L.C. Elson, Curiosities of Music: The Public Games of Greece

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Chapter VII. The Dances of Ancient Greece

The dances of Greece were of considerable variety, and seem to have been both refined and coarse in their character. The earliest were probable merely military manœuvres, which were performed to songs, or to accompaniment of flute or kithara: or festival dances at the Bacchanalian or Dionysian revels. The chief dances may be classed as the Pyrrhic, the Cordax, and the Emmeleia.

The chorus itself, in very early times, was, in some parts of Greece only used to heighten the effect of a solo song, by its pantomimic dancing.

In Crete, youths and maidens joined hands and danced in a circle; in the centre of such a circle sat the musician, who sang to the accompaniment of a kithara, while the chorus expressed by their actions, not by singing, the various emotions which he chanted.

The Pyrrhic, or war dance, was the pride of all Greece, and all young men studied it.

In Sparta there was a law that all parents should send their sons, above the age of five years, to the public place, to have them instructed in the armed dance; on these occasions they were led by the teachers who made them sing hymns, etc., as they danced. The Pyrrhic was in fact, a mock battle, in four parts, representing the pursuit, overtaking, combat, and capture of the enemy, and was used as drill, to make young men proficient in the use of their weapons; it was accompanied by flute, which instrument was the one which the Greeks thought aroused the energies most.

The origin of the Pyrrhic is given as follows,—When Zeus, (Jupiter) was born, his father Kronos, (Saturn) knowing that he should be dethroned by him sought his life; he was hidden by the Corybantes, who on Kronos’ coming near, fearing that the child would be discovered by its crying, began to dance about, and clashed their swords and shields, thus drowning its voice and saving its life.

Dancing was equal, and often combined, with singing, and was held in the highest estimation by the upper classes, and even the philosophers of ancient Greece; though of course only in its higher branches, the lower being usually abandoned to paid performers, as we to-day draw a wide distinction between a fashionable ball-room dance, and a ballet, though both are called dancing.

Skill in dancing, was a most envied accomplishment, for it meant both grace, and the talent of expressing all emotions without words.

Lucian1 says the real art of the dance is to express an action, and gives a long list of mythological and historical deeds which were suited to representation. “The dancer” he says “must understand history, mythology, rhetoric,” etc.

One person performed the whole dance, no matter how many characters were included in the action, and therefore he had to change his dress sometimes with much rapidity. The Proteus of the fables, is imagined to have been only a dancer skilled in sudden changes.

The philosophers not only praised, but practised the art. Plato led a chorus of dancing boys; and considered those to be rough, uncouth churls who disliked so pleasant a gift of the gods.2

Alcibiades danced in public, arrayed in great splendor. Sophocles was a celebrated dancer, and leader of dancing; while yet a boy, after the Greek victory at Salamis, he is said to have danced (according to some, naked) before the trophies.

Socrates often entertained his guests with dancing, and studied it himself at an advanced age.3

Exact information respecting the dance is lacking, some commentators deeming it to have been very like our modern ballet, others maintaining that there was a vast difference; Czerwinski and Wieland hold the former opinion, and to all appearance justly. Some erudite writers have endeavored to give the most circumstantial accounts of the ancient manner of dancing.

Meibomius, one of the earliest writers on this subject, endeavored to dance an ancient Greek dance to an ancient Greek tune, before the court of Sweden, and Scaliger in the sixteenth century danced the Pyrrhic dance fully armed, before the Emperor Maximilian;4 both assumed far too much knowledge in the matter.

There were undoubtedly numerous dancing schools, and possibly also some set figures prescribed in certain dances, but these figures had no names attached to them, and cannot be determined with certainty. The time was marked as in chorus, by a leader, tapping on the floor with heavy iron shoes. There are indications that a dance similar to the Virginia reel, and other contra dances were known to them; also a dance which resembled the game of “follow-my-leader,” where all imitated the postures and gestures of a leader.

Many variations were allowed; Cleisthenes having promised the hand of his daughter to the most successful dancer among her lovers, Hippoclides, of Athens, tried an innovation on the usual style; having danced the Emmeleia, or tragic dance successfully, he ordered the attendants to bring him a table, upon which he sprang, and standing on his head gesticulated with his legs. Cleisthenes indignant at this new departure, exclaimed “Oh son of Tisander you have undanced your marriage;” Cleisthenes caring more for his skill than for his marriage, replied “that is perfectly immaterial to me.”

The Emmeleia, was the stately dance belonging to tragedy, and was the one most practised by the poets of that time, as they were often obliged to teach it to the chorus, thus adding the business of dancing master, to their already numerous duties.

The Sicinis was a dance of demi-gods, and was suited to the immense figure of the heroes of tragedy, already described. There was also a dance representing Theseus wandering about in the labyrinth, the figures of which must have been very twisted and irregular.

There was a species of dancing at banquets and revels, by paid female performers, at which the shape and form of the dancer were as lavishly displayed as in the modern ballet.5

The Cordax, or comic dance was throughout vulgar and unseemly, and no Athenian could dance it unmasked, without bringing down upon himself the reproach of the greatest impudence and immodesty. It was so outrageous that the comic poets often tried to do without it. Aristophanes, in “The Clouds” prides himself that he does not use it in that comedy. The cordax was a dance wherein the utmost vulgarity was not only allowed but demanded.6

Lucian in his treatise “de Saltatione” intimates the existence of various other dances which in his day had fallen into desuetude, as the dance of the Cranes; also the Phrygian dance, which was only to be danced when the performers were drunk, and jumped about, with uncouth irregular leaps to the music of the flute.

Lucian also gives a specimen of the raillery of the people, when the dancer was not suited to the part; when a small person undertook to act Hector, they would call out, “we want Hector, not Astyanax.” To a fat dancer, on making a leap they called “be careful, you’ll break the stage;” and to a lean, sickly looking dancer they cried “go home, and nurse yourself, never mind dancing.” Such little remarks are not unsuited to the gamins of the New York or London theatres.

We have dwelt rather long upon Greek Music, Theatre Chorus, and Dancing, but the subject has more than usual interest, as in the Greek art, of all descriptions, we find the seeds from whence has sprung our own.

This is a part of a book Curiosities of Music: A Collection of Facts not generally known, regarding the Music of Ancient and Savage Nations (1880) by Louis Charles Elson, in public domain.
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The section covers pages 39-113, originally footnotes were not numbered.
Originally, chapter numbers also include "VII." twice.

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