Professional Dancers

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Professional Dancers

Defining Professionals.

The dividing line between the amateur and the professional dancer in ancient Greek society is not an easy one to draw. The first tragedian, Thespis, was not only a dancer but he also taught dance, and so did all the early tragic poets. Sophocles received instruction from Lamprus, a famous teacher of dance and music who was also well-known for his abstention from wine, which was unusual among the practitioners of mousike—music, dance, and poetry. Even the tragic poet Aeschylus, who did his own choreography, used the services of a dancing master. Yet even though choristers and dancing masters might be paid, they were considered non-professional. The fifty men who sang and danced the dithyrambs in Athens did not dance full-time, meaning they had other occupations that represented their primary work and so were not considered professional dancers. Dancers who entertained at banquets fell into a very different social category. Professional dancers and musicians were available for hire, and typically had a low social status. By the late sixth century b.c.e., contemporary literature tells of professional auletrides ("flute-girls"), except that their instrument was not the demure flute but a reed instrument which was the ancestor of the oboe. There were training schools for auletrides, but it was not their skill with the aulos that was their greatest attraction to audiences. They were also courtesans and prostitutes; by the fourth century b.c.e., the word auletris was almost a synonym for a cheap prostitute. Hiring dancers for entertainment at the lavish banquets given by wealthy hosts was a common occurrence in the Greco-Roman world. The Roman writer Pliny the Younger, who lived under the emperors Domitian (r. 81–96 c.e.) and Trajan (r. 98–117 c.e.), wrote to a friend, chiding him for failing to come to a banquet that Pliny had given, and listing the delights he had missed, among them dancing girls from Cadiz in Spain. Xenophon, Socrates' disciple, described a symposium that Socrates attended where the entertainment was provided by a troupe of dancers and musicians headed by a Syracusan dancing-master who hired them out. Both the musicians and dancers described in the accounts of Pliny and Xenophon were most likely slaves. Among the entertainments that they offered was a sword dance performed by a female acrobat, and a mime telling the myth of Dionysus and Ariadne, danced by a girl and a handsome boy. Both of these dancers would not only perform for their dance master, but would also share his bed. The life of professional dancers was harsh and, except for a lucky few, they were at the bottom of the social scale.

The Dionysiac Guilds.

Sometime very early in the third century b.c.e., the actors, dancers, and musicians in Athens formed a synodos ("guild"). It may not have been the first such association, for there is some reason to think that the earliest actors' guild was formed in Hellenistic Egypt, where it was imposed on the actors by the government. In any case, the Athenian guild was the first in mainland Greece, and it was soon followed by the Isthmian guild centered in Corinth, and by others, until there were six in all, including one for the Greek cities in southern Italy and Sicily. They engaged in an astonishing range of activities: they exchanged gifts and honors with cities and kings, they secured tax-exemptions and front row seats in the theater for their members, and organized festivals. Travel in the Hellenistic world was insecure, for the numerous poor had turned to robbery, and the roads were infested with highwaymen and the sea-lanes with pirates. Hence the guilds negotiated the right to asylia—the right of safe passage from city to city. The rights of the Athenian guild were recognized officially after 274 b.c.e. by the Amphictionic League, an inter-state organization based at Delphi which was the association closest to a "United Nations" that Hellenistic Greece knew. The Dionysiac troupes of professional artists moved from place to place, and even small towns built stone theaters. In addition to theaters, they built odeons—music halls with roofs so that a rainstorm need not interrupt a performance. Pericles built one in Athens during the fifth century b.c.e.; it was a square building with its roof supported by a forest of columns, but later odeons look like small theaters with roofs that must have been made of wood. Their interiors were too dark for productions of tragedy and comedy, but lamps could provide enough lighting for music and dance. The music hall at Pompeii in southern Italy, which was built just after 80 b.c.e., has the design of a small Roman theater, with a low, narrow stage, and the groove in the stage where the curtain wound down can still be seen.

The Popularity of the Dionysiac Artists.

The first century and a half after the death of Alexander the Great (323 b.c.e.–14 c.e.), the city of Rome had a large population of under-employed or unemployed, and Augustus knew how important it was to keep the mob happy. There is a story reported of Augustus which told that in 17 b.c.e., when some citizens were irritated at the strict morality laws which Augustus promulgated, he allowed the officials in charge of the festivals to spend three times the amount on them authorized by the treasury, and permitted the popular dancer Pylades to return to Rome, even though he earlier had been banished for sedition. He did chide Pylades for his noisy rivalry with the dancer Bathyllus, however, to which Pylades replied that if the people spent their time with dancers it was Augustus who gained. Pylades recognized the value of dance in diverting the attention of the mob from the failings of the government.


introduction: The Symposium by Xenophon describes a banquet attended by Socrates which took place just after the athletic festival of the Great Panathenaea of 421 b.c.e., which the wealthy Athenian Callias gave for his boyfriend and his father, to celebrate the boy's victory in the wrestling match. Xenophon wrote his Symposium some forty years after it was held, and so it is not likely that it is a completely accurate account, though he claims to have attended the banquet himself. However, his account is of the entertainment offered by a troupe of musicians and dancers belonging to an unnamed master from Syracuse in Sicily. The performers were probably slaves, and their master probably a pornoboskos, or pimp, who hired out the performers for entertainment and sexual favors when his customers demanded it.

When the tables had been taken away and the guests had poured a libation and sung a hymn, a man from Syracuse came in to provide some merry-making. He had with him a girl skilled at playing the pipes, and a dancing girl, one of those who could perform amazing acrobatic stunts, as well as a very handsome boy who was a gifted player of the kithara and a brilliant dancer. The Syracusan master of the troupe made money showing them off. Now the girl pipe-player played a piece to the guests, and the boy played his kithara and everyone agreed that both had given a satisfactory performance The conversation in the room then continues until Socrates points out that the dancing girl is ready to perform.

Thereupon the girl who played the pipes began to play a tune, and a boy who attended the dancer handed her hoops up to the number of twelve. The dancer took them and as she danced, she threw them spinning round into the air, making note of just how high she had to throw them so as to catch them in regular rhythm.

As Socrates watched the performance, he remarked that it showed that women were in no way inferior to men, and hence any of the banqueters who had wives should not hesitate to educate them. Socrates was asked immediately why, then, he did not practice what he preached on his own wife, Xanthippe, who was notoriously bad-tempered, and Socrates replied that horsemen practiced their skill on spirited horses, not on docile ones. Then the banqueters turned their attention back to the acrobatic dancer.

Next there was a hoop brought in and set in the middle of a circle of upright swords. Then the dancer turned somersaults over these swords into the hoop and then out in the opposite direction. The onlookers were worried that she might suffer some mishap, but she carried out this performance, boldly, suffering no harm.

source: Xenophon, Symposium. 2.1-11. Translated by James Allan Evans.


James N. Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998).

Brigitte LeGuen, Les Associations de Technites dionysiaques à l'époque hellénistique. Vol. I, Corpus documentaire; Vol. 2, Synthèse (Études d'Archéologie Classique, XI–XII) (Nancy, France: Association pour la Diffusion de la Recherche sur l'Antiquité, 2001).

G. M. Sifakis, "Organization of Festivals and the Dionysiac Guilds," Classical Quarterly 15 (1965): 206–214.

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Professional Dancers

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Professional Dancers