Reconstructing Ancient Greek Dance

According to Prof. Naerebout “ancient Greek movement is lost and we have to accept it”.[1] This premise, however, has not stopped the many attempts to reconstruct ancient Greek dance. While we have explained how ambiguous ancient images might be, other scholars have accepted them as reliable depictions of real performances and based their reconstruction of dances and specific movements on them. The ancient Greek concept of dancing differs considerably from our own. It requires some mental adjustment and some discarding of modern ideas, such as dancing primarily for amusement.[2]

Although not always welcomed by academics, reconstruction of ancient Greek dance can tell us what it looked like but without the context or the aim. While some authors consider it a mere entertainment with the underlying romantic appeal of reviving a lost art, reconstructionist movements  were encouraged by scholar from other disciplines, such as Anthropology, Ethnology and Folklore studies. Some interesting parallelism were established by comparing ancient images with local dances around the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Emmanuel, Prudhommeau and Delavad-Roux are the most prominent researchers of the French school of reconstructionism. The first two considered Greek vase painting as still frames of a film: by  identifying and isolating certain images they estimated that they could put them together in a sequence that would render the whole performance.[3] All of them published their theories, which assumed a certain resemblance between classical ballet and the ancient Greek dance: simple lines, fixed figures, swift movements.

Others went in the opposite direction: new forms of dance inspired in the ancient Greeks attempted to escape the rigorous discipline of the formal ballet dance: these are the neo-Greek dance forms: they are not a facsimile of ancient Greek dance, they just evoke the ancient styles and are more focused on the audience’s experience.[4] That was the aim of the American school, with St Denis, Shawn and Duncan as the most prominent performers.

Isadora Duncan became a worldwide celebrity at the beginning of the 20th century and was invited to dance in the most important public and private venues. She studied ballet in America but moved to London in 1898, where she found inspiration in the ancient Greek art displayed at the British Museum. Her technique emphasised natural movement, freed from the classical ballet restrictions and mixed with the dynamism of athleticism. She considered ancient Greek dance to be of sacred nature, and so she longed for her audience to experiment strong emotions in the presence of rhythmic movement.[5]

In Great Britain, “Classical Greek Dance” was created by Ruby Ginner in the early 20th century, based on the natural and expressive movements of the body, with emphasis on building musicality, improvisation and performance skills.[6]  The method is based on the theatrical performances of ancient Greece, especially in the 5th century BC and their artistic representations. [7]  It is currently taught by the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing in the UK. It is very technically and creatively challenging, as balance, control, elevation, clarity of line and grace are developed together with a sense of musicality.

[1] Naerebout 1995:37.

[2] Lawler 1947: 345.

[3] Emmanuel 1896; Prudhommeau 1965; Delavaud-Roux (1991).

[4] Lawler 1947:349.

[5] Duncan 1928.

[6] Ginner 1933; 1960.