Ancient Greek Dance: How do we know?

Ancient Greek dance was an ephemeral art: it left no dance notation, no record about the precise succession of steps – neither in writing nor in images –, no technical literature of dancing has been recovered – so far.[1] All in all, the ancient world was predominantly an oral culture.

There is, however, a great number and wide variety of written sources that evidence the social importance of dancing, sometimes linked to music and poetry – what the ancient Greeks called mousikē. Plato, Lucian, Athenaeus – just to name a few – regarded dancing as a key element in the education of good citizens, and even considered that it had an important role in the ordered disposition of planets and stars around the universe. [2] Epigraphy has rendered partial evidence and is still understudied, just like papyrology[3].

The decoration on ancient Greek vases, wall-paintings, terracotta figurines, sculptures and reliefs provide us with a visual catalogue of dancers – mortals and divine – accompanied by wreaths, ribbons, flowers, thyrsus, torches, etc.[4] Although these representations cannot be understood as a faithful rendition of ancient dancing – they’re part of the ancient Greek visual repertoire, a series of graphic conventions that were part of long-established iconographic tradition – they still convey certain information about the role of music in ancient Greece.[5]

The kinetic element of dancing is usually overlooked: dancing occurred in a 3-dimensional space, indoors and outdoors. It was performed in theatres, sanctuaries, and banqueting halls, while larger crowds were drawn to fairs, horse racing, athletics, and processions in the streets.[6] Thanks to archaeological excavations of these places – their layout, building materials, and interconnection with other spaces – we can analyse the interaction among dancers and between dancers and the audience.

[1] Naerebout 2003:140.

[2] Barker 1984-1989.

[3] Naerebout 2003:154.

[4] Poursat 1968: 550-615.

[5] Roebuck & Roebuck 1955.

[6] Naerebout 2003:149.


Written sources  Archaeological finds  Early scholarship