The important role of Greek culture is mysterious but overwhelmed with eternal spirit. Modern life shaped its existence upon the nuances of art, architecture, government and sport dealing with ancient Greece. Traditional dance is hiding as an essential companion of many celebrations and festivals.
From religious festivals to intimate wedding occasions, dance intertwines with the joy of tradition. The meaning of dance took its power as the spontaneous response to music. Even the Native American culture discovers the meaning of ancient dance.
Crete is believed to be the cradle of the Greek dance. Within the Minoan civilisation and art, dance developed its special place. Helenic culture took its shape upon the existence of the Minoan civilisation.
The first performer of the dance was Pan, described exquisitely in the Greek tragedy Ajax by Sophocles. Pan represents the Greek mythology and sheperds while living in the mountains. Pan was absorbed by the power of music creating the musical instrument named syrinx, which is better known as panpipes. Knossos was the first place where the Gods performed their dances.
The most popular dances of the ancient Crete filled with amazing beaches were war dance or pyrrhic and sikinnis or satyr dance. The archeological discoveries near Knossos at Crete include seals and gold rings emphasizing the figures of dancing women. The Minoan palace in Knossos is the heritage of art depicting several female dancers in the clay. Being entitled as goddesses, dancing women enjoyed severe appreciation and religious status.
One of the earliest acknowledgments of the praise to dancing belongs to Homer’s Iliad. Circular dances around Achilles’ shield derive from Homer, these dances take resemblance to modern kalamatianos. Plato describes the dance entitled as pyrrhic belonging to warriors and developed in Sparta. Dance was an activity to keep the body up, the form of education and exercise.
Pretty popular in Sparta was ormos, a circular dance designed for men and women that eventually changed into today’s syrtos. Traditional dance in Greece is pretty cheerful, often used as a communal dance.
Greek Traditional Dances
Folk dances take reward to the ancient times and today we can count more than 4000 traditional dances existing in the country. Ancient times are still alive in the form of dance, its educational purpose is expressed on the highest level. Dance fills the gap for the personality to grow, the martial elements of dance were the most significant preparative force.
Each region of Greece finds different style of dance according to their mentality. Island dances bring the watery expression within while Epirot dances in the Northern and mountainous Greece are pretty slow requiring lots of balance. Peloponnese dances are described as very simple, macedonian dances on the other hand are slow suddenly changing the rhythm.
Kalamantianos is the most popular Greek dance, one that pulls roots to the Greek dances as such. This is the dance to learn as every Greek identifies himself/herself with this dance. Kalamantianos is the dance of social events that shaped the existence of the entire panorama of Greek dances. Similar dance influenced the Homer’s Iliad where folk dance experiences its triumph of joy.
Kalamantianos is underlined as the most simple dance where circular movements makes it alive just to be overwhelmed with pure joy. Circular line bursts the cheerful steps, usually one leg behind the other with the hands pressed on one another’s shoulders. Simple movements characterise this dance, which can be learned directly at the event. A warm welcome is sent for everyone to join while dancing this dance full of energy.
The evolvement of this dance happened further in the 19th century, taking the name „Syrtos o Peloponisios“. The modern name Kalamantianos is linked with the southern Greek town Kalamata, where it gained a new wave of popularity.
The fantastic occasion to join kalamantianos are the village feasts organized every summer and accompanied by the live music, food, drinks and almost infinite dance. Many of the Greek villages and islands are joining these celebrations.
This energetic dance keeps the focus of the beat, making it one of the most popular traditional dances in Greece. Different national events are the most common way to dance tsamiko, among which celebrating the Greek War of Independence is the most common. The name Tsamiko itself is used to emphasize Chams, a people from Epirus. Another name Klephtiko took its origin from the Klephts or people who fought the Ottomans during the Greek War of Independence in 1821. Tsamiko is a circular dance where men and women join but only men lead. Acrobatic skills are involved into dancing tsamiko, but women usually perform the simple steps. Creating the inner circle of women is the most common choice.
The costume used for this dance is named fustanella, which is a traditional Balkan folk dress used by guards.
Tsamiko enjoys particular popularity on the Peloponnese. Different versions of tsamiko recognize the slower rhythm in Epirus which is a historical region between Greece and Albania.
Pentozali is the national dance of island Crete, being pretty energetic and also known as the dance of the warriors. The name itself describes the way the dance goes. Pentozali is composed out of five steps as pento means five and zalos step in Cretan.
Pentozali describes Cretan people by their brave, heroic nature intertwined with the wild mountains of Crete. High jumping movements evolve as the continuous progression, making the dance very alive at the end. The dancers are holding one another unto shoulders, shaping the incomplete circle. Usually performed by men pentozali involves improvisation and traditional costume named vraka.
Instrumental music accompanies the pentozali dance to the tunes of Cretan lyra and laouto.
Hassapiko originates from Constantinopole having its roots in the Middle Ages as the traditional dance of the butchers. Its Greek name literally means „butcher’s dance“, having its background from the Byzantine times. Swords were used in its original form keeping the rhythm of the battle alive.
This circular dance is performed by placing the hands to one another’s shoulders with more complex steps than other dances. Hassapiko can be energetic or slow dance, even kneeling on one knee is included. Hassapiko creates the basis for one most famous Greek dances-sirtaki. Instrumental music involves the traditional Greek instrument named bouzuki which belongs to the lute family. Sometimes even santouri is used as the popular string instrument.
Ikariotikos is a traditional dance originating from the island of longevity Ikaria at the North of the Aegean Sea. The island of Icaria brings mythology to life as Icarus fell into the sea at this island. The traditional version of ikariotikos used to be slow, but with time it took a quicker rhythm. In the semi-circle three parts intertwines, evolving from the slow to the rapid movements.
Zeibekiko is a dance based on improvisation dating back to the Ottoman Empire of the 17th century. Zeybeks were irregular militia living in the city of Smyrna. It’s often nicknamed as the „Eagle dance“ the movement of birds take the shape commonly.
Zeibekiko is performed solo, usually by men who express their sadness and suffering in this way. Zeibekiko symbolises the inner journey, rather than dancing for the audience.
This is the dance of Dodecanese islands representing the intimate entertainment between couples, especially popular at the weddings. Enjoying the special popularity sousta covers different versions of every island. Sousta appreciates traditional role of marriage and romance emphasizing courtship and three-step movements.
Serra is a war dance of the Pontic Greeks which got name by the river Serra in the Trapezunda region of the modern Turkey. Pontian dances represent the colourful blend of the Greek and Persian cultures. The closed circle holds the exemption to the usual pattern of the Greek dances.
Arriving from the Black Sea, Serra is traditionally accompanied by a kemenche, a string instrument belonging to Greece and Turkey. Serra’s purpose was to prepare soldiers for the battle, so it’s usually performed by men.
One and only, Syrtaki is the dance that represents Greece. Zorba the Greek is the film from 1964. choreographed by Giorgios Provias that glorified syrtaki. Syrtaki wasn’t designed out of tradition but for the Hollywood. The book „Zorbas“ by Nikos Kazantzakis served as a basis for this famous film. Syrtaki is of newer date, developed essentially from hassapiko.
Syrtaki is a circular or linear dance where each dancer holds one another by the shoulders. The name syrtaki derives from the greek word syrtos which means „to lead the dance“. The dance officially got the name Syrtake by Jean Vassilis who promoted the film Zorba The Greek in France.
Syrtaki is often danced at tavernas of old Athens.
Every summer on the Mykonos island locals organize Syrtaki events where everyone can join. The fascinating vibe happens when thousands of people start to dance by the port of Mykonos in the traditional clothes. This mesmerizing tradition gained the World Record nowadays. Joining the Syrtaki event will let people absorb Greek culture in its deep sense.
Greek dances by regions
Traditional Greek dances are usually done in a circle where handkerchiefs or holding hands create the leading point. At the islands, the circle is created by the families. Instead of holding hands, the handkerchief was used in the ancient times.
6 mainland regions shape the amazing country of Greece: Epirus, Macedonia, Thessaly, Central Greece, Thrase and Peloponnesus. The Greek islands are defined by the following system: The Ionian islands between Greece and Italy, Cyclades at the central Aegean sea, North Aegean Islands close to the Turkey, the Dodecanese islands between Crete and Turkey, the Saronic Islands near Athens and Crete as the largest island.
Epirus is a mountainous region filled with picturesque villages at the North of Greece. Being close to Albania, once even belonged to Albania. Polyphonic singing and rich folk music characterise Epirus with the slow dances and sometimes heavy.
The main dances of Epirus are Kalamatianos, Tsamikos, Zagorisios, Koftos and Berati.
Macedonia is one of the largest greek regions with Thessaloniki as the main city. From 1913. it belongs to Greece. Some of the dances of Macedonia are: Leventikos, Beratis, Akritikos and Gaida.
Central Greece or Roumeli is most commonly known by the slow dances and clarinet as the main instrument, in the past even daouli and zourna. The most popular dances here are Tsamikos, Kalamatianos, Kleistos and Kangeli.
Slow dances without the instrumental music and much similarity to Epirus Thessaly is known by the dances like Sta Tria, Kalamatianos, Kleistos and Karagouna. Thessaly is the region that belongs to Greece from 1881.
Peloponnesus or Morea is the region full of history that set the freedom from the Ottoman Empire. It’s the oldest region of Greece, Violine, clarinet, lute and santouri accompany the popular dances here like Kalamatianos, Tsamikos and Tsakonikos.
Thrace is the region close to Turkey where energetic dances fill the air. The most popular are Zonaradikos, Baintouska, Mantilatos and Xisyrtos.
Learning how to dance
It’s not a rare opportunity while visiting Greece to stumble upon the different courses or lessons. Even if you would spontaneously ask locals, don’t miss this easy way to get to know Greek culture. Traditional dances play a significant role in the schools. Many cultural organizations in Greece and abroad will be happy to share their ancient wisdom. Many private dance schools will give you an enlightened perspective of Greece and more cheerful entertainment at any event, especially at the summer village festivals.
Greek festivals in America
Greek Americans are pretty active in maintaining their heritage alive and visible. Greek Orthodox Churches often organize various Greek Festivals in USA. One of the most popular is the Greek Orthodox Folk Dance & Choral Festival.
Pensacola Greek Festival also offers this opportunity even for people not active in the Orthodox Church. This is a way to share not only their heritage, but the passion for Greece.
Incredible influence of the ancient Greek dance to the modern lifestyle awakens the cheerfulness and social feelings. Like no other country Greek dance saves the face of antique spirit and expression of art.
The fascinating history of Greece gives folk tradition its authentic and comprehensive meaning. Spiritual nature of dance is linked with the ancient thought that dance belongs to Gods. Dance became the way to express the thoughts and feelings, not such the matter of entertainment. Dance in ancient Greece belonged to theatrical performance, specially considering the particular ones like Emmelia, Kordak and Sikkinida.
Philosophy was a way to describe dance, their traces left Plato, Plutarch, Xenophon and others. Dance shaped not only the today’s lifestyle but also the way of thinking, connecting with others and expressing the art. Dance became the unique way to describe life.