Folk Dances

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Folk Dances

Dances of Everyday Life.

"Anyone who cannot sing and dance in a chorus is uneducated," stated Plato in the Laws, which is a blunt reminder that dance was part of Greek education. Dances played a large role in everyday life. They belonged to folk tradition, and they often had a religious or semi-religious basis. Mourners danced at funerals. They can be seen on vase-paintings, in long rows with hands placed on top of their heads in a gesture of grief. There were also wedding dances. There was no wedding ceremony as there is in the Christian church, but after the families of the bride and groom had worked out the details of the marriage agreement, a chorus of young men and women escorted the bride and groom to the groom's house with dance and song. There were usually two choirs—one of men and the other of women—and since the dance was performed by torch-light, it presumably took place after nightfall. Dances marked the change of seasons, particularly spring with its flowers and the return of the birds, for the Greeks did not understand the migration of birds and their reappearance each spring must have seemed almost magical. There was a folk dance called the "Flowers," where the dancers divided into two groups, and as they performed, one group chanted, "Where are my roses? Where are my violets? Where is my lovely parsley?" and the other group replied, "Here are your roses. Here are your violets. Here is your lovely parsley." There were also folk dances like farandoles, where men and women danced together, hand in hand, forming a chain. A young man led the chain, performing dance movements suitable for a virile young male, and following him was a girl performing modest dance steps proper for a decent young woman. When banquets were given, there might be dancing entertainment, and already in the fifth century b.c.e. a well-to-do man who gave a banquet might hire professional dancers. In early Greece, however, dancing was still amateur, and it was the guests themselves who danced.

Folk Dancing in Sparta in Honor of Orthia.

In the fifth century b.c.e., Sparta was a militaristic state which valued prowess on the battlefield above all else. Compared to contemporary Athens, it was a smaller, less advanced community. Yet two centuries earlier, it was a center of dance and music, which attracted famous musicians and choreographers such as Alcman, Terpander, and Thaletas. Folk dances, however, were no concern of these professionals, and consequently we are ill-informed about them. For one type of folk dance, where the dancers wore masks, there is only archaeological evidence. About 700 b.c.e., a primitive temple was built in Sparta by the banks of the river Eurotas and dedicated to the goddess Orthia—or to Artemis Orthia, for by the classical period, Artemis had half-assimilated Orthia, though Orthia's ancient cult remained largely unchanged. A hundred years or so after the temple was built, it was destroyed by a flood of the river, which sealed the temple ruins under a thick layer of sand. The temple was rebuilt about 550 b.c.e. and then a second disaster, a raid by a barbarian tribe called the Heruls in 267 c.e., once again sealed in its remains below a layer of rubble. In the late third century c.e., after the sanctuary was restored, a small semi-circular theater was built to seat tourists who came to Sparta to witness Spartan youths being flogged, sometimes to death, which was part of the ritual of Orthia's cult. The result of these vicissitudes was that the votive offerings made to Orthia, and other remains having to do with the ceremonies at the sanctuary as well, got some protection from the depredations of time, and were preserved for archaeologists to discover in the twentieth century c.e. The finds show that there were ancient folk dances by masked dancers at the shrine of Orthia—ritual dances to begin with, but then evolving into simple folk dances as time erased the reasons for the rituals. Pipes for playing dance tunes, made of animal bones, were found, inscribed with dedications to Orthia, but the most distinctive feature of the deposits was a series of masks made of terracotta. They are reproductions of masks made of wood which were actually used in dances, but wood rots in the damp earth, and the Spartans preferred to dedicate masks made of more durable material. The dedications started at the end of the seventh century b.c.e., but the great bulk of them belong to the next century. The masks are fearsome things, which makes it likely that the dances performed in Orthia's sanctuary were originally apotropaic—that is, they were danced to drive away the malevolent unseen powers that send plague or crop failure. The masks must have become eventually like Halloween masks, which once upon a time protected against the spirits that prowled the earth on All Hallows Eve, but lost their ritual meaning as time went on. It is uncertain how long these dances continued in honor of Orthia, as ancient literary sources yield no information about them.

The Dance of Hippocleides.

Before dancing became professionalized, the performance of solo folk dances was an accomplishment of the well-bred young Greek, and a man who disgraced himself on the dance floor besmirched his character. Damon of Athens, a music teacher of the fifth century b.c.e. who counted Socrates among his pupils, asserted that song and dance arose from the movements of the soul: noble dances gave proof of noble souls and ignoble souls were reflected in vulgar dances. The historian Herodotus, who published his History about 425 b.c.e., relates a story which demonstrates how dance revealed an ignoble character of a man, and also illustrates the sort of dancing entertainment one might have found in the banquet halls of leading men in archaic Greece, when wine flowed freely and guests made merry. The story focused on Cleisthenes, tyrant in the early sixth century b.c.e. of Sicyon, Corinth's western neighbor. He desired to find a suitable husband for his daughter, Agariste, so he made a proclamation at the Olympic Games that any young man who thought himself worthy to be his son-in-law should come to Sicyon to enjoy his hospitality for a year and after he had observed all of them carefully he would choose one to be his daughter's husband. A small battalion of suitors arrived at Sicyon, and Cleisthenes watched them closely, noting their athletic ability and general decorum. The young aristocrat Hippocleides of Athens headed his preferred list. When the time came to announce the winner, Cleisthenes first entertained all the suitors at a banquet, and after the banquet was over, the suitors competed in mousike—song, dancing, and poetry—as well as public speaking. Hippocleides excelled, surpassing all the other suitors, and he would have won Agariste except that he got drunk. When it was his turn to dance, he ordered the pipe-player to play the emmeleia, a type of dance that choreographers used for Greek tragedy; but Cleisthenes lived before the age of tragedy, and the emmeleia was probably not a graceful or sophisticated dance during this period. Cleisthenes was not pleased by Hippocleides, but he said nothing. Then Hippocleides had a table brought in, stood on it, and performed a few Spartan jigs followed by Athenian ones. Jigs, much like emmeleia, were considered low-class dances at the time, yet Cleisthenes still said nothing. Then Hippocleides stood on his head and gestured with his legs, in mocking of an acrobatic dance, a sign of great disrespect, for it would have normally been performed by someone much below the station of Hippocleides. At this point Cleisthenes could contain himself no longer, exclaiming, "Hippocleides! You have danced away your bride!" Hippocleides replied, "What does Hippocleides care?" which did nothing to change Cleisthenes' estimate of his character. Much learned effort has gone into attempts to identify the dances that Hippocleides performed. The Spartan jig may have been something like the Gymnopaideia, which Spartan boys and men performed naked, in which case Hippocleides stripped to dance it. As for the Athenian dance that came next, it may have been the kordax, the dance associated with Old Comedy in Athens, with high kicks, somersaults, and twists. Hippocleides' retort to Cleisthenes, "What does Hippocleides care?" became a proverb, meaning "So what?", and the general verdict of Greece was that Hippocleides was a foolish young man whose drunken dance cost him a good marriage, although he was undoubtedly admired for his dedication to the dance.

The Folk Festivals Honoring Victorious Athletes.

Greek athletes who won victories in the great athletic contests of Greece—the Olympian, Pythian, Nemean, or Isthmian Games—received only wreaths to wear on their heads as prizes, but when they returned home, they could expect a great deal more. Sometimes a section of the circuit wall was temporarily demolished to allow them to enter the city without having to go through the city gates. They might receive meals at public expense in the town hall for the rest of their lives, which was a great honor. If they themselves were well-to-do or came from a prominent family, they could commission a poet to produce a victory ode. It could be a lucrative commission, particularly if the victors belonged to one of the great ruling families in Greek Sicily. The sound and spectacle of a public performance by a great poet is something that a modern reader of classical literature can capture only by relying on his imagination, for the music that accompanied it is largely lost and early Greek authors took dance for granted and only rarely mentioned it. Sometimes a note in passing by an ancient writer allows modern readers to conjure up a picture of what the spectacle must have been like in these folk festivals where the citizens of the victorious athlete's home-town gathered to celebrate his victory. Famous poets such as Pindar, Simonides, and Bacchylides appeared in theaters, magnificently costumed, playing a kithara, the ancestor of the guitar though it is usually translated as "lyre," and surrounded by dancers. The opening lines of the victory ode which Pindar wrote for Hieron of Aetna in Sicily, whose chariot was victorious in the chariot-race in the Pythian Games held at Delphi, gives an example of a typical poetic opening:

O lyre of gold, Apollo's prized possession, shared by the Muses with their violet crowns, you the dancers heed as they start the revelry; your notes direct the singers when to lead the dance whenever the quivering strings give forth the first notes of the prelude.

With these words, Pindar cued the dancers to begin as he swept his hand over the strings of his kithara and produced the opening notes of his ode. For the fee that a poet charged for a victory ode—in Pindar's case they were high—the poet not only wrote the poetry, he also choreographed the dance, trained the dancers, and wrote the music. Like all such poetry, it was written for a special occasion, to be presented before a specific audience. Pindar's victory ode for Hiero—called his First Pythian—was performed before a large, patriotic audience in Hiero's hometown of Aetna, and then performed again on other occasions, as long as the citizens of Aetna were willing to listen to praise of Hiero.


J. B. Carter, "Masks and Poetry in Early Sparta," in Early Greek Cult Practice. Eds. Robin Hägg, Nanno Marinatos, and G. C. Nordquist (Stockholm, Sweden: Svenska Institutet i Athens, 1988): 89–98.

Paul Cartledge, "The Mirage of Lykourgan Sparta: Some Reflections," in Spartan Reflections (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001): 169–184.

Guy Dickens, "The Terracotta Masks," in The Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia at Sparta. Excavated and described by members of the British School at Athens, 1906–1910. Ed. R. M. Dawkins (London, England: Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, 1929): 163–186.

Lillian B. Lawler, The Dance in Ancient Greece (London, England: Adam and Charles Black, 1964): 116–126.

William H. Race, Pindar (Boston: Twayne, 1986).

Albert Schachter, "Pindar," in Encyclopedia of Greece and the Hellenic Tradition. Ed. Graham Speake (London, England: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000): 1322–1323.