I’d bet you didn’t know that dancing is considered the most profound, perfect joy in life. Dancing can be religious, artistic, or an entertainment. It is a language that expresses what words cannot.
According to Homer, the greatest interpreters of dance were the Phaeakes (citizens of Corfu), the Trojans, Cretans, and Mycenaeans. The ancient Greeks loved dancing so much that they believed, surely, the Gods sanctioned it. So, the goddess, Terpsichore, became the most loved of the nine muses. The ancient Greeks used dancing for more than expressing emotion. It became a means of exercise, of education for children, and a prelude for the departure of soldiers. It was supposed to inspire and prepare them for the ultimate victory.
A story goes that a Persian spy reported watching Leonidas and the Spartans before the battle of Thermopylae. He reported, “they washed themselves, combed their hair, braided wreaths to crown themselves, and then, they danced. And, by the Gods, they sure didn’t look like they were about to go to battle.”
Legend has it that Rea, mother of Zeus, taught dancing to the Cretans. Another myth is that the goddess, Athena, invented the pyrrhic war dance.
The saddest dance ever recorded was the heroic Dance of Zalongo, a horrific, tragic moment in history. In 1821, learning that the Turks were approaching, the women of Zalongo, trapped on a mountain, chose to die rather than fall into Turkish hands which meant being defiled and sold into slavery. They joined hands and danced towards the mountain’s edge where, one by one, with their children, they leaped thousands of feet to their death.
Every village or province has its own local dance along with some similarities. Each contains the mood or characteristic of the inhabitants given their location. For example, the Cretans are quick, proud, and forceful and dance the same way. Arcadians and Roumeliotes who live in mountainous areas are pure and rough, daring people. So, their dancing includes heavy stomping, high, wide steps. In contrast, in Epiros the dancing is more austere, as though expressing the objection to the agony and subjugation they suffered with the many centuries under the Turks. To these people dancing and singing were reflections of release and a thirst for freedom, singing proudly, waving their handkerchiefs in the air as though that piece of cloth is the soul that no power on earth can enslave.
But, wherever and whenever the Greeks dance, they dance with pride, knowing that it is the most beautiful expression of our culture and history, reflections of our priceless heritage.
British historian T.K. Lawson who studied Greek traditions said, “no foreigner can look upon a Greek festival without immediately realizing that here, before their eyes, are scenes reenacted from ancient times, with their past elegance and dignity still there. A comparison of character between the ancient Greeks and modern Greeks is impossible for the non-Greek to comprehend.”
A festival, or Panegyri as it is called now, is a small example from the past, that being a mixture of religion, art, trade, athletic meets, and entertainment as it was offered by the ancients. It was usually held in honor of a saint. Now, folk dances include Hassapikos, Kalamatianos, Tsamikos and Syrtos, performed in semi-circles. It’s a treat when those dances are accompanied by ethnic costumes.
After WWII, the music and dances here changed. The introduction of Bouzouki music, once thought to be of the lower classes, became the latest trend and is danced by all classes of Greeks, even by foreigners abroad. Fact is, there is more Greek traditional dancing here than in Athens. The Zeibekikos and Hassapikoserviko have little to do with traditional dancing of the past. They came from Asia Minor after the Catastrophe of Smyrna and Constantinople when refugees fled from the horrors there. Yet, the bouzouki has sweetness of sound and a depth that reaches into the soul of the listener; the lyrics of songs dramatically tell of unrequited love, betrayal, relationships, and sarcasm that urge the listener to get up and dance, to reflect those emotions with movement. What an opportunity it is to dance a Zeibekiko to the mesmerizing, sensitive strumming that urges one, anyone, whether they can dance or not, to get up and dance off unspoken emotions.
Hey! It could be healthier than meditation.
I have also found the music of Hispanic Bachata as entrancing as Greek music. The dancing is more sensuous but, again, the beautiful strumming of a requinto is just as mesmerizing as the bouzouki. Come on, everyone. Let’s Dance!