Ancient Greek Dance: What we know

The origins of Greek dance date back to the 2nd millennium BC. Minoan Crete is usually marked as the birthplace of Greek dance by ancient authors; Athenaeus believed the island to be the birthplace of several kinds of dance, such as pyrrhic or satyric performances.[1] Artistic representations of richly dressed and bejewelled women dancing – either identified as goddesses or priestesses – can be found in terracotta figurines and wall-paintings as early as 1500 BC.[2]

Homer is the first ancient author to refer to some kind of dancing – around 750 BC – when describing Achilles’ shield with three images of music-making. [3]  It starts with a wedding song within a city at peace, accompanied by circular dancing and instrumental music. The ecphrasis ends up with groups of young boys and girls holding their hands on each others’ wrists while moving in circular motion.[4]  The place where the dancing is being performed is called choros, the same word used for groups of singers and dancers. According to Homer, the ground was designed following Daedalus’ choros in Cnossos (Crete), for beautiful-haired Ariadne. [5]

Another reference to Crete – and Dedalus – seems to be linked to geranos (crane-dance) or hormos (chain- dance). Apparently, geranos was performed for the first time by Theseus after rescuing seven youth and seven maidens from the Labyrinth, the maze built by Dedalus to imprison the Minotaur in Cnossos.[6] This complex structure had a single non-branching path which led to the centre, suggesting a continuous movement to the middle and back to the sides, which was accomplished by the hero thanks to Arianna’s gift: a thread that allowed him to move back and forth.  The dance evoked the intricate movements performed by Theseus to escape the labyrinth.

Although dancing could be spontaneous, when structured it served to communicate a story (myth), a feeling (joy in weddings / sorrow in funerals), a special relationship with the gods (religious) and with fellow citizens (processions). All these dances included a ritualistic element: it transmitted messages that were not so easily put into words, that exceeded the verbal language; dancing encapsulated a message that had to be performed.[7]

The Greeks did not consider dancing as an art complete in itself. It was obviously linked to music, but also to words. Individual dancing included solo-professional entertainers and freestylers for leisure. Party dancing in symposia – wine-drinking gatherings of male citizens – was accompanied by professional troupes to provide musical entertainment: orchestrides (dancing girls) performed to the music of professional female musicians (auletrides and psaltriai). Sometimes orchestrides would keep the beat with a pair of krotala.

Choreia broadly refers to collective dancing and could be done by professionals (in theatres) or the general public (partaking in public ceremonies). Choreia should be understood as a group of people – all male, all female, or unisex – performing in synchronised, stereotyped movements coordinated by music and/or rhythm. Choreia played a central role in ancient Greek society, especially in Athens: prominent members of the city were appointed to fund a choros, which included the practice of dancing and singing in social collective to music, becoming a fundamental part of the pedagogic ideas in the ideal city, a key element of the social fabric.[8]

Choreia encompasses a wide range of choral performances across the Greek world: dramatic genres – tragedy, comedy, satyr play – contained choral performances, as chorus sang and danced at regular intervals to the accompaniment of the aulos. There is, nonetheless, surviving fragments of choral lyric – odes of tragedies, fragments of wedding songs, prose and poetry [9] – and non-dramatic song types: epinician, partheneion (maiden song), pean and dithyramb.[10] Many paeans were composed for performance at the cult centre of Apollo and Artemis on Delos, where Ionian cities sent choruses as offerings.

People used to dance poetry, interpreting the verses with rhythmic movement of arms, body, head. According to some scholars, the multiplicity of rhythms we find in ancient Greek lyric poetry is a reflection of the defining power of dance.[11]  Connections between poetic forms and dances is particularly evident in Greek metrical terminology: iambic refers to walking, while trochaic – running – and dochmiac – zigzag – allude to specific movements.[12]

Although there are some examples of male and female choreia performing together, there are different types of collective dances organised according to age and gender: partheneia was to be performed by adolescent girls, while the paean was almost exclusively a male genre – although in theatre those gender boundaries seemed more malleable. [13]

Popular dances  Dance in festivals

[1] Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 630b-631c.

[2] Mandalaki-Spanou 2003.

[3] Homer, Iliad 18. 491-6.

[4] Homer, Iliad 18. 599-604.

[5] Barker 1989:23.

[6] Plutarch, Theseus 21.

[7] Naerebout 2003:147.

[8] Wilson 2003.

[9] Weiss 2020:161.

[10] According to Weiss 2020:161-2 they do not contribute to larger dramatic narratives such as tragedy, comedy and satyr play.

[11] Fitton 1947:266.

[12] Fitton 1947:268.

[13] Weiss 2020:162-3.