By Alkis Raftis
Author & President of Greek Dances Theatre “Dora Stratou” in Athens
as well president of the INTERNATIONAL DANCE COUNCIL OF UNESCO
Tradition and folklore in Greek dance
In the study of cultural phenomena of various societies, past and present, dance is one of the most neglected areas. Greek scholars are by no means the only ones culpable since this is the case all over the world. Anthropological studies in Greece, such as psychology and sociology, are still in their infancy, while related disciplines such as history and folklore studies have an overtly philological bias. Thus it is hardly surprising that there are no studies on the social aspects of Greek dance, indeed this subject has not even been dealt with descriptively.
The scholarly study of dance is fraught with difficulties, not least the bourgeois attitude that dance and all things pertaining to it is a frivolous subject not meriting serious consideration. Dance has been opposed by the church, while successive governments have viewed it with hostile suspicion, fearing all forms of popular entertainment as potential sources of unrest. Dance was not respectable, it was for inebriates and mountebanks and only the advent of ballet rescued it from official disapproval, distinguishing it as an art. Vestiges of this attitude still prevail and dance is only acceptable when labeled as art, not as a means of popular expression.
Another obstacle which the researcher must overcome is the fact that dance is difficult to describe in words and even the notation systems – kinds of “movement shorthand” – are regarded as unsatisfactory by choreographers. Furthermore, as an expression of the body it must pass through the body in order to be fully understood. Visual impressions do not suffice. So the ethnographer must abandon his notebook and, literally and metaphorically, join in the dance, however shy or self-conscious he must make every effort to learn it.
Most prefer to hedge the issue altogether and conclude otherwise highly detailed accounts of a particular ceremony or custom with the stereotyped phrase “and then they dance”. Indeed, in the course of consulting some 500 books on Greek folklore it has emerged that on average one paragraph per book mentions dance. The same is true of the plethora of anthologies of “Songs of the Greek people” which say nothing about when, why and how they are sung and danced but simply treat them as if they were poems to be recited at school.
In recent years, however, there has been an encouraging trend abroad towards the holistic study of dance. That is, it is not only regarded as a creative expression, an art, but as a social phenomenon, the focus of study for diverse disciplines including choreology, which is to dance the equivalent of musicology to music. So, just as ethnomusicologists have begun to make inroads into the vast area of Greek music, the ethnochoreologists must study the wealth of Greek traditional dance. A multidisciplinary approach, involving historians, ethnologists, sociologists, psychologists and educationalists will not only help the dancer and choreographer, it will make a decisive contribution to a deeper understanding of Greek society also.
The term “traditional” is used so frequently, and often erroneously, that it should be defined here, at least with respect to dance. That component of culture which is bequeathed from one generation to the next is qualified as traditional. The term encompasses both the object and the manner of its use or production. For example, a house is traditional because it was built by the father as a home for himself, then his son and later his grandson. The blocks of flats built today are not traditional, not because they do not follow the old architectural style, but because they are built only for the occupier. He knows that his children will probably live in another house when they grow up, of a different style, in a different neighborhood, perhaps even in another country.
In the old days, the next generation did not only inherit a house from the one before, it also inherited the way of life associated with it, as well as the way it was built. The traditional house was built by traditional craftsmen who learnt their skills in a traditional manner and practiced them likewise. Therefore, if we build a house today of the same appearance as that of our grandparents, however closely it may resemble it morphologically it will not be traditional because it has been built by men who have not acquired their knowledge as technicians and artisans traditionally, but have learnt it in schools through a non-traditional process.
Though simplistic, this example illustrates the essence of the concept and as such is equally applicable to dance. True traditional dance is an inextricable part of traditional society and is transmitted down the generations as an organic part of its culture through the general process of acculturation. It is integral to that society, as opposed to intrusive, that is alien, temporary or current fashion. For example, before the War ballroom dances began to be danced in the villages; the waltz, tango and foxtrot. These dances have not, however, become traditional since not enough time has elapsed for them to be assimilated and transmitted to the next generation. They have been retained because they have persisted in the world outside the village, from where they were originally introduced.
During the last century the role of dance in traditional village life was completely functional. This is not the place to deal in detail with the major issue of the functional role of dance, except to say that in traditional society dance is at the very heart of social life, while, on the contrary, in urban industrialized society it is given marginal significance. Dance is always functional, it is always expressive of the society which dances it, but in modern society its function is partial or ancillary.
In pre-industrial societies monarchs, generals and high priests danced.
They danced not only at festivals, nuptials and in places of entertainment but also before battle, after the chase, inside the church, as part of their education and at every public ceremony. Dance was as essential as speech. Nowadays one can be a gifted orator yet never have danced a step. Dance still exists, but today, like so many things in our society, it is only of partial importance, we can just as easily do without it or replace it with something else.
The first problem to be faced by any student of traditional dance is the meaning of the word dance. What we mean by dance today is not necessarily the same as what was meant in traditional society. The word dance nowadays tends to have choreographic connotations, referring to the execution of the movements; in the last analysis it means “doing the steps”. “Learning the steps” is synonymous with “learning the particular dance”. This is the case with the professional dancer who learns a choreography, that is a series of more complex movements to be performed on stage and through which he will project his own personal interpretation. Thus dance is viewed as a purely psycho-kinetic phenomenon.
Conversely, the archetypal meaning of dance is far more comprehensive, being much closer to the meaning given by the ancient Greeks who made no distinction between dance, music and song. Movement, sound and word – all three rhythmical – were fused in the concept expressed by the word “orchesis” and when presented separately were merely partial aspects of a single reality. This still holds today in the Greek village, where the words of a song, its tune and the dance performed with it all comprise a single entity in man’s mind.
Over and above this tripartite internal structure there is a multi-faceted external correspondence. This type of dance, removed from its specific context, is meaningless, for it is not just the steps and movements executed by the dancer, it is his very body and costume, those who dance with him and those who sit around and watch. It is the music and the musicians, the song and the singer, the food and wine on the tables, those sitting and dozing, the keen-eyed old men, the mischievous children, the radiant faces filled with emotion, all these form part of the dance. Dance is everything which takes place before it and everything which happens once it is over. It is a stage on which the whole history of the village is enacted.
To single out the steps and present these as the dance is to depreciate it. And yet if one tries to read something about traditional dance all he will find is “books of footsteps” purporting to teach one how to dance by placing one foot this way and the other that. Needless to say, no-one learns to dance from such books and their only usefulness is to refresh one’s memory, often erroneously, of a dance one has already learnt.
Greek dance today has a split personality. On the one hand there are those who dance the dances they learnt in their villages at weddings and panigyria, who very often know no other dances and are not interested in learning. When these people dance the entire history of their village, as lived and experienced by them, passes through them. Wherever they may dance their village is resurrected around them. They are the last link in the chain of tradition.
On the other hand there are those dancers who have never lived in a village or who left as children, those who learnt the kalamatianos at school and the chasapiko at a party, and those who can just manage to dance a tango or jive under duress. There are also the young people who belong to dance troupes, who puff and pant while dancing the pentozáli kótsari have only seen Crete on the map and have only heard of the Pontics in jokes about them. These people dance folklore.
Folklore is the term used of traditional dance when performed out of its traditional social context. At first glance it looks just the same but in reality it is absolutely different. In its extreme form it becomes classical, “character” dance in ballet. In other instances it is performed by companies, amateur and professional, presented as a spectacle or even done for physical exercise.
The principal characteristic of folklore dance is that it is not transmitted in a traditional manner but by a “reproductive process” involving dance-masters, gym instructors, television shows and even record companies. When dance is learnt through these channels it ceases to be traditional, mainly because the factor of choice is implicated. The teacher and the television producer choose which dances they will show and how, whereas fifty years ago the father in the village only knew one dance, say the tsámiko and could only show this to his son.
There remains, however, the more difficult issue of the intermediate situation which is neither truly traditional nor totally folklore. The individual who dances the zeibékiko in the bouzouki-taverna – the modern version of the zeibékiko which is more like acrobatic disco dancing – neither belongs to the social strata expressed by this dance nor has ever had any contact with them. On the other hand he is not interested in creating art or spectacle, or even exercising as he dances. That is he has neither traditional dance education nor a folkloric one. Urban traditional dance, or popular dance as it is known, is a subject still awaiting sociological study.
In all the preceding remarks there are no implied value judgments. Traditional dance is neither deemed better than nor superior to folklore, popular, ballet or any other type of dance. Simply it is more rewarding to know what kind of dance we dance and, of course, to dance more often what suits us best. Greece is extremely fortunate in that local dances are still kept alive, and without state intervention, as is the case in other Balkan countries. In the rest of Europe dances are only preserved as folklore.
So great is the wealth of dances in Greece that it would be tragic if this dance heritage were allowed to disappear through lack of interest. Every day an old man dies, perhaps the last person to know an old dance which no-one has managed to film. And every day thousands of video cassettes record re-hashed spectacles shown on television and thousands of children are taught how to move their feet mechanically and meaninglessly, while at the very same moment the poetic movements of true traditional dance are disappearing forever.
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