Dance in the Theater

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Dance in the Theater

Dionysian Festivals.

In Athens, there were three days of tragedies and satyr plays, and one day of comedy produced at the great festivals of the City Dionysia in March and the Lenaean Festival in January. In addition there were the festivals of Rural Dionysia, held in honor of Dionysus outside Athens in the towns and villages of the countryside each December. The rural festival in Piraeus, the port town of Athens, was particularly famous. The difference was, however, that whereas new plays were presented at the festivals in Athens, the Rural Dionysia festivals generally had older more familiar plays. Tragedy, comedy, and satyr plays each had its own dances. The main dance associated with tragedy was the emmeleia, a term which covered a number of dance patterns and postures. The dance of the satyr plays was the sikinnis, performed by men costumed as satyrs, with pointed ears, snub noses and the tails of goats or horses. The dance of comedy was the kordax, noted for its obscene gestures. The kordax was acceptable in the theater, but in everyday life no decent person danced it unless he was drunk. Evidence for these dances of the theater comes partly from careful study of the plays that have survived, from art and sculpture, and from references in literature, many of them scattered through writings belonging to the period of the Roman Empire, when the staple of the theater was the pantomime.

Tragedy and the Contribution of Aeschylus.

The tragic poet Aeschylus was a great innovator in drama production in the first half of the fifth century b.c.e. He was one of the first playwrights to produce his own material. He was also the first playwright to use two speaking actors, and when Sophocles introduced a third actor, he followed suit. He may not have been the first to use painted scenery, but his scene painter was the first to experiment with perspective. Moreover he took great care to work out appropriate dances for the chorus in his tragedies. Other tragic poets, it seems, used professional choreographers. Aeschylus did his own choreography, and did it so well that he was remembered as the first choreographer to train his dancers in schemata—the poses, postures, and gestures appropriate to the words and music that they sang. Though seven tragedies of Aeschylus have survived and the words that his choruses sang can be studied, little about the melodies or the dances that accompanied the words is known.


introduction: Athenaeus of Naucratis in Egypt, who lived at the end of the second century c.e., wrote a long, discursive work titled the Deipnosophistae or "Clever Men at Dinner." It pretends to recreate the table talk of a banquet where twenty-four learned men discourse on all manner of subjects. Cooking is a favorite topic, but the conversation includes some discussion of dancing. In fact, Athenaeus is a major source for our knowledge of ancient dance, for his reading was vast and he could quote authors who are now only names. Here he comments on Aeschylus' dance innovations in the production of tragedies in Athens of the early fifth century b.c.e. The mention of the Phrygians in the excerpt below refers to a tragedy of Aeschylus, now lost, which dealt with the myth of the Trojan War.

Aeschylus, too, besides inventing that magnificence and dignity of costume which the Hierophants and Torchbearers (of the Eleusinian Mysteries) emulate when they put on their vestments, also originated many dance-figures and assigned them to the members of his choruses. For Chameleon says that Aeschylus was the first to give poses to his choruses, employing no dance instructors, but working out for himself the figures of the dance, and in general taking upon himself the entire management of the piece. At any rate, it seems that he acted in his own plays. For Aristophanes, certainly (and among the comic poets one may find credible information about the tragedians) makes Aeschylus say of himself, "It was I who gave new dance designs to the choruses." And again: "I know about his Phrygians, for I was in the audience when they came to help Priam ransom his son who was dead. They made many gestures and poses, this way and that way and the other. …"

source: Athenaeus, Deipnosophists. Vol. 1. Trans. Charles Burton Gulick (London, England: Heinemann; New York: Putnam, 1927): 93–95. Text modified by James Allan Evans.


Writing in the fourth century b.c.e., the philosopher, musical theorist, and an alumnus of Aristotle's Lyceum Aristoxenus of Tarentum wrote that there were three important elements to choral lyric: poetry, song, and dancing. All three of these aspects shared a common rhythm, which meant that the meter a tragic poet used for the odes sung by the chorus should identify something about the dancing which accompanied the music and the poetry. For instance, if the poet used a marching rhythm for the entrance of the chorus into the orchestra of the theater, the chorus most likely marched in step; if he used a more lyrical measure, the chorus danced into the theater. There were tragedies, too, where the chorus was already in the theater when the action began, and in that case, presumably the fifteen choristers filed into the orchestra and took their positions quietly before the play started. By examining the meter of the poetry, scholars can make an educated guess as to whether the choreography was lively or sedate. If a kommos ("dirge") was sung, the chorus presumably made gestures of mourning, for the literal meaning of the word kommos is "beating," as in "beating the breast," which was a gesture of grief. By and large, however, the schemata, the poses of the dancers and the figures of the dance, is unknown. One aspect of dance that only survived in Greek art work was called the kheironomia—the art of gesture with the hands. Numerous vases and sculptures show dancers making common gestures such as the hand bent upwards—the hand is outstretched and the fingers are bent backwards, away from the palm. The hand itself could be held in many positions such as the palm down, palm turned towards the dancer's body, and hand before the dancer's face, and each position signified a different meaning. The Greeks and Romans both considered gesture a significant instrument of communication, one that orators, for instance, had to master, and hence it was also an important element of dance. Telestes, a dancer whom Aeschylus used, was so great a master of communicating with his arms and hands that he could dance the whole of Aeschylus' tragedy, Seven Against Thebes, making the meaning clear by his gestures and dance figures. Kheironomia can still be seen in Oriental dances, such as the ritual dances of Cambodia, but overall it has fallen out of the Western dance tradition.


introduction: Quintilian was a famous teacher of oratory in Rome of the first century c.e. who was appointed to a salaried professorship of rhetoric by the emperor Vespasian (69–79 c.e.). After he retired, he wrote a book on oratory, the Institutio Oratoria, which covered everything an orator should know, and among the topics was the proper use of gestures. Quintilian was discussing oratory, not dancing in the theater, but nonetheless the gestures that an orator used to communicate his meaning were, for the most part, the same gestures that a dancer in the theater might use, and hence Quintilian is an important witness to the science of kheironomia. The following quotation is an excerpt from a much longer passage on useful gestures for the orator.

The following short gestures are also employed: the hand may be slightly hollowed as it is when persons are making a vow, and then moved slightly to and fro, the shoulders swaying gently in unison: this is adapted to passages where we speak with restraint and almost with timidity. Wonder is best expressed as follows: the hand turns slightly upwards and the fingers are brought in to the palm, one after the other, beginning with the little finger; the hand is then opened and turned round by a reversal of this motion. There are various methods of expressing interrogation, but as a rule, we do so by a turn of the hand, the arrangement of the fingers being indifferent. If the tip of the first finger touches the middle of the right-hand edge of the thumbnail, the other fingers being relaxed, we shall have a elegant gesture well suited to express approval, to state facts and to mark off the points we are making. There is another similar gesture with three fingers folded which the Greeks nowadays use a great deal, now with the right hand and now with the left, to round off their arguments point by point. A rather gentle movement of the hand expresses a promise or assent, a swifter movement urges action and sometimes expresses commendation. There is also the well-known gesture if rapidly opening and closing the hand to press home what we are saying, but it is a common gesture rather than an artistic one.

source: Quintilian, "Delivery Gesture and Dress," in The Institutio Oratoria of Quintilian. Vol. IV. Trans. H. E. Butler (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1922): 297–299.

The Chorus Before Aeschylus.

Aeschylus put tragic dance on a new footing by inventing new schemata ("choreography") for the dance company, including the twists, kicks, and other poses that the dancers performed, but dance was an important part of tragedy before the fifth century b.c.e. as well. The dithyramb from which tragedy developed had choruses of fifty choristers, and presumably the tragedy with which Thespis won first prize at the City Dionysia of 534 b.c.e. had a chorus of that number. At some point the chorus was reduced to fifteen choristers; it was most likely reduced to twelve first and then later increased by three, although the reasons for this are unknown. Early poets such as Thespis, Pratinas, Cratinus, and Phrynichus were all dancing instructors as well as tragedians. By the first decades of the fifth century b.c.e. there was already a small corps of trained dancers available for theater productions—semi-professionals, but some of them immensely talented. There were both artistic and economic reasons for reducing the size of the tragic chorus. The choregus—the citizen who paid the costs of production—must have preferred a chorus of fifteen to one of fifty because it was less expensive, and the tragic poet preferred it because fifteen well-trained dancers could perform the complicated choreography which he arranged better than amateurs, no matter how talented they were. Before Aeschylus, dance appeared relatively undisciplined. This can be seen in Aristophanes' comedy, the Wasps, where the old man Philocleon gets drunk and performs the old dances of Thespis and Phrynichus. They are dances with leaps and whirls and high kicks. This is nothing prim and proper about them. Students of ancient dance have found this evidence troubling, for it seems to indicate that early tragedy, as it developed from the dithyramb, was accompanied by dances that were much less orderly and decorous than they were after Aeschylus' reforms. Scholars typically have not valued the evidence from Aristophanes' work, for he was a writer of comedies and therefore may have exaggerated the old-fashioned dances of early tragedy for comic effect. Yet there would be no point to Aristophanes' joke if the early tragedies before Aeschylus were not remembered for their lively dances, which were perhaps amateurish but very vigorous. Due to this supposition, polished, well-choreographed dances of Greek tragedy in the classical period do not precede Aeschylus.

The Dance of Comedy.

Comedy and satyr plays both have their origins in the revels that were danced and sung in honor of the Dionysus, the god of wine. The word "comedy" must be connected with the Greek word komos, meaning a "band of merry-makers"—revelers who sang and jested as they danced through the streets. Where and how comedy took form as a theatrical presentation is much disputed, but in Athens it became an official part of the City Dionysia in 486 b.c.e. and it soon developed its own conventions. What is known about "Old Comedy" is based largely on nine of the eleven surviving plays of Aristophanes which were produced during the Peloponnesian War (431–404 b.c.e.). His last two plays, produced after the war was over, belong to "Middle Comedy"—a term which was coined in the Hellenistic period after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 b.c.e. to label the transition between "Old Comedy" and the situation comedies of the "New Comedy," where the chorus provided interludes of dance and song between the acts, but played no role in the play itself. The size of the chorus grew smaller; at a performance in Delphi in 276 b.c.e. it was made up of just seven choristers, and a century later, a comedy performed on the island of Delos had only four.

The Structure of Old Comedy.

"Old Comedy" plays had a six-part structure. First there was the prologue where the protagonist outlined the plot, usually centered around an extravagant and impractical solution to some current problem. Next came the parodos, or entry of a chorus of 24 imaginatively costumed dancers. Then came the agon, the contest or debate, where the protagonist defended his brilliant solution against objections from opponents and always won. Then came the parabasis ("digression") where the chorus addressed the audience directly with song and dance, and vented the spleen of the comic poet against various prominent citizens. The song and dance of the parabasis contained one long sentence called the pnigos ("choker") because it was to be uttered all in one breath, and the actors whose breath control allowed them to perform it perfectly could expect numerous applauses. A number of farcical scenes followed, separated by song and dance performed by the chorus. Finally the merry exodus, a scene of rejoicing usually leading up to a banquet or wedding, was staged. The chorus exited dancing. A good example of the use of dance in comedy can be seen in the final scene of Aristophanes' Ecclesiazusae (The Women in the Assembly). Praxagora, the leader of a coup of women who promulgate a new constitution, witnesses her husband Blepyrus entering with a group of dancing girls, on his way to a banquet to celebrate the new constitution. The chorus leader orders the dancing girls to dance, and Blepyrus to lead off with a fine old Cretan-style jig, and chorus, dancing girls, and Blepyrus all exit to the beat of the music.

The Kordax.

In the parabasis of Aristophanes' Clouds, produced in 423 b.c.e., the leader of the chorus told the audience that this was a modest play: there would be no kordax dance in it. The label kordax did not refer to all the dances in comedy, but to a particular dance, which was performed solo—at least in the sense that the dancers performed it independently, not as members of a chorus line coordinating their movements. It was a suggestive dance, like the "bumps" and "grinds" of dancers in modern-day burlesque theater. The kordax-dancer rotated his buttocks and abdomen, sometimes bending forward at the hips. The dancer might also hop, as if his feet were tied together, or leap into the air, or simply wiggle suggestively. Leaps and whirls of all kinds were part of a kordax performance, and it was performed to the music of the aulos which must have had a timbre rather like the bagpipes. Proper people did not dance the kordax. The philosopher Plato thought it should be banned from the ideal state which he described in his Laws.

The Satyrs' Dances.

The dance that was characteristic of the satyr play was the sikinnis—a dance which was sometimes used in comedy as well. The originator of the satyr play was a dramatist named Pratinas of Phlius, who presented plays in Athens at the start of the fifth century b.c.e. It was a lively dance, with much horseplay, rapid movements, and expressive gestures, many of them obscene. Two satyr plays have survived, including one by Euripides that includes a sikinnis. Euripides' Cyclops is a burlesque of the tale of Odysseus in the cave of the Cyclops that is told in the Odyssey of Homer. In Cyclops, old Silenus comes on stage, and having introduced the play, summons the chorus of satyrs. He refers to their entrance as a sikinnis and so presumably they dance on stage. The satyrs have been captured by the Cyclops, Polyphemus, and made to tend his flocks, and when they enter, dancing, they drag on sheep and goats, though whether these animals are real or imaginary is impossible to judge. However, the chorus of satyrs in Cyclops only plays a secondary role, and the text gives little hint as to what the choreography was like. The role of Odysseus, however, has several solos accompanied by interpretative dance that gave splendid scope to the actor who played the role to display his talents.


E. K. Borthwick, "The Dances of Philocleon and the Sons of Carcinus in Aristophanes' Wasps," Classical Quarterly 18 (1968): 44–51.

J. F. Davidson, "The Circle and the Tragic Chorus," Greece and Rome 33 (1986): 38–46.

C. W. Dearden, The Stage of Aristophanes (London, England: Athlone Press, 1976).

Eleanor Dickey, "Satyr Play," in Encyclopedia of Greece and the Hellenic Tradition. Ed. Graham Speake (London, England: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000): 1495–1497.

B. Gredley, "Dance and Greek Drama," in Themes in Drama. Vol. III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981): 25–29.

Richard Green and Eric Handley, Images of the Greek Theatre (London, England: British Museum Press; Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995).

H. D. F. Kitto, "The Dance in Greek Tragedy," Journal of Hellenic Studies 75 (1955): 36–41.

Lillian B. Lawler, The Dance of the Ancient Greek Theatre (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1964).

Diana F. Sutton, The Greek Satyr Play (Meisenheim, Germany: Hain, 1980).

Oliver Taplin, Greek Tragedy in Action (London, England: Methuen; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).