Greek Folk Music and Dance

By Athan Karras

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The Parthenon Dancers of Greece

Dancers from The Parthenon Dancers of Greece

The tradition of music in Greece goes back thousands of years. It is part of a national heritage treasured by the Greek people as a precious heirloom from ancient Greece, since this divine gift was entrusted to them by Apollo, and the patron muse Terpsichore presided over their dances. To this very day, music is an inseparable part of Greek life. In his dances and songs the Greek gives vent to his dramatic expression to glorify his joys, to wallow in his sorrows, and above all, to record his aspirations, the history and lore of his people, and to store up legends and folk tales.

The main characteristic of nearly all Greek folk music is its modal quality and rhythmic patterns also rather unfamiliar to Western ears. Rhythms such as 5/8, 7/8, or 9/8 and a variety of scales employing intervals that are not common to European major and minor scales account for both the appeal and the curiosity caused by Greek folk music. (For instance, there is a tone interval between the 7th and 8th degrees, the augmented second, or intervals of less than a semi-tone.)

The musical instruments that provide accompaniment to the national dances and songs of Greece fall into the three familiar principal categories:

Stringed instruments: lyra (a kind of rebec similar to a violin), violi (violin), outi (lute), santouri (hammered dulcimer), mandolin (similar to a lute), bouzouki (three-stringed long-necked instrument), and bass guitars (plucked or slapped stringed instrument);

Wind instruments: pipiza (a primitive, exceedingly sharp hautboy or oboe), cornemuse (similar to a bagpipe), clarinet (a woodwind instrument), aulo (pastoral flutes), gaida (bagpipe), karamoudza or zurna (a reed pipe), and askamandoura (island bagpipe);

Percussion instruments: daouli (small and large primitive handmade drums), bells, triangles, defi (small tambourine), krotala (wooden spoons), and kymbala (finger cymbals).

The lyra is mainly used for the music of the Black Sea or Pontus area, the island of Crete, and the Dodecanese. The cornemusa belongs to the mainland provinces of Greece and certain other islands. The violin, the clarinet, and the lute are most frequently used in association with the santouri, and together form the instrumental group most widespread in the country. Another group known as "zygia" or "compania" has taken the place of an old combination that still survives in some parts of Greece consisting of one pipia and one big drum.

Instrumentation was never too elaborate and the orchestra never consisted of more than about four or five players. These people were not referred to as "professional" musicians in that they had their regular work, and music was their sideline in the true folk idiom. They almost invariably stood in the center of the dancing circle and in real folk fashion, interpreted songs to suit the tastes of the feast or the dancers. Inspiration and the muse were their guides. Payment was not considered except whatever people wanted to donate as a mere gesture.

The folk dances of Greece are accompanied by music played on these traditional instruments and also sometimes by a song. The dances for the most part fall into two classifications: the very lively "pidiktos" and the more restrained "syrtos." The pidiktos are the jumping and leaping dances; the syrtos, the smooth-flow, dragging dances. The other category is mixed dances that alternate from syrtos to pidiktos and back again. The most common trait, however, is for them to begin slowly and quaintly and then build up to the leaping and jumping style.

Most pidiktos dances are danced specifically by men, whereas the syrtos is done by both men and women. Circular dancing is an imperative characteristic of all Greek folk dances. It is still found in the Greek villages where the dancing is done most often at the threshing floor after the harvest. The circle is the symbol of infinity, and to dance always progressing in a circle gives you a focal point of access in the dance, whereas if we were to dance in a straight line, we would be confronted with going and then returning. The threshing floor after the harvest then became the "orchestra" (dancing place) named after the ancient Greek word for dance "orchesis." The dances were very often named after the place where they were first developed into a recognizable form or variation, such as "pelioritikos" from Pelion, "tsakonikos" from Tsakonia, "samiotikos" from Samos, or "haniotikos" from Hania on Crete.

Dances were also named after a profession or trade such as "hasapikos," the butchers' dance, the origin of which can be traced back to the Byzantine age when in Byzantium (Constantinople), the members of the Butchers' Guild, after slaughtering the swine, would dance wildly in the streets as a way of exorcising their slaughter. There are dances which still denote the professional name such as the hunter's dance, later known as "kastorianos" because of the fact that the hunting referred to was mostly done in that area. Another dance done in Macedonia, the "kounelakia," imitates the movements of a rabbit.

Generally speaking, the women dancers of Greece, according to ancient habit, still dance "demurely with downcast eyes," though vibrant and free, and expressing a sensitive and delicate joy — for the women will emphasize it to show their grace and beauty in the dance. Their costume or dress will have the finest embroidery, weaving, and a sense of artistry in depicting the world around them — a world steeped in tradition to be cherished and disseminated. The man in sharp contrast will perform all manner of agile steps and leaps, springing low and high with twisting turns, improvising a personal choreography with astonishing ingenuity in the way that he would meet the trials and tribulations of agrarian life, yet still retain with absolute respect a rigid adherence to the formal rhythms found in all Greek dance melodies.

The dances of Greece can be distinctly placed into different area groups. There are some dances, though, that have become pan-Hellenic, meaning, in essence, that Greeks everywhere dance them. Such a dance is the "kalamatiano," which originated in Kalamata (Peloponessus), but spread with great rapidity to all of Greece. Another that shares this kind of acceptance is the "klephtiko" or "tsamiko," which became important during the struggle with Ottoman rule in the 1800s. More recently that kind of popularity is being enjoyed by the various styles of the Hasapika dances.

Each region has its own particular style — Macedonia, Thrace, and Epirus, which has a style of pausing and holding and leaping that is strictly theirs. The plains of Thessaly bear another kind of movement attitude — the sedate ease of the nomadic tribes. Roumeli and Peloponessus were brought closer together since they were the forebears in creating the new nation of Greece.

The Greek Islands have their own customs, songs, music, costumes, and traditions, as can be seen very clearly on such large islands as Crete and Cyprus. Though each has its own dance, the twelve major islands of the Dodecanese group have a great cultural similarity. The same is true of the other groups of islands — the Cyclades, the Sporades, and most definitely among the Ionian Islands. Other islands were large enough to be independent, thus retaining their own cultural identity, such as Samos, Chios, Ikaria, or Mytilene (Lesbos).

However, the dances and songs of Pontos, an extensive tract of country along the southern shore of the Black Sea, have won a special place of their own in Greek folk music and dance. These people were cut off for several thousand years from their fellow Greeks on the peninsula we know today as Greece. Yet, living in isolation, they retained with almost crystal purity their earliest traditions of language, religion, and song and dance as a means of preserving their identity. Their dances have a particular quality different from the rest of Greece. Some are lyrical, some dithyrambic, and others, like the dance "serra," martial. The "serra," which is exclusively a Pontic dance, has a pyrrhic theme leading up to a display of sword fighting. There is a description of this dance in Homer's "The Iliad," the famous epic poem, in the lines describing the embossed decorations on Achilles' shield:

". . . and young men were whirling in dance, and among them, flutes and viols sounded high . . . . Also did the glorious lame god devise a dancing-place like unto that which once in wide Knossos Daidalos wrought for Ariadne of the lovely tresses. There were youths dancing and maidens of costly wooing, their hands upon one another's wrists. Fine linen the maidens wore and the youths well-woven doublets glistening in oil. Fair wreaths had the maidens, and youths daggers of gold hanging from their silver baldricks. And now they would run around with deft feet, exceedingly lightly . . . and now anon they would run in lines to meet each other and a great company stood round the lovely dance in joy . . . ."


Used with permission of the author.