Dance in Ancient Greece | History Highlight
The Gěrănŏs from a vase in the Museo Borbonico, Naples.
In ancient Greece, dance had a significant presence and role in everyday life; dance was considered an expression of human feelings as well as a ritual act. Greeks would dance at weddings, funerals, drinking parties, and during initiation ceremonies and other rites of passage that marked significant changes in one's social status (such as pregnancy, childbirth, and adulthood). These rituals would provide protection over the individual and ensure divine support during the transition.
Dance was so important that it was a foundational subject at ancient Greek schools - called gymnopaida - and was considered an essential part of developing as a good citizen by Plato, Lucian, and Athenaeus. Yet, not only did Greek schools stress the importance of this art, but the entirety of Greek culture as well, as they combined song, poetry, and physical movement in a culture called mousike, which further defined the Greek culture and ethnicity.
Performances ranged from entertainment at private drinking parties to larger urban festivals where performances were competitive. At these performances, there was an opportunity for expression, exchange, and interaction between different parts of the Hellenic world.
To the Greeks, "dance" included all actions of the body and limbs and all the expressions of the features of the face; marching, acrobatic performances, and mimetic action was also included. The names of no less than 200 different dances have been discovered, so there is no doubt about how often dance was used in ancient Greek life.
Panathenaeac dance, about the 4th century B.C.
Types of Dances
As discussed previously, there are many occasions on which the Greeks danced. However, you can divide the purposes of certain dances into sections as such:
1. Religious Dancing
The Greeks often attributed their dances to their deities, such as Apollo, Dionysus, or Urania. Dancing for each deity was often very different in tempo, moves, and music. As the dance was often to honour their deity, it also resembled them. Most of the time, however, religious dances were very simple and consisted of gentle movements and windings around the altar.
Associated and performed by the cult of Dionysus, this dance encompassed passion and desire. This "orgasmic" dance was filled with frenzied movement and improvisation to connect to a frenetic dance vibration.
In honour of the god Apollo, this dance was ceremonial and incorporated slower cult dances performed during religious festivals, communal events, and funeral practices. It was also accompanied by lyres, lutes, and kitharas.
2. Gymnastic Dancing
Some Greek dancers were expert gymnastic tumblers; trained to be skilled at playing between knives and swords. This type of dance is often associated with solo performers, who are either professional entertainers or freestyle dancers for leisure and drinking parties.
Considered the most important of gymnastic dances were military dances - the invention of which attributed to Athena, goddess of wisdom and battle strategy. There were as many as 18 different dances or military exercises, these being some of the most well-known to perform at festivals:
Podism: used quick and shifting movement of feet to train for hand-to-hand combat.
Xiphism: a mock battle; groups of boys would practice fighting in a dancelike fashion.
Homos: practiced high leaps and vaulting to leap over high logs, boulders, as well as scale walls and fortresses.
Tetracomos: stately group formations with shields used in formation for protection.
A military dance, supposed to be the Corybantum. From a Greek bas-relief in the Vatican Museum.
3. Theatric Dancing
In ancient Greek plays, there was a chorus composed of singers and dancers, who formed part of the drama, which included the recitation of poetic composition - part of the script of the play - and included gesticulative and mimetic action, as well as dancing and singing by the chorus. The chorus was a critical part of a Greek play, and as such, the ongoing story was arranged according to the rhythmic patterns of iambic verse.
4. Partly Social Partly Religious Dancing
Social dances were numerous and local. The most well-known are the hymeneal and the chain dance (also known as the geronos dance). Men and women did not mix during dance except for the chain dance - in which boys and girls would dance together. The dance reenacts the story of Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos and future wife of Dionysus, aiding Theseus to escape the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur.
Choral dancing is a part of choreia, a practice of choral dancing and singing in public spaces. Plato states that this was mainly a collective act of worship by the community, concerned with reinforcing the religious creed, educating citizens, and therefore, bringing order to society. The use of choreia had many other occasions in which to perform, such as marriages, funerals, female transition rites, and sporting victories. The chorus would then dance and sing prayers addressed to the gods.
Greek terra cotta dancing girl, about 350 B.C. (British Museum.)
5. Mimetic Dancing
Mimesis means "to imitate," or "to represent." In Ancient Greece, mimesis was an idea that governed the creation of works of art in correspondence to the physical world understood as a model for beauty, truth, and goodness. As such, these types of dances usually represent, critique, or make fun of an event, person, or idea.
The dominant aspect of this dance is to express the efficiency and plasticity of the human body (particularly using the upper torso) while the hands and the wrists reenact dramatic, tragic, and lyric motifs. These dancers can reenact both tragedy and comedy.
This is both a dance and a form of satirical mimodrama. The performers parodied the politics, philosophies, and drama of the day. It has been said they particularly caterers to the taste of the common people with their vulgarity and sensationalism.
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