The Traditional Greek Folk Dances and their Ancient Roots

San Joaquin Delta College Hellenic Dancers doing the Greek Syrtos dance at the school's new campus dedication in 1977.  They wear the traditional Greek folk dance costume.  A musician is playing a Thracian gaida in the center of the circle.  Used by permission.

San Joaquin Delta College Hellenic Dancers doing the Greek Syrtos dance at the school's new campus dedication in 1977. They wear the traditional Greek folk dance costume. A musician is playing a Thracian gaida in the center of the circle, leading the dance. Used with permission.

When I originally wrote my paper on “The Genesis of the Round Dance,” I included a short section on the ancient Greek dance forms:

The ancient choruses, dances, and songs of the dithyramb of Greece displayed the familiar pattern of a dignified, circular dance around the altar of Dionysus in the theater’s orchestra. In fact, the term orchestra originally meant the circular dancing place of the theater. In addition, the terms carole and chorus, also originally Greek, meant a sacred ring dance, men and women holding each others hands [other related English words are chorale, choir, and choreography]. LDS scholar, Dr. Hugh Nibley, reminds us that the creation was often acted out in these Greek dance dramas:

The Greek play has a chorus. Well what does chorus mean? It’s a ring dance; it’s a circle. Same as our word curve; Latin: curvus; going around. The chorus sings, and the chorus of the muses sings the poiema, the creation song . . . When they sing together, it’s the poiema, the song of the creation. It’s a glorious thing. It’s a round dance like the Egyptian maypole.

Nibley takes it one step further to explain that all the arts originated from the ancient temple dramas. “So poetry, music, and dance,” he tells us, “go out to the world from the temple-called by the Greeks the Mouseion, the shrine of the Muses.” Again he states that, “All the arts and sciences began at the temple. Dance, music, architecture, sculpture, drama, and so forth-they all go back to the temple.” Kraus supports this claim of a ritualistic connection between the arts when he informs us that Native American ceremonies and sacred dances are “part of an elaborate drama which embraces all the arts.”1

The more one learns about the arts, the more one is convinced of Nibley’s stunning summation.

I want to expand a bit more on the traditional Greek dance forms, and share some more interesting details I’ve learned about these ancient practices that still are continued today. 

Form

One of the most ancient literary references to dance in the Greek tradition is found in Homer’s The Iliad.  In book 18, the circular Shield of Achilles is described, with dancing youths making up one of the rings:

Hereon there danced youths and maidens whom all would woo, with their hands on one another’s wrists. The maidens wore robes of light linen, and the youths well woven shirts that were slightly oiled. The girls were crowned with garlands, while the young men had daggers of gold that hung by silver baldrics; sometimes they would dance deftly in a ring with merry twinkling feet, as it were a potter sitting at his work and making trial of his wheel to see whether it will run, and sometimes they would go all in line with one another, and much people was gathered joyously about the green. There was a bard also to sing to them and play his lyre, while two tumblers went about performing in the midst of them when the man struck up with his tune. 2

This same dance form has lived on in Greek literature, art, and tradition for centuries, changing little along the way.  There is a multitude of artifacts that represent the Greek dance, which tells us some of the story of how it was danced anciently.  The Greeks claim the form is the same today.  John Pappas of GreekFolkMusicandDance.com informs us:

Invariably, the dancers are in a circle or line, often with a musician or musicians in the center. The dancers are joined with the same common handholds still used in our Greek folk dances today. These include the shoulder hold, the chain hold, and the most common joining of hands (shoulder height with elbows down, like a ‘W’).3

The Greeks don’t believe they invented this dance, but that it came from a divine source:

Ancient Greeks believed that dancing was invented by the Gods and therefore they had associated it with their religious and worshiping ceremonies. They believed that the Gods offered this gift to some select mortals only, who in turn taught dancing to their fellow-men.4

Not only did the Gods reveal the dance, but it was an evolution of something else:

The ancient Greeks believed that dancing was a gift from the gods, and the art of the dance evolved from ritualized movements used in religious ceremonies.5

These dances also included singing, which was antiphonal, meaning that a leader sang a statement, and another group responded or repeated the statement, which is where our modern verse and chorus originated.  Athan Karras writes:

Today the folk songs of the countryside still reflect antiphonal singing in their dances, especially in processional dances, when a leader will sing a verse, which the chorus repeats. The early church music also used chanters answering antiphonally with one another, evolving into today’s choir. It is believed that in the earliest temples, the congregation danced and sang the liturgy. From this evolved the chorus leader and later, the priest. These early choruses or, Omadikoi Horoi, evolved by having the closed circle break open to allow for a leader. In her book on the ancient Greek dance, Lillian Lawler speaks about the circle, a sense of incorporating giving, receiving and excluding: “Circle dances and especially those with clasped hands have a mystical significance among ancient people, often performed around an altar, tree or a pillar or some sacred object, or even a musician. . . At times the circle dance seems to have been an invocation dance, as can be seen in ancient Minoan coins, or frescoes in the Minos palace in Knossos.”6

One of the most well-known of the ritualistic uses of the dance is in the Greek Orthodox wedding ceremony.  First, the couple are crowned with flowered crowns, then the priest joins their right hands together, and later the bride, groom, and priest perform a dance procession around the altar, circling precisely three times7.

There are many other uses of the Greek dances, used on occasions of “rites of passage” in life.

Greek dancing in Foustanelles costume (men) and Florina costume (ladies). 1970s. Used by permission.

Greek dancing in Foustanelles costume (men) and Florina costume (ladies). 1970s. Used with permission.

Costume

Women's Festive Costume.  "This is a festive costume made of a variety of materials and a wealth of jewelry. It is made up of a sleeveless cotton tunic with a multi colored embroidered hem, a silk jabot-trachilia, pure silk sleeves with lace. The white woolen coat known assigouna has black twisted silks at each seam and back. The headgear with coins and ornaments called beramia is covered with a white silk shawl called botia. The apron is of velvet with floral embroidery." (http://www.greekfolkdancers.com/costumes.htm)

"Women's Festive Costume... made of a variety of materials... sleeveless cotton tunic with a multi-colored embroidered hem, a silk jabot-trachilia, pure silk sleeves with lace... white woolen coat... The headgear with coins and ornaments... is covered with a white silk shawl... The apron is of velvet with floral embroidery." (http://www.greekfolkdancers.com/costumes.htm)

The Greek folk dance costume has a direct relationship to the liturgical garments of the Greek Orthodox Church:

Some of the characteristics of Greek folk costumes can be traced back to elements in ancient Hellenic and Byzantine costumes. In fact, many of the elements of the liturgical clothing worn today by the Greek Orthodox priests are related to the modern Greek folk costumes and have their origin in the clothing of the Byzantine Empire.8

Such details make a study of the Greek folk dance costume even more intriguing.

While the costumes from various locations in Greece all differ significantly in ornamental design and individual styles, all the costumes are made with similar parts and construction9.  I will focus particularly on the women’s costume.  The basic parts of this costume generally are:10

  • a long linen or cotton chemise or basic undergarment (Poukamiso)
  • a sleeveless wool vest (Segouni)
  • an apron (Bodia)
  • a sash or girdle (Zonari)
  • a scarf or head covering (Mandili)
  • shoes or foot coverings (Tsarouhia)
  • decorative jewelry

Many of these elements can be seen in the photographs of the Greek dancers above, and at the beginning of the article.  More examples of this costume and textiles can be seen at GreekFolkMusicandDance.com, GreekFolkDancers.com, and the Museum of Greek Folk Art.

Apron, 19th century Karagouna, Thessaly Athens, Museum of Greek Folk Art, Inv. No. 6633. The Karagounides were indigenous Greek inhabitants of the Thessaly plain. This particular apron is trapezoidal... Its surface is decorated all over with motifs including honeysuckle, spirals, arabesques and rosettes, and would appear to be a bridal apron judging from the lavish ornamentation.

"Greek Apron, 19th century Karagouna, Thessaly Athens, Museum of Greek Folk Art, Inv. No. 6633. The Karagounides were indigenous Greek inhabitants of the Thessaly plain. This particular apron is trapezoidal... Its surface is decorated all over with motifs including honeysuckle, spirals, arabesques and rosettes, and would appear to be a bridal apron judging from the lavish ornamentation." (Attika Guide of Museum of Greek Folk Art)

One of the more interesting accessories worn by the Greek dancers, and in daily wear, was and is an apron (called in Greek a podia or bodia).  This is one of the most ornamented and decorated articles of clothing worn by the Greeks and also one of the most important.

Their trapezoidal aprons of black wool were of great social significance… A woman would make about twenty-five for her dowry, each to be worn on a specific occasion.11

This apron was not for practical use, to protect clothing underneath as is common in modern Western culture, but rather it stood as a symbol:

The purpose of the ubiquitous apron of most European peasant costume, and particularly that of eastern Europe, is symbolically protective and not practical.  Varying in style with each village but normally heavily embroidered, intricately pleated or finely woven in striped patterning, it covered a dress or petticoat that almost always was deliberately left plain where the apron would be worn.  It is the antithesis of an apron worn to protect precious clothing.  Instead it protects the body.12

One of the primary associations of the apron was with marriage, a significant rite of passage:

This was the moment at which the bride, as well as taking a new hairstyle and headdress, changed the type of apron she had worn as a young girl to another that declared her status as a married woman… Women of the nomadic Sarakatsani, now living mainly in Greece, embroidered twenty to forty aprons (panoules) during their youth, each with different symbolism – such as the cross, the serpent, or the moon – that showed the woman’s social status or was thought suitable for various occasions and moods.  She would then choose each day the appropriate one to wear.13

The designs embroidered on the aprons have “religious and magical significance”14.

The apron and head scarf were important items in a girl’s dowry.  Her distinguishing traits of movement from girlhood to marriage did not derive so much from utility but as objects for protection and strengthening.  The apron (podia), is traditionally thrown over the stomach of Thracian women in labour to facilitate birth.15

The apron – the podia – of all Greek costume was imbued with magical properties.16

As can be seen in the links given above, the embroidery’s design on the Greek aprons is usually based on stylized vegetation, viz floral motifs, vines, leaves, etc17.  The reason for this is because these designs usually are a depiction of the Tree of Life.

When embroidered, both everyday and festive aprons featured mainly flower designs or symbols of fertility such as the pomegranate.18

The tree of life is one of the most common motifs in embroidery almost everywhere… almost every vaguely foliate shape and every pot of flowers is deemed to represent the tree of life.  Most in fact do. 19

Sheila Paine describes why the Tree of Life is so universal in embroidery:

The tree is one of the most potent of symbols.  Its roots delve into the underworld, its trunk links the earth to the heavens – it transcends all three spheres.  Its life-cycle unfurls before our eyes in each season of the year, the symbolism of birth, maturity, death and rebirth embodied in leaf, bud and fruit.  Its fruitfulness is matched by the fruitfulness of woman and even sap and milk were equated by primitive man.20

Many times the symbol of the Tree of Life is stylized:

It may be a simple linear pattern intended to signify a particular tree, such as a palm, or more often to convey the general concept of growth and fertility.  When the tree of life is depicted as an actual tree, it is stylized to convey its mythological significance.  Consequently foliate patterns or simple branched devices signify the tree of life, rather than a realistic tree with trunk and leafy branches.21

Sampler, England, 1826.  The tree of knowledge is a widely used motif in many embroideries of the 19th century. (Embroidered Textiles, Sheila Paine.)  Click for larger view.

Sampler, England, 1826. The tree of knowledge is a widely used motif in many English embroideries of the 19th century. (Embroidered Textiles, Sheila Paine.) Click for larger view.

The Tree of Knowledge, which bore the forbidden fruit, is also depicted on a number of embroideries:

The birth, life, death and regrowth of the tree symbolized in its fertility also the concept of immortality, an inestimable treasure.  In ancient Babylon such treasure was protected by a serpent and the concept of two trees, the one of immortality attained through the heavily guarded one of wisdom, formed part of mythological belief.  In biblical terms this is the tree of knowledge with the serpent that deprived Adam and Eve of paradise, and that became the central motif of a great number of nineteenth-century English samplers [a sampler is a piece of embroidery produced as a demonstration or test of skill in needlework].22

Some scholars believe that the fig leaves that Adam and Eve used to make their aprons in fact came from the same tree that they had just eaten the forbidden fruit from, i.e. the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:6–7).

Conclusion

Studying the traditional Greek folk dances reveals that they are very rich in history and culture, and date back anciently to religious beliefs and practices, particularly the ring dance around the altar.  The suggestion that these traditions seem to have changed little since ancient times gives us a glimpse of how things might have been millenia ago.

Clearly, there is much more can be learned from a study of this subject.  Do you have any additional insights about the Greek folk dances?  Please share with us in the comments.

Notes:
  1. http://www.templestudy.com/2008/02/01/the-genesis-of-the-round-dance-part-3/ []
  2. Homer, The Iliad, Book xviii, http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/iliad.18.xviii.html []
  3. http://greekfolkmusicanddance.com/folkdances.php []
  4. http://www.agnion.gr/english/excursion/cretannight.htm; See also McAlpine, Margaret. Working in Music and Dance. My future career. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Pub, 2006, 5.  Link. []
  5. Blumenfeld, Robert. Using the Stanislavsky System: A Practical Guide to Character Creation and Period Styles. New York: Limelight Editions, 2008, 83. Link. []
  6. Athan Karras, “Greek Dance: An Ancient Link — A Living Heritage,” http://www.helleniccomserve.com/greek_dance.html.  Wikipedia notes that the “peculiar mirror structure of the Hebrew psalms renders it probable that the antiphonal method originated in the services of the ancient Israelites” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antiphonally). []
  7. http://greekfolkmusicanddance.com/folkdances.php. See also http://www.templestudy.com/2008/07/09/asking-for-her-hand-in-marriage-tying-the-knot-and-handfasting/.  Here is a YouTube video of one such ceremony. []
  8. http://www.greekfolkmusicanddance.com/greekcostume.php []
  9. http://www.greekfolkmusicanddance.com/greekcostume.php []
  10. http://www.greekfolkmusicanddance.com/greekcostume.php []
  11. Paine, Sheila. Embroidered Textiles: A World Guide to Traditional Patterns. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008. []
  12. ibid. []
  13. ibid. []
  14. http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=164430, also Paine, Sheila. Embroidered Textiles: A World Guide to Traditional Patterns. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008. []
  15. Rowley, Sue. Craft and Contemporary Theory. St. Leonards, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1997, 68. Link. []
  16. Paine, Sheila. Embroidered Textiles: A World Guide to Traditional Patterns. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008. []
  17. ibid. []
  18. ibid. []
  19. ibid. []
  20. ibid. []
  21. ibid. []
  22. ibid. []

10 Comments

  1. Posted September 8, 2009 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Bryce:

    I don’t have any particular insights into the dances, but I want to verify that there are many astonishing correlations and parallels of Greek Orthodox practice with LDS practice. We need someone of the stature of Nibley (I know that is asking too much) to do a thorough analysis of these correlations and parallels. I am convinced there is a gold mine of findings yet to be discovered.

  2. Kevin Harris
    Posted September 9, 2009 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Most of my extensive knowledge of Greek customs and traditions comes from the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Now that I’ve read your article, I find it very interesting that in that film they do perform a circle dance with everyone holding hands during the wedding festivities.

    Another random thought: A circle dance is performed around a tree at the end of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

  3. Posted September 9, 2009 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    One more thing:

    With the Grinch cartoon the “Whos” dance around a tree in the beginning.
    http://www.trentredmann.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/grinch-stole-christmas2.jpg

    Then at the end when all is right and the Grinch is with them, they dance around a ball of light.
    http://farm1.static.flickr.com/138/323881155_07401a6ddb_m.jpg

    There is no explanation for this in the story.

  4. Posted September 9, 2009 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Good thought Kevin. It would be interesting to find out what Geisel’s (Dr. Seuss) inspiration for that was.

  5. Posted September 9, 2009 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Taking another look, the dancing around the tree doesn’t look like it was part of the original Dr. Seuss book, so Geisel might not have had a hand in it. The cartoon was an adaptation by Chuck Jones. Wikipedia notes, “One major addition to the narration is a description of the noise-making Whos on Christmas morning.”

  6. Posted September 9, 2009 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    Bryce,

    Looking for cross-cultural connections to the Greek tradition, we almost immediately happen upon the May Pole traditions of Western Europe. This is yet another ring dance with correlations to the Greek tradition and my thesis of the Polar Configuration. According to scholars, its cosmological overtones are indisputable. The fixation of a “center place” in the European traditional ring dances, connected by streamers to each participant as they weave in and out in opposite directions, is strongly reminiscent of the “mountain” imagery of scripture, also cosmological. It’s also connected to the traditional and cultural spiral stairway called “Jacob’s Ladder,” seen as the path to heaven, part of ascension tradition. The spiral stairways in our early temples, I affirm, echo that same tradition. It is closely related to the Hieros Gamos, Greek for “holy marriage,” or in our lexicon, “temple marriage,” where the participants huddle in a circle around the central couple. The Native American ring dances are yet another cultural variation on a cosmological theme common to almost every ancient culture, again invoking astral gods. I could go on, but I think this should be sufficient to make my point. And that is: The circular arrangement of sacred ritual and rite is universal, common to all ancient cultures. It’s not limited to this or that ancient tradition; it’s related to all ancient tradition. That Joseph Smith should reinstate this element within our sacred rites is further evidence of his authenticity as a prophet.

  7. Lee
    Posted September 10, 2009 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Bryce, This was loaded with significant correlations to the temple. One more example of how the temple was known everywhere but was lost in the mists of time and the traditions of men.

  8. D Thorpe
    Posted January 10, 2010 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    Dr. Huge Nibley wrote that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, believe that their temple mysteries, (ordinances), go way back into primitive history, and that they are as old as the human family. Furthermore, they represent “a primordial revealed religion that has passed through alternate phases of apostasy and restoration which have left the world littered with the fragments of the original structure…” Some fragments “are more and some less recognizable, but all badly damaged and out of proper context.” (Dr. Huge Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, an Egyptian Endowment, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1975), explanation p. xxi).

    With this in mind, what are we to also make of art works show Aztecs were doing?

    http://www.famsi.org/research/graz/borgia/img_page39.html
    http://www.famsi.org/research/graz/borgia/page39.jpg

    It’s also interesting to note that we can find these rituals in the art works, and traditions of later Indian tribes, such as those among the Mayans, Aztecs, and the Hopi Indians.

    Maria—Gabriele Wosien, 1974, Sacred Dance, Encounter with the Gods, (New York, New York: Thames and Hudson, 19 86), pp. 26—29, see also figure 34, and pp. 124—25, figure 73; E. Cecil McGavin, Mormonism and Masonry, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Stevens & Wallis, Inc., 1947), pp. 178, 180, & 182. Tedlock, Popol Vuh, p. 146; Churchward, The Signs and Symbols Of Primordial Man, p. 331, fig. 134, —A; Compton, By Study and Also By Faith, Vol. 1, chapter 24, The Handclasp and Embrace as Tokens of Recognition, pp. 636— 37, note 54, mentioning Frank Waters, The Book of the Hopi (New York: Viking Press, 1963), p. 252. Nibley, Mormonism and Early Christianity, see the chapter on Early Christian Prayer Circles.

    Joseph Campbell, Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers, color plate 4 between pp. 108 & 109. Krishna Dances with the Cowherdesses, India, 17th century. A couple consisting of a female and male, join with other couples in a circular dance holding each others hands.

    Krishna Chaitanya, Arts Of India, (Hauz Khas, New Delhi: Shakti Malik, Abhinav Publications, first published in India, 1987), fig. 58. Ras Lila, Krishna’s dance with the maidens is similar to the Aztec circular one. In both of these, they raise their hands up and touch each others’ hands in these circles. In the middle of these circles are three figures too. Terracotta, Bengal, 18th century A.D. carving in stone. See also plate XXXIX. Kalamkari temple wall-hanging depicting Ras Lila. And the circular dance.

  9. Paul Justham
    Posted July 18, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    And the dances of Orthodox Jews?

  10. Posted July 19, 2012 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    “And the dances of Orthodox Jews?”

    What of them?

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  1. [...] past about subjects that do not cease to fascinate me.  Today I was reminded of a post in 2009, The Traditional Greek Folk Dances and their Ancient Roots.  The Greek dances are some of the most ancient dances in the world, and have been passed down by [...]

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