Byzantine dance

History

Greek Dance in Antiquity was originally held to have some kind of educational value, as evidenced in Plato's dialogues on this point in The Laws. However, as Greek culture gradually conquered Rome, dancing lost most of its educational value and was simply used as a method of entertainment, this coincided with the perception that being a dancer was not a particularly admirable job to have, and that its performers were generally of low social status.

The influence of Christianity too, in the Greek continuation of the Roman Empire in the east, sought to ban dance and condemned it for its pagan origins, however as The Church gradually began to realise that concessions had to be made to those vast number of Greeks who had converted from Paganism to Christianity, and began to render dance acceptable, thus the church fathers found ways to 'baptize' dance by refining and spiritualizing it, just as they had found ways to give a Christian interpretation to pre-Christian myths and symbols. These points highlight an overall principle concerning the History of Greek dancing, emphasizing the continuity between not only Classical and Byzantine times, but also the connection between Byzantine dance and modern Greek dance, following the adoption of many Byzantine traits and customs by the Ottomans.

Types of dance

The dances that won the approval of the church fathers were group dances, typically processions or circles in which men, separated from women, performed solemn decorous movements "in the fear of God". However, the information on dancing at this period is very scarce. Actually, since the Byzantine art is mainly ecclesiastical, the references to dance are rare. Some images from the byzantine and meta-byzantine dances have been saved on sculptures, miniatures, manuscripts but mainly church murals in between religious subjects.

In his book "Life and Culture of the Byzantines", Phaidon Koukoules has assembled all known references to dance in texts of that time. From his writings, we learn that there were women’s dances on Easter, nocturnal satirical dances in disguise on the Kalends, dances by itinerant bands of young men on the Roussalia. There were certainly dances at weddings, in taverns and in banquets. The wealthy invited professional harpists and youths and maidens to dance, being especially appreciated for their bodily agility and deft footwork. Dance spectacles staged in the theater in the accompaniment of flute and quitar are also mentioned.In Constantinople, important events were celebrated with large public dances. On the return of the victorious Byzantine army, for instance, the citizens thronged the streets, danced with the soldiers and shouted in jubilation. There are instances recorded of people dancing inside the church, on Easter and Christmas, after Patriarch Theophylactos had granted his permission. Other times they danced and sang extemporized songs, making fun of the emperor. The soldiers danced as part of their drill and danced after maneuvers for amusement. The charioteers danced in the Hippodrome when they won their races and, the sailors danced an unmanly dance, full of twists and turns, as if imitating the spirals of the labyrinth.

Though we have so few descriptions of Byzantine dances, we know that they were often 'intertwined'. The leader of the dance was called the "koryphaios" ("κορυφαίος") or "chorolektes" ("χορολέκτης") and it was he who began the song and made sure that the circle was maintained. Efstathios of Thessaloniki mentions a dance which commenced in a circle and ended with the dancers facing one another. When not dancing in a circle the dancers held their hands high or waved them to left and right. They held cymbals (very like the zilia of today) or a kerchief in their hands and their movements were emphasized by their long sleeves. As they danced, they sang, either set songs or extemporized ones, sometimes in unison, sometimes in refrain, repeating the verse sung by the lead dancer. The onlookers joined in, clapping the rhythm or singing. Professional singers, often the musicians themselves, composed lyrics to suit the occasion.

Popular Dances

Popular dances of this period were:

*Syrtos (Συρτός; literally "dragged dance")
*Geranos (Γερανός or Αγέρανος "circle dance")
*Mantilia (Μαντίλια or Μαντήλια "kerchiefs")
*Saximos (Σάξιμος)
*Pyrrichios (Πυρρίχιος or Πυρρίχη "war dance")
*Kordakas (Κόρδακας or Κόρδαξ "indecent dance")

Court dances

At the height of the Empire, Court life "passed in a sort of ballet", with precise ceremonies prescribed for every occasion, to show that "Imperial power could be exercised in harmony and order", and "the Empire could thus reflect the motion of the Universe as it was made by the Creator", according to the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, who wrote a "Book of Ceremonies" describing in enormous detail the annual round of the Court. Special forms of dress for many classes of people on particular occasions are set down; at the name-day dinner for the Emperor or Empress various groups of officials performed ceremonial "dances", one group wearing " a blue and white garment, with short sleeves, and gold bands, and rings on their ankles. In their hands they hold what are called "phengia". The second group do just the same, but wearing "a garment of green and red, split, with gold bands". These colours were the marks of the old chariot-racing factions, the four now merged to just the Blues and the Greens, and incorporated into the official hierarchy. As in the Versailles of Louis XIV, elaborate dress and court ritual probably were at least partly an attempt to smother and distract from political tensions. Runciman imagines that these dances by high officials must have been more like a restrained "stylized walk", but enamel plaques on a crown sent by the Emperor to Hungary in about 1050 (National Museum, Budapest) show women, unlikely to be lower-class, dancing with their hands over their head and one leg pulled back shaply behind them. They are waving long strips of fabric above their heads like skipping-ropes.

Instruments

Byzantine instruments included the:

*Guitar
*Single, double, or multiple flute
*Sistrum (Σείστρον "tambourine, instrument with bells")
*Timpani (Τυμπάνι "drum")
*Psaltirio (Ψαλτήρι(ο)ν "psalter")
*Lyre (Λύρα)
*Keras (Κέρας "horn (musical)")
*Kanonaki (Κανονάκι)

Sources

*Life and Culture of the Byzantines, "Phaidon Koukoules."
*Medieval Byzantine Dance in Sacred and Secular Places, "Archaelogia and Techne (March 2004)."
*Steven Runciman, Byzantine Style and Civilization, 1975, Penguin
*Efthalia Rentetzi, "L’iconografia della danza nell’arte bizantina" in “Venezia Arti e Storia. Studi in onore di Renato Polacco”, (Ateneo Veneto 2005), pp. 173-179.

See also

Greek dances


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