Ancient Greek Dance
Ancient Greek Dance
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The Chorus
Chain Dance
Cretan Origin
Dance Theory
Christian Ban
Also at
Greek Festivals
Apollo vs. Dionysus
Roman Dance

Greek terra cotta dancing girl, about 350 B.C. (British Museum.)

Greek terra cotta dancing girl, about 350 B.C. (British Museum.)
Cretan Origin
Greek mythology attributes the origin of dancing to Rea who taught this art to Kourites in Crete. Cretan dances were performed in open or closed circles. Cretans were usually dancing around a tree, an altar, or mystical objects in order to free themselves from the evil. Later on, they used to dance around a singer or a musician.
Christianity & Dance
The institution of Christianity in Greece put the reins on the development of dance in Greece. Dance performances were banned, which resulted in dance taking an “underground” turn to pagan tradition that lasted up to the period of Byzantium. Much of the current folk traditions eventually returned to Greece by way of the Ionian Islands which were ruled by Italy.

As early as the first century A.D., ancient Greek tragedy, which at its peak of harmonious unity, incorporated poetry, music and dance, had disintegrated into its component elements.

Actor-tragedians continued to perform only certain parts of the dialogue of the tragedies, while others with good voices sang the vocal parts. There also arose a gesticulator whose purpose was to illustrate, with pantomimic gestures, what the actor-tragedian was singing. This gradually transformed the old Attic style of tragedy and comedy into the tragic-pantomime style of the imperial Byzantine years that included dance, mime, recitation and song. The reactions of the Church Fathers and the stream of condemnatory decisions and excommunications issued by ecumenical synods indicate the popularity of these spectacle-concerts in multi-ethnic Byzantium and the influence of the mime performances on the austere moral code of the Christians for many centuries to come.

Greek dancers could also be expert gymnastic tumblers. These acrobats were skilled at playing between knives and swords. Rope-dancing or funambulus likely begun with the Greeks.
Greek Dance Terminology
--dithyrambic poetry -lyric poetry performed in song and dance as a tribute to the god Dionysus
--nomic poetry -
choral lyrics, performed in praise of Apollo and other gods
--drama of tragedy and comedy the chorus conveys the elements of the play's text in song and dance.
Pyrrihic dance was the most known among martial dances, part of the basic military education in both Athens and Sparta.
Gymnopaedia is the early history of  present-day gymnastics.
Geranos This dance included serpentine movements, imitating the movements of Theseus inside the Labyrinth.
Epilinios was a dionysiac dance danced on top of the vats while treading the grapes with their feet.
Emelia was the dance of tragedy, enhancing the events enacted on the stage.
Kordax was the dance of the comedy was looked down on, and in general regarded as unworthy of serious men.
Sikkinis was the dance of the satirical drama, imitating the movements of cats and danced by Satyrs.
Imeneos was the dance of the marriage. It was danced by the bride with her mother and friends. It was quick with a lot of twists and turns.
Hormos is according to Lucian a common dance of the young men and women who dance one by the other forming a chain. The leader is a young man who shows his dancing and martial abilities through his movements. A young woman follows him providing an example of solemnity and decency to all other women dancers.
Iporchima was a combination of dance and pantomime, singing and music. It comes from Crete. It was danced by boys and girls together singing choric poems.

Greek dances may be divided into sections somewhat thus:

religious dances including the Emmeleia, the Hyporchema, the Gymnopedia, and the Endymatia

•gymnastic nature, which include the military dances as well as tumblers

mimetic character: sign-talk, which antedates spoken language

theatre, such as the chorus,

partly social, partly religious dances, such as the hymeneal and wedding chain dance

--chamber dances often shown ornamentally

Dancing Bacchante. From a vase in the British Museum.
Dancing Bacchante. From a vase in the British Museum.
Bacchanalian dancer. Vase from Nocera, Museum. Naples.

Bacchanalian dancer. Vase from Nocera, Museum, Naples

Greek and Bacchanalian Dance

Dance, according to Greek thought, was one of the civilizing activities, like wine-making and music. 

 Most Greek Mythology was written by poets, like Homer, and as the spiritual sustenance for its people, dance communicated its wisdom and truth as effectively as words. 

The strong dancing tradition prevalent among the Greeks was likely inherited from Crete which was conquered by Greece around 1500 BC but Greece was very effective in synthesizing the best from surrounding cultures, its poets and artists borrowed significantly from surrounding Pyria and Thrace and its scholars were being initiated into the Egyptian mysteries by temple priests long before Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. Learning to dance was considered a necessary part of and education which favored learning an appreciation of beauty.

Ancient Greece drove a sharp distinction between the Apollonian dance and the Dionysian dance. The former – the Apollonian dance – was accompanied by guitars called lyres, lutes and kitharas. It was a ceremonial dance incorporating slower cult dances performed during religious festivals, as well as martial and social dances performed during communal events and funeral practices. The Dionysian or Bacchanalian dance, associated with the cult of Dionysus, is about passion, panic and desire. It is an “orgasmic” dance with breathtaking moves whose purpose is to connect all to a frenetic dance vibration. The synthesis of the Apollonian and the Dionysian is the art of dance. The tension between these opposites played an instrumental role in the shaping of the ancient Greek theatre and the birth of tragedy in the evolution of the arts for civilization.

 The lively imagination and mimetic powers of the Greeks found abundant subjects for various kinds of dances, and accordingly to William Smith, in his
MaenadDancing.jpg authoritive  A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, the names of no less than 200 different dances have come down to us. With the Greeks, dancing was primarily part of a religious rites; with music it formed the lyric art. The term "dance", however, for them included all those actions of the body and limbs, and all expressions and actions of the features and head which suggest ideas; marching, acrobatic performances, and mimetic action all came into the term.

Skillful dancers were at all times highly prized by the Greeks: we read of some who were presented with golden crowns, and had statues erected to their honour, and their memory celebrated by inscriptions. There were dancers of all grades, from the distinguished to the moderate. Distinguished dancers, unlike among the Romans, could even marry into upper-class positions, if they did not already occupy them by birth. Philip of Macedon married Larissa, a dancer, and the dancer Aristodemus was ambassador to his Court. The greatest men were not above showing their sentiments through their dancing. Sophocles danced around the trophies of the battle of Salamis. AEschylus and Aristophanes danced in various performances of their own plays. While the important religious and other dances were not generally performed by professionals there was plenty of opportunity for professional dancers who could also find work at the symposiums where drinking and entertainment of the men was as important as the conversation and more popular than listening to after-dinner speeches.Symposium.jpg

According to some authorities, one of the earliest dances was attributed to Phrygian origin, was the Aloenes, danced to the Phrygian flute by the priests of Cybele in honour of her daughter Ceres. The dances ultimately celebrated in her cult were numerous: such as the Anthema, the Bookolos, the Epicredros, and many others, some rustic for labourers, others of shepherds, etc. Every locality seems to have had a dance of its own. Dances in honour of Venus were common, she was the patroness of proper and decent dancing. On the other hand, those in honour of Dionysus or Bacchus concluded with revelry by all which is a form of degeneration as well as unity. This practice, also known as today's Carnaval has continued to remain popular by all who honor the natural impulses of the human spirit with a period of release from everyday masks of necessary repression.

Geronos or chain dance
Sexes did not mix during dance except for the chain or geronos dance. The dance reenacts the story of Ariadne, future wife of Dionysus and daughter of King Minos, aiding Theseus to escape the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur. The lovers flee to the island of Naxos where they erect a monument to Aphrodite and dance a winding, mazelike dance in her honor to celebrate their love.
Grown up men and women did not generally dance together, but the youth of both sexes joined in the Geronos [Hormos] or chain dance. When it was performed, the geranos was danced anamix -- boy-girl, boy-girl order. The Theseus story was also the initiation myth for Greek youth. Here Homer describes this dance:
Here young men and the most desired young girls
were dancing, linked, touching each other’s wrists,
the girls in linen, in soft gowns....
Trained and adept, they circled there with ease
the way a potter sitting at his wheel
will give it a practice twirl between his palms
to see it run; or else, again, in lines
as though in ranks, they moved on one another:
Panathenaeac dance, about the 4th century B.C.
A vase in the Museo Borbonico, Naples.

The following woodcut, taken from  vases, shows three Pyrrhicists, two of whom with shield and sword are engaged in the dance, while the third is standing with a sword. Above them is a female balancing herself on the head of one, and apparently in the act of performing a somersault; she no doubt is taking part in the dance, and performing a very artistic kind of tumbling.  Her danger is increased by the person below, who holds a sword pointing towards her. A second female may be providing music or be a spectator.

Among the gymnastic the most important were military dances, the invention of which was attributed to Minerva; of these the Korybantum was the most remarkable. It was of Phrygian origin and of a mixed religious, military, and mimetic character; the performers were armed, and bounded about, springing and clashing their arms and shields to imitate the Corybantes endeavouring to stifle the cries of the infant Zeus, in Crete. The Pyrrhic  a war dance of Doric origin, was a rapid dance to the double flute, and made to resemble an action in battle; the Hoplites of Homer is thought to have been of this kind. The Dorians were very partial to this dance and considered their success in battle due to the celerity and training of the dance.

Pyrrihic or Korybantes
The dance in armor (the "pyrrhic dance" or pyrriche) was a male coming-of-age initiation ritual linked to a warrior victory celebration. The Pyrrhic dance was performed in different ways at various times and in various countries. Plato describes it as representing by rapid movements of the body the way in which missiles and blows from weapons were avoided, and also the mode in which the enemy were attacked.
A military dance, supposed to be the Corybantum. From a Greek bas-relief in the Vatican Museum.
from a Greek bas-relief in the Vatican Museum
 Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema: A Pyrrhic Dance
As a military dance the Corybantum was of a very wild character; the dancers were armed, struck their swords against their shields, and displayed most extravagant fury; it was accompanied chiefly by the flute. There were actually as many as 18 different dances or military exercises. Among the most common performed at Festivals:
  • Podism: quick, shifting movement of feet to train for hand to hand combat
  • Xiphism: mock battle, groups of boys would practice fighting in a dancelike fashion
  • Homos: high leaps and vaulting to leap over high logs, boulders and to scale walls and fortresses
  • Tetracomos: stately group formations with shields used in formation for protection

The practice was later imported to Rome by Caesar. 

Panathenaeac dance, about the 4th century B.C.
In subsequent periods it was imitated by female dancers as a mimetic performance as well as training for war, thus we read of its being danced by women to entertain a company or as a hand-in-hand dance alternately of males and females.

Bacchanalian Dance: The featured dance at a Dionysian festival was called a dithyramb -- it featured music by a double flute played in the Phrygian mode of music. The characteristic dance at these dithyrambs was the tyrbasia, a dance full of movement and improvisation. The Satyric dance would see the most illustrious men in the state danced in it, representing Titans, Corybantians, Satyrs, and husbandmen much delighting the spectators.
The life and adventures of the god Dionysos were represented by mimetic dancing as well as the l

The Chorus, composed of singers and dancers,Download formed part of the drama, which included the recitation of some poetic composition, and included gesticulative and mimetic action as well as dancing and singing. The Dorians were especially fond of this; their poetry was generally choral, and the Doric forms were preserved by the Athenians in the choral compositions of their drama. [More about the Chorus on the Masks of Tragedy & Comedy Page]

Greek dancers. From a vase in the Hamilton Collection.
The tragic dance, Emmelia, was solemn; whilst that in comedy, Cordax, was frivolous, and the siccinis, or dance of Satyrs, was often obscene. They danced to the music of the pipes, the tambour, the harp, castanets, cymbals, etc.

Greek dancers. From a vase in the Hamilton Collection.

Pantomine: The expressive efficiency and plasticity of the human body are dominant, particularly in the movements of the upper body. The torso, hands and wrist are instrumental in the reenactment of dramatic, tragic and lyric motifs. The face mirrors emotions that are in tune with music and rhythm. The art form attracted some significant talents such as Sophron of Syracuse, whose writings kept at hand by Plato during his last hours. Ovueikou were pantomimists of lesser rank, whose work was principally comedy of a farcical nature—though the word seems to have the primitive meaning of "chorister

Sikinnis: both a dance and a form of satirical mimodrama. It burlesqued the politics, philosophy and drama of the day and was said to cater to the taste of the common people for vulgarity and sensationalism.

Greece Ministry of Foreign Affairs The history of dance in Greece goes back to 1000 B.C. Dance has played a major role in the life of Greeks all through their history. The dance tradition of Greece was disseminated to Europe where it became accentuated with elements of theatre and ballet. The Greek dance is combined with unique forms of cultural expression, music and poetry, each claiming its unique identity and significance in the ensemble of an integrated dance performance.
Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Saltatio.html Saltatio
 pp1004‑1006 of William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875
History of Greek Music

Wikipedia Links

The Byzantine Empire is the term conventionally used to describe the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire during the Middle Ages, centered at its capital in Constantinople. "Byzantium may be defined as a multi-ethnic empire that emerged as a Christian empire, soon comprised the Hellenized empire of the East and ended its thousand year history, in 1453, as a Greek Orthodox state.  Its main constituent parts besides Greece were the Balkans and Asia Minor which contained an overwhelmingly large Greek population. Ethnic minorities and sizeable communities of religious heretics often lived on or near the borderlands, the Armenians being the only sizeable one.

Egyptians oriented themselves around the universe of stars and sought to be in harmony with the changing night sky. The stage is thus believed to have represented the sun and thus  the choral movements around it, would be the movements of the celestial bodies. Moses, after the crossing of the Red Sea, bade the children of Israel dance. David danced before the Ark of the Covenant. The Greeks through their dance sought the beauty of harmonized movements of healthy bodies and to tell the glorious stories of the dancing gods.
Singers and flutists, From the tomb of Mehu at Saqqara
Egyptian musical instruments were well developed and varied. They included string instruments such as harps, lyres, lutes, percussion instruments like drums, rattles, tambourines, bells (first used during the Late Period) and cymbals (Roman Period), wind instruments like flutes, clarinets, double pipes, trumpets, and oboes. Egyptian Musical Instruments

Castanets, were used in Greece, essentially the same as those of Spain today; also flat sticks in pairs, like clappers, but which unlike clappers were gripped between the thumb and fingers. Little cymbals on the dancers' hands sometimes added their voice, and the tambourine was popular. The variety of these time-marking instruments indicates knowledge of the many effects attainable by tempo alone

Cymbals (about 4 in.) and double flute. (British Museum.)
Cymbals (about 4 in.) and double flute. (British Museum.)
Greek dancer with castanets. (British Museum.) See also Castanet dance by Myron, fig. 63a.
Greek dancer with castanets. (British Museum.
Music was an important part of education in ancient Greece, and boys were taught music starting at age six. Greek musical literacy created a flowering of development; Greek music theory included the Greek musical modes, eventually became the basis for Western religious music and classical music. Due to Rome's reverence for Greek culture, Roman music continued to use the Greek notational system.

Despite the change from quantitative to tonic prosody, the ancient Greek rhythmical formations live on in modem Greek folk melody. The researches of Professors Thrasyvoulos Georgiadis and Samuel Baud-Bovy demonstrate that the 7/ 8 time, found throughout Greece, in none other than the heroic hexameter in which the Homeric epics were recited.

WIKIPEDIA: Aulos a double-piped reed instrument. Archeological finds indicate that it could be either single-reeded, like a clarinet, but more usually double-reeded, like an oboe. Unlike the lyre, which could be mastered by any aristocrat with sufficient leisure to practice it, the aulos was an instrument chiefly associated with professional musicians, often slaves. Female aulos-players were a fixture of Greek drinking parties [Symposiums], and male and female aulos players often doubled as prostitutes
More about instruments
Much of modern dance with its de-emphasis of couple dancing  and elevation of violent movement, group participation, and stress on individual expression appears to share these traits with Greco-Roman dance.
Greek dancers and tumblers.
Dancing in ancient Greece was closely connected with religion: Plato  thought that all dancing should be based on religion, as it was among the Egyptians. The dances of the Chorus at Sparta and in other Doric states were intimately connected with the worship of Apollo, In all the public festivals, which were so numerous among the Greeks, dancing formed a very prominent part. The religious dances, with the exception of the Bacchic and the Corybantian, were very simple, and consisted of gentle movements of the body with various turnings and windings around the altar.
Dance Theory
Plutarch's "Banquet Topics" (90 AD), Lucian's "Dialogue on Dance" (160 AD), Athenaeus' "Deipnosophistae" ( 215 AD) and Nonnus' "Dionysiaca" (500 AD) as well as many of the earlier giants of philosphy like Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle all wrote about dance. The Greeks are credited with inventing a theory of dance
Homer: It is frequently mentioned in the Homeric poems, such that the suitors of Penelope delight themselves with music and dancing while waiting for Odysseus to return. Homer makes Apollo orchestes, or the dancer; and amongst the early dances is that in his honour called the Hyporchema.
Pythagoras made a period of dancing a part of the daily routine of his pupils
Socrates urged it upon his pupils. Physicians of the time of Aristophanes prescribed its rhythmic exercise for many ailments.
said that dancing (orchesis) was the instinctive desire to explain words by gestures of the entire body and "for the acquisition of noble, harmonious, and graceful attitudes." 
Aristotle said that “art is the mimesis of nature”
Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for 'harmony' and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm.
Lycurgus gave it an important place in the training of youth, military and otherwise. Among the special dances whose teaching he decreed, was one, the Hormos, that was traditionally performed without clothing.

Plutarch tells of a protest against the nudity of the women. The Law-giver of Athens replied: "I wish them [the women] to perform the same exercises as men, that they may equal men in strength, health, virtue and generosity of soul, and that they may learn to despise the opinion of the vulgar."
--"The military dance was an indefinable stimulus which inflamed courage and gave strength to persevere in the paths of honour and valour."

In many of the Greek states the art of dancing was carried to great perfection by females, who were frequently engaged to add to the pleasures and enjoyment of men at their symposia. These dancers, for whatever reason, are always belonged to the hetaerae as a courtesan or high-class  prostitute. Among evidence cited is Xenophon  describing a mimetic dance which was represented at a symposium, where Socrates was present. It was performed by a maiden and a youth, and represented the loves of Dionysus and Ariadne.
In addition the skilled musicians who performed at symposiums are also always described in the academic literature as being prostitutes as well. The evidence does not seem so certain to this compiler.
The Epilenios danced when the grapes were pressed, and imitated the gathering and pressing. The Anteisterios danced when the wine was vatted, and the Bahilicos, danced to the sistrus, cymbals, and tambour, often degenerated into orgies.

Bacchanalian Revelry and the early roots of today's great people's Carnaval celebrations is the thread which links all the pages in our menu.  Dionysus or Bacchus has inspired artists for nearly three millenniums

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