciousness, but also in the depths of his ancestral roots to solidify his identity.

In seeking to recreate this dance in our times and to find any relevance for it, we must also need to want to express some form of heroism in order to validate the dance experience. What then in our society defeats us, which makes us want to rise above victorious?

The Greek dance from its early liturgical beginnings, and its ritualistic dramatic dances that eventually formulated the ancient Greek tragedy, went on to become the secular folk dances despite its many transformations. The one direction was the development of the drama, as it evolved in separating the movement and the narrative from the choruses (lyrics), and the imitative and pantomime dances also followed along the dramatic trail.

The other direction remained in the abstraction of movement unrelated to the narrative elements, and retained the dramatic instincts within the content of melody and action contained on the rhythmic structure, but departing the sacred dance and the ordained ritual, and continuing as a secular expression. Any religious remnants would be existing due to the essences still inherent in the form as people expressed a common emotion.

To this very day, when these folk dances are acted out, there is a religious experience shared commonly by the participants in the process. It is this form of expression that exists in the contemporary folk dances that so many still seek through the music and the movements in group interaction. It offers a sense of celebrating the human experience, and the circle that has survived from the earliest threshing floors, are still retained as the place where the social ritual of man takes place.

Here the Dionysian (orgiastic = sensual, emotional) and the Apollonian (spiritual = intellectual) elements in the dance emerge in perfect blend of these two natures equally expressed and given the proper perspective. This kind of balance is the one that Aristotle spoke of as "Pan metron ariston" (everything with good measure). These elements still exist in the folk dances of the Greeks, and it is why there is a continued interest, as they offer a real effect of bringing people together with music, song, and movement, and provoke enough diversity for the student and the recreationalist.

The Greek dance has survived invasions and outside influences, and has retained its identity just as the Greek language has from ancient times. it has been handed down to us from the ancient glories of the past to this very day. It is not only looked upon as a cherished tradition that has been kept alive for the past couple of thousand years, but because of its infectious spirit which it inflicts on people, bringing them together, with the mood and rhythm of a music that immediately establishes a true feeling of well being and camaraderie.

The ancient chorus wailing on the steps of the temples, and the myriads of ordained rituals in Homeric Greece, finally made the world aware to recognize the individual in helping hi come into his own, and affirm his individuality. Similarly, in the dance, the leader thrusts into warlike exaltation, or his feelings of love, of joy, and of recreation. The leader led and inspired the dancers in the open circle, and with accented poise surrendered his lead to the next one in line. The ritual was fulfilled not only in evoking through music, movement, and the like, but that everyone participated as leader and follower.

The Greek always sought a balance in his life, and a balance in the dance as well, for to "dance is to live" and to "live is to dance." In examining the ancient frescoes, vase paintings, and bas-reliefs, they immediately exemplify the very striking resemblances which exists between the contemporary dances and those of ancient times.

But the dances today as in the past are a way of life and significantly woven into the fabric of Greek life and social interaction. Though the main feasts and holidays, such as a wedding, a name-day, a baptism are always honored with dancing, the poise and the steps and the motions seem to be practiced almost every day while humming a song and always keeping the consciousness filled with unexpressed feelings and emotions.

The dances are characterized with the uniqueness of rhythm, which identifies the region of origin, and we find within it myriads of untold tales that could be danced to. To the Greek, dance is an national tradition, a spontaneous and natural art, with elegant and broad lines, plastic, pure, and sober, like the mountains and iles of Greece.

The fountainhead of the Greek dance lies in the music. The dancers need the musical stimulas to execute their expression in the steps. Many dancers never rise to dance unless they're stimulated by the music, wine, or a momentary joy or woe. They begin to let themselves respond freely to the music. Little by little, the music becomes one with their movements. The interpretation of the music is spontaneous and often the dancers are not aware of their pulse or rhythm.

Melody is expressed in terms of mood and attitude or the dance and adds to the character of the dance which expresses this mood.

Rhythm concludes the general character of the dance and is the strict regulator of the movements or steps of the dancers.

The general outlook of the Greek dance is to listen and reconstruct the rhythmic attitude of an individual character.

Each section or island has developed its own folklore, and as a result, the folk expressions vary. Greece happens to be geographically anomalous — the land is mountainous and the villages have little cultural or commercial exchange. The islands are similarly isolated because transportation to the islands is limited. Only recently have modern Western means allowed for a greater rapport between the various parts of Greece. Thus, cultural developments are beginning to change, just as the expressions of the Western world were changed by the industrial revolution.

The dance, therefore, varies in different parts of Greece, and so the manner of each dance has its own characteristics, which are related to the nature of the locality. Although some dances have taken on a "national character" due to the thrust of the revolution of 1821 and are widely danced in all parts of Greece, each section, such as Epirus, Attica, the Peloponnesian Islands, etc, adds its personal and local meanings to the dance. The same framework and the original pulse and character of the dance are maintained. Therefore, the dance is influenced by:

  1. Its origin, the musical attitude of the form.
  2. The rhythm.
  3. The lyrics, if any (which may be topical).
  4. The locality (folklore character).
  5. The personality of each dancer, which may be an individual expression out of the everyday environment.

The rhythm seems to have the greatest influence on the dance. It is out of rhythm that the dancer develops his dances. The dancer is never conscious of executing the steps, but is conscious of constantly remaining within the boundaries of rhythmical expression. This does not mean that the dancer must know music or that he must know rhythm; he simply must be able to listen and feel or to instinctively let his body understand the rhythm. He must interpret not only a musical expression, but also a rhythmical one.

We must not confuse the idea of rhythm with meter. Meter is a rhythmical measure of a musical phrase, but rhythm is the actual analysis of each beat as the dancer hears it. This doesn't mean that the dancer must execute a dance step on each rhythmical beat. Often, he will omit a musical beat and other times he will syncopate or break down a beat into more beats.

It has been evident that the great dancer very often holds the rhythm in his body and interprets it according to his feelings, especially when he allows the growth of his feelings to take place as he goes from one situation to another by stopping at very obvious melodic interludes or at certain very rhythmical sections of the music. This frequently is done to denote dramatic growth of the dance, which is not literal. When the dancers have great instinctive control of the rhythm and understand the natural growth, then they can begin going contra-tempo and enter then deeper into the music by executing faster beats, such as 16ths, 32nds, or 64ths. Therefore, an attempt to ance steps without any conception of the rhythm will confuse the person who is making an attempt to grasp the Greek dance.

The dance is not separate from steps or rhythm or local characteristics which must become a personal quality. They are integrated into one sole expression, which is the dance, whether it be "tsamiko," "kalamatiano," "hasapiko," or "zeimbekiko."

The final element is for the dancer to integrate all these into his own personal vision and give rise to his own expression All steps are possible in the Greek dance and have never been limited, but they must be in rhythm and have some of the traditional movements from the locality, remaining within the form and expressing the correct quality of the music.


Used with permission of the author.