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Ancient Greece

This is an excerpt from History of Dance 2nd Edition With Web Resource by Gayle Kassing.

"The dance of the youths and maidens is distinctive. It is a ritual dance performed with great care, by dancers scrupulously dressed in their best garments. It is made up of a crisp, rapid, circular figure, followed by a movement of two lines in opposition to one another."

Homer, The Iliad

Glance at the Past

If you look at a map of the ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea, you can see that Crete is a stepping-stone between Egypt and Greece. So it was in ancient times, as each civilization borrowed from the others. Crete took slaves from Athens and in return endowed Greece with many cultural influences and legends. During the Bronze Age the Mycenaean civilization evolved on the Greek mainland, adjacent to the island of Crete. The Mycenaeans conquered Crete, making it a Greek province, and continued to borrow innovations from the Cretans. The Mycenaeans performed dances that were recorded by Homer in The Iliad and The Odyssey during the ninth century BCE.

Greece is surrounded on three sides by the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. A trading nation, its rise to power was influenced by its location - east of the Greek islands, southeast of Crete and Rhodes. The northern Greek border connects to both Europe and Asia.

History and Political Scene

Early Greeks were nomadic farmers, moving on after each harvest. Their communities were ruled first by elders, then by a city-state governmental structure. The city-states were divided geographically by mountains and plains and never united as a nation. Athens was the largest, with 20,000 people. Athens and its rival, Sparta, united when a superior force threatened them; together they conquered lands and enslaved people. Despite their lack of unity, the city-states shared religion, language, customs, literature, and the Olympic Games.

Major periods in Greek history include the Dark Ages (1100 - 750 BCE), when the nomadic Mycenaean society changed to one based on agriculture or the sea; the archaic period (750 - 500 BCE), when city-states emerged; the classical period (500 - 336 BCE), when political and cultural systems were at their height; and the Hellenistic period (336 - 146 BCE), when Alexander the Great became ruler of the Macedonians. Alexander conquered the Persian Empire and spread Hellenistic ideas and Greek culture and language around the Mediterranean. This period ended with the establishment of Roman supremacy.

Society and the Arts

After the Persian Wars in the fifth century BCE, Athens, though almost in ruins, was the richest of the city-states. When it was made the capital of Greece, it experienced a vast wave of immigration, and the arts flourished. This time is called the golden age of Greece, or the age of Pericles, after its visionary leader, who ruled for 30 years at the height of this culturally notable period.

The Greeks considered man a combination of mind and body. Greek art strove for a deliberately unrealistic form of ideal beauty; that is, artificially perfect. Like the Egyptians, the Greeks used artistic conventions because they were unable to depict perspective and foreshortening in figures. In their renderings the face is in profile, while the eyes and shoulders remain in a frontal view; the arms are in angular positions, while the legs and feet are in profile. The artist altered the figures to fit the space and did not indicate a floor line. Often large groups were reduced to two or three figures. Clothes, shoes, and sandals were not realistically copied (Lawler 1964a).

In the golden age of Greece, the visual arts emphasized form, proportion, balance, realism, and idealized bodies. Greek sculpture was three-dimensional, not bas-relief as in earlier Egyptian works. The Greek artists stressed achieving perfection and harmony in all aspects of their work.

Dancers and Personalities

The Greeks believed that man took delight in active movement. A person was considered educated if he could dance, and his moral code was defined by the dances he performed. Men and women in Greek society danced, though what they performed might not be considered dance today. It was an ordered form, integrated with music and poetry as part of rituals, religion, and social life. In his Histories, Herodotus provided examples of how dance reflected character, while Homer's Odyssey makes references to people dancing.

Dionysian Cults

Dionysus (or Bacchus), the god of fertility and wine, held great influence over the Greeks for several centuries. In Dionysian cults, women were known as maenads and men as satyrs. They demonstrated sacred madness - an altered state of having the god within you, called enthousiasmos. These crazed dancers performed wild dances, or oreibasia.

The maenads were named after mythological beings - crazed nymphs who believed in Dionysus. On winter nights, screaming maenads left their homes and danced, running through mountains and woods. They wore panther or fawn skins or cloaks made to resemble wings and carried staffs called thyrsi, topped with a pinecone or ivy or grape leaves. Some played flutes or a hand drum. They believed the god had entered their minds and bodies and controlled their actions. Satyrs, who wore goatskins and horned masks and had cloven hooves and tails, performed orgiastic dances. These wild activities evolved into a more civilized service to honor the god Dionysus, from which emerged the dithyramb, a hymn and circular dance that moved around the altar.

Professional Dancers

In Greek society, professional dancers were hired for funerals and feasts. These dancers were usually slaves, freemen, or foreigners (Sorell 1967). Acrobatic dancers performed nude. Professional entertainers and buffoons performed old animal dances as burlesques. During the fifth century the popularity and demands of theater created a strong distinction between amateur and professional dancers. In the fourth century, professional female dancers wearing helmets and shields and carrying spears performed graceful pyrrhic (warlike) dances. Later the dances were sometimes burlesqued and contained lewd gestures and movements (Lawler 1964a).

Ancient Greek Dance

Dance was widespread in Greece and performed for every occasion. Evidence of the variety of dances is found in many sources. Archaeological and epigraphical representations of dancing, dancers, and objects used by dancers include inscriptions and depictions on vases and jugs, statues, reliefs, jewelry, carved gems, sculpture, paintings on walls and pottery, and mosaic floors, among others (Lawler 1964a). Musical sources include songs that were written for dance and instrumental music that reveals tempo and mood. In literature, sources such as the Greek epics and the writings of historians, poets, Aristotle, and other philosophers include names of dances, such as "scattering the barley," "knocking at the door," and "the itch." Artifacts were the inspiration for early 20th-century choreographers who created dances based on Greek paintings and sculpture.

Greek dance ca. 400 BCE from a tomb painting.
Greek dance ca. 400 BCE from a tomb painting.

The Greek word orcheisthai, meaning "to dance," is broader than the English translation of the word. To the Greeks, dance was inseparable from music; music, poetry, and dance were all facets of what the Greeks called mousiké, or "the art of the Muses." Terpsichore means "join in the dance" and was the name of one of the nine Muses. Many Greeks believed that dance was divinely inspired (Lawler 1964a). In later ancient Greek times, the verb pyrrhichizein, which originally meant "to dance a pyrrhic dance," began to refer to dance in a general sense (Lawler 1964a).

Dance Designs

Dance was an integral part of religious festivals, entertainment, and theatrical performances. In social situations, everyone participated in dance. The dances were highly structured, using full-body movements that incorporated ritualistic, symbolic, or representative gestures, accompanied by music (vocal and instrumental). Often the dancers sang.

Plato classified movement in two ways: noble and ignoble. Noble described the movement of beautiful bodies, while ignoble meant distorted movement. Phorai and cheironomia are Greek terms that describe the carriage of the body during dance and mimetic gestures, respectively (Lawler 1964a). Movements included walking, running, leaping, skipping, hopping, and nonlocomotor actions such as twisting. Cheironomia encompassed symbolic gestures; for example, the hands stretching heavenward signified worship, and the arms bent over the head expressed grief and suffering.

The term schemata refers to the form and shape of gestures - short movement patterns that had significance, with a focus on how the dancer executed them (Lawler 1964a); it seems to relate to effort combined with shape. These visually memorable movement passages often ended in a pose.

was pure dance, in which the male dancer portrayed the essence of human character or an animal or natural element such as fire or wind. These dances ranged from the portrayal of mythological characters and animals to farcical skits, in Sparta (Lawler 1964a).

Dance Types and Movements

Ancient Greeks believed that a man's grace in dance equaled his prowess in battle (Lawler 1964a). Through dance, Greek citizens celebrated life-span and calendrical events such as thanksgiving, birth, marriage, supplication, and death. Sometimes they participated in cult and ritual dances. These religious activities later transformed into a theatrical art.

Armed Dances

An essential part of a young Greek man's education, training with weapons and performing war and victory dances was considered important for his health and development as a warrior. In Sparta, women had military training and performed some of the men's military dances to make themselves strong for childbearing. Spartan warriors performed mock battles to show their families what they were like. Greek armed dances can be traced to Crete (Lawler 1964a).

Military Dance Figures and Steps

Military dance figures included circles, diagonals, squares, and groups. The dancers demonstrated defensive and offensive movement sequences, accompanied by the flute. Movements included cutting, thrusting, dodging, stooping, springing, and pantomiming of the skills used in battle.

Weapon and War Dances

A pyrrhic dance, a form of weapon dance in which the dancers executed movements like those used in battle, was part of all Spartan boys' training, beginning at age 5. Youths wearing helmets and carrying shields and spears practiced these movements and postures to prepare themselves for military service. The pyrrhic was part of a larger ritual that prepared warriors for battle. Originally dedicated to Apollo, it began with hymns of praise for the god and included a magic dance to protect against sickness and death (Lawler 1964a).

Pyrrhic dances included these four types:

  • podism - Executing a quick series of movement shifts to train for hand-to-hand combat.
  • xiphism - Rehearsing movements in mock battle - like dances.
  • homos - Leaping, jumping, vaulting over large natural objects such as boulders, and scaling walls.
  • tetracomos - Marching in a tight formation with shields interlocked (which allowed large groups of soldiers to advance on the enemy like a human wall).

A victory dance called a geranos, or "crane dance," was danced in a line that twisted or snaked as if through a maze. The participants were joined by a rope or garland.

Dancers in competitions for pyrrhic dances were trained at the expense of a choragus, one who sponsored dancers in the theater. By the Greco-Roman period young boys had been joined by girls in the performance of pyrrhic dances. The dances changed formations from rectangles to wedge formations to oblique lines and wheels (Lawler 1964a).

Animal Dances

Stories in Greek religion and mythology are populated with divine birds, animals sacred to specific gods, fishtailed men (Tritons), woman-headed birds (Sirens), giants, gorgons, and other anthropomorphic beings. Some were worshipped as gods or reincarnations of gods. Beginning with the early Greeks, animal dances were a predominant theme, cited throughout Greek literature and history. Pig, boar, bear, lion, and fish dances honored deities by imitating their movements. Owl, raven, eagle, and hawk dances mimicked the actions of birds walking or in flight. Young men and women performed these dances wearing masks and costumes. More important to Greek rituals were bull and cow dances, which began as solemn rituals and evolved into entertainment. Sometimes they were incorporated into comedies.

Wedding Celebrations and Dances

After an early morning wedding ceremony and the banquet that followed, the bride and groom would lead a procession to their new home. The couple rode in a cart while their guests danced behind them, singing wedding songs. Accompanied by flutes and lyres, young men and women leaped, whirled, and stamped in movements reminiscent of agricultural fertility rituals. Often tumblers who had appeared at the banquet joined the dance.

In contrast to Athens, Sparta held a different perspective on life. Spartan women had more equality with their husbands and more freedom than Athenian women did. In a Spartan wedding dance, men and women danced the Caryatis (a dance of innocence believed to have been performed by Castor and Pollux) in circles and lines before the altar.

Funeral Dances

The priest led a funeral procession of family and friends to the tomb. Hired mourners performed processional dances in which they executed symbolic movement and gestures, such as twisting their hands, beating their chests or thighs, scratching their faces, and tearing their clothing. They spoke to the dead or chanted dirges (laments), accompanied by the flute. Family members could participate in the dance. The more mourners participating, the greater was the show of strength for the deceased.

Religious and Cult Dances

The purpose of priests, who could be male or female, young or old, was to facilitate communication between humans and the gods. Ancient worship included prayer and sacrifice; prophecy through oracles, dreams, and ecstasy was also important. Mycenaean choruses danced in sacred places to worship the gods. The king of Sparta's daughter, Helen (the future Helen of Troy), danced with maidens to honor Artemis.

Dance in Greek Theater

Dance had evolved from a religious ritual into a part of theatrical productions by the fifth century BCE. Most dance history sources are inconclusive; the information comes from accounts written centuries later or from vase paintings. Vase paintings capture poses from either a front or a side view, or both mixed into a single view; the Greeks were unable to create perspective. Although they are considered an important source, these paintings are difficult to interpret and reveal nothing about the quality of the movements.

Dionysian feasts that honored the earth, fertility, and vegetation were first held in temples, then moved outdoors into spaces that evolved into theaters. The dithyramb, a hymn sung and danced by a chorus and accompanied by the double flute, celebrated the spring festival of Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine. Myth says that Thespis, a priest of Dionysus who was a dancer and singer, created drama. Wearing his goat's mask, he added dialogue to the action, thus developing tragedy (from the Greek word tragodia, which is translated as "goat song"). Thespis won the first play competition, held in Athens at the Dionysian festival. Considered the first actor, he became known as the father of Greek theater (Lawler 1964a).

Until the development of the tragic play, the audience and the chorus were one. Later the focus changed from festival to spectacle. The dithyramb remained a dignified choral song and dance. For example, in the city of Dionysia, the dithyrambic chorus had 50 singers and dancers that represented the 10 different tribes of Athens. The choruses participated in contests in which they marched into the orchestra, sang and gestured as they circled the space several times, and then left.


Athenians were avid theatergoers. At a time when the city-state had a population of 30,000 people, its theater seated 15,000. Dionysian festivals included four days for tragedies and three days for comic plays. Theaters were built throughout Greece, most of them of wood. The most intact one is the Theater of Dionysus in Athens; although little is left of the original theater, it has been rebuilt.

The Greek theater evolved from a threshing field with a single post in the center, which served as the altar to Dionysus. Oxen walking around the post created a circular path around it. In the transformation to theater, the circular part became known as the orchestra, where the chorus performed and the dancing took place.

Over time, the circular theater changed to one with a skene (hut) - a background structure with three openings as exits. The skene later became the support for the various forms of machinery. A mekane (mechanical crane) attached to the skene lifted actors into the air. These flying machines supported actors who portrayed gods. Periakton (three-sided scenery pieces that were painted with different scenes and turned during the play) were used on each side of the stage to form entrances (wings) instead of using the proscenium.

Who's Who on the Program

In the early days of theater, playwright-poets set the dances for their own plays. In the seventh century BCE, Arion of Lesbos taught the chorus steps and gestures and rehearsed them. The chorus trained with care, striving to do well in the drama contest and honor the underlying religious meanings of their actions.

The choragus was a rich man who financed a play and trained the chorus. A volunteer who was designated 11 months before the performance, he held a prestigious position. He also acted as an assistant to the poet-playwright. Early in the rehearsal period, he hired a dance instructor and a leader of the chorus; later, he hired a flute player. Before the play was performed, the choragus and the playwright made a sacrifice to Dionysus so that the play would be successful. Afterward, they were given wreaths to acknowledge their exceptional performances.

The leader of the chorus (called coryphaeus) had several roles that required him to be a skilled dancer and musician. He assisted with rehearsals and arranged the chorus in formation. As the lead dancer, he cued the chorus to enter the stage and begin the dance. Onstage he tapped his feet to keep time. Sometimes he was given a short solo in the dithyramb.

The members of the chorus (called choreutae) were not considered professionals, nor were they as skilled as the coryphaeus. All male dancers, the choreutae were paid with food and costumes. Because women did not perform in the theater, young men played both male and female roles. The choreutae filed into the orchestra in a single line and circled it three or four times, performing, among other steps, multiple turns on half-toe and small or large successive leaps. By the fourth century BCE the chorus entered in a solid rectangular formation of either three rows of five people or five rows of three people. When the playwright Sophocles later expanded the chorus, they entered in rows in a square formation. The best dancers and singers were in the front row, with the leader in the middle. The second-best people were in the rear so that when they changed rows or wheeled around, they would be nearest the audience. By the second century, the chorus sang in tragedies but did not dance in them.

History Highlight

The origin of the word choreography is from the Greek words choros, which means "dance," and graphos, which means "writing."

Theatrical Dances

The emmelia (dance of tragedy) included either all the movement in a play or only that of the chorus. A serious, noble dance, it had religious origins.

In a play, the choreutae entered the theater in various ways, including

  • marching in, then performing an ode that alternated between song and dance;
  • arriving in silence, then singing a song;
  • moving in silence, then engaging in dialogue with the actor onstage;
  • walking in one by one; or
  • dashing onto the stage.

After the chorus entered, it remained onstage until the end of the play. With grace and dignity the choreutae maintained a steady march or running step. These dances were similar to those from Crete. The chorus executed steps that crossed dramatic genres from tragedy into comedy and satyr plays. Tragic dances were symbolic, such as the kommos, a powerful dirge in which dancers struck their breasts. The chorus exited the theater in a recessional.

In Greek comedies, actors spoke directly to the audience and the chorus consisted of fewer people than in tragedies. Light, quick movements, mime, buffoonery, and mock fights were important elements of the chorus' performance. The chorus danced and played games as part of an extended recessional from the theater. A lively dance called the kordax was performed in Greek comedies. By Roman times the kordax had evolved into a lewd, suggestive dance with hip rolls, explicit gestures, and interludes of comic burlesque.

In the festival program three tragedies were followed by a satyr play, in which a 12-member chorus was led by Silenus, a friend of Dionysus. Silenus wore a satyr (half man, half beast) costume. The chorus entered and danced in groups as interludes between the parts of the play. Sikinis were lewd dances performed only in satyr plays, in which the performers wore outlandish, sexually explicit costumes. The chorus entered into more horseplay, acrobatics, obscene gestures, and burlesque. Aristophanes, who wrote comic and satyr plays, added a separate dance section at the end of his plays that included grotesque dancing.

Performers' Unions

By the fourth century BCE the first union, the Artists of Dionysus, had formed for professional poets, actors, trainers, chorus members, and musicians. This was the first time that artists organized as a guild or trade union. The union specified that their members could travel unharmed through foreign or hostile states to give performances and were exempt from compulsory military service and taxes. The Artists toured classical plays around the Mediterranean area, thereby spreading Greek culture.


In the theater of Dionysus, a trumpet signaled the beginning of the play competition and a herald announced each tribe as it entered. A flute player walked with the choreutae, leading them single file into the orchestra. The dancers formed a circle around the altar and began to sing. During the dance the coryphaeus (chorus leader) and musician stood in the center of the circle or near the altar of Dionysus. The dancers marched around the altar, moving to the right on the choric ode, to the left on the antistrophe, and standing still on the epode (Lawler 1964b).

Costumes and Adornment

Dancers in the chorus wore costumes that were less elaborate than those of the actors, probably similar to everyday clothing. The choragus rented the chorus' costumes for the performance. Since chorus members frequently played women, they wore masks. Probably the dancers wore soft, low shoes. In the kordax, the dancers wore costumes with enhanced breasts and rears and leather phalluses. In satyr plays, the chorus members wore padded body suits, conspicuous phalluses, and grotesque masks.

Significant Dance Works and Literature

Information about ancient Greek dance is hidden throughout Greek drama and literature. Classical and theater history scholars have had to create composite pictures of what life-span, religious, and theatrical dances were like. Their work has been supported by the surviving literature from the time and archaeological evidence that verified what the ancients had written.

Tragedy, Comedy, and Satyr Plays

Three forms of Greek drama evolved. First came tragedy, then comedy and satyr plays. These plays were performed at the Festival of Dionysus. Major Greek playwrights considered dance an important part of their productions. Those whose works have survived include the following:

  • Aeschylus (ca. 525 - 456 BCE), who wrote tragedies and taught his choruses their dances;
  • Sophocles (ca. 495 - 406 BCE), who wrote tragedies but was also trained as a dancer and musician;
  • Euripides (ca. 484 or 480 - 406 BCE), known for comic plays and the numerous dances in his plays;
  • Aristophanes (ca. 450 - 388 BCE), who wrote comedies and satyr plays, of which only a few have survived. His plays had imaginative plots and used horseplay and slapstick comedy. His choruses represented humans, animals, allegorical beings, and even islands. They wore elaborate costumes and masks and performed lively dances (Lawler 1964b).

Tragedies were the most important of the plays performed. No more than three actors were in each play so they often played multiple roles. Actors used a series of symbolic gestures (cheironomia) to express emotion and struck poses to the accompaniment of songs. Their movements varied with each song and where it was recited or sung. The structural development of comedy was parallel to tragedy. Satyr plays were structurally similar to tragedies, but they were less dignified; they provided comic relief as parodies to the tragedies. Like the comic plays, they were noisy and lewd. Only two of the Greek satyr plays written by Aristophanes survive.

Significant Literature

Ancient Greek literary sources, such as the writings of philosophers Plato and Aristotle, the historian Plutarch, the geographer Strabo, and rhetoricians Lucian and Libanius, provide important insight into understanding Greek dance through different genres. Many of these writers listed the names of the dances, which were meant to be descriptive. Others recorded their impressions of how a dance was performed. From the fifth-century Greek playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides came a wealth of dramatic literature in which dance was an important component.

Among more recent literary sources is 20th-century classical scholar Lillian B. Lawler, who wrote two important works about the dances of ancient Greek life and theater. Using literary, musical, and visual artifacts and other sources, she discerned the important role that dance played in ancient Greece. Greek dance and arts have inspired or been underlying themes in various periods of history.

In the early part of the 20th century, a resurgent interest in Greek antiquity and its dance inspired performers such as Isadora Duncan. In her book The Revived Greek Dance, Ruby Ginner (1933) provides a guide to techniques for the study and performance of ancient Greek dance.

During the reign of Alexander the Great (336 - 323 BCE), Greece became recognized as the cultural center of the known world. In this Hellenistic period Greek civilization expanded both east and west. The Greeks brought their culture, architecture, mythology, institutions, and art to the Italian peninsula, which provided much of the foundation for the development of Roman dance.


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