In many parts of Europe the Church enforced a ban on dancing, or at least influenced people's attitudes towards it by creating a sense of guilt. In Greece, however, dance does not seem to have been suppressed, since neither the Orthodox Church nor the Ottoman authorities were inclined to be involved in such matters. So, even though available knowledge is limited, we may presume that dance continued to evolve uninterrupted, fulfilling the social needs of the Greek villagers. An analogy may be sought in the maintenance of the language: though the Greeks lived alongside other peoples under Ottoman rule they continued to speak Greek, and so it was with their dances which preserved their distinctiveness.
Many modern commentators find this phenomenon difficult to explain and take great pains to try and prove the continuity of the Greeks and their traditions throughout four centuries of subjugation. But this continuity is sufficiently resilient to survive not four hundred but four thousand years under such arduous conditions, for it is a mistake to regard the society which existed then through modern eyes. Today it is true that cultural manipulation of the population is a prime concern of the mass media in most countries, but in the Ottoman empire there was no prevailing policy of assimilation of its many and multifarious subject peoples. The rare cases of forced conversion to Islam or banning of ethnic activities were symbolic and repressive acts, not assimilative measures.
The dances of Ottoman-ruled Greece are described in the accounts of contemporary foreign travellers, many of whom stopped here en route for the Holy Land. Their impressions and observations, which were invariably published upon returning home, are usually imbued with an air of romanticism and a touch of the exotic. As far as Greece was concerned, comparison with the ancient Greeks was inevitable if not imperative and runs through virtually every paragraph. These testimonies should be treated with circumspection, since some travellers were not averse to drawing on their imagination to complete their accounts with things they did not actually see, while others had no scruples in copying the accounts of previous visitors. Those who did not speak Greek were apt to rely on the badly translated replies of the first person they chanced upon. Even so, the observations of these intrepid voyagers are an invaluable source of information about this period and will be referred to frequently in the following paragraphs. Most of the extracts are taken from K. Simopoulos' work "Foreign Travellers in Greece".
The French physician, Pierre Belon, wrote in 1547: "I was at the house of Antonio Borotso near Sfakia and saw the peasants of the area gathering at the festival, some with their wives, some with their sweethearts. First they drank and then they started to dance in the sultry heat of midday, not in the shade but out in the sun. It was July, the hottest month of the summer. And though in full panoply they danced non-stop until nightfall.
The villagers always wear a loose white chemise held by a broad belt with large buckle. Instead of shoes and stockings they wear waist-high boots. On their back they carry a fletch of 150 arrows arranged in order. The bow is slung on a thong over the shoulder.
Each strives to leap higher than the other and would be quite nimble if not encumbered by their heavy equipment. This dance brings to mind that of the ancient Curetes. As they dance they sing: sometimes in a circle, sometimes in a line, sometimes singing (we know from Aristotle that the Greeks always sing while dancing).
The women wear a kerchief, draped loosely around the head like a veil. The breasts are always bare. The shoulders also. Deeply sun-tanned, they wear no stockings. However, the Greek women in the towns are all shut away inside the house and never enter the street at night."
Not long afterwards, in 1599, the English traveller Sherley visited Candia (Herakleion) which was under Venetian rule at that time. He speaks of the burghers' hospitality and attentiveness, especially of the women who often offered dinner in their gardens, followed by singing and dancing. He was struck by the gaiety of these ladies who, every evening when their work was done, danced with their men folk out in the streets. This must have been an exclusively urban custom limited to just a few towns, since it was very rare for women to leave the seclusion of the house, particularly after dusk.
In 1605 the French diplomat Jean de Gontaut Biron called at Chios where he was impressed by the beauty, charming manners and freedom of the island women. The vice-consul Nikolaos Mazangis invited a band of musicians, playing bagpipes, shawms, flutes and drums, to entertain the foreign guests. Biron, like so many travellers, mentions in particular the Chiotes' love of music, dancing and merry-making.
"Nikolaos himself opened the dance along with his closest friends. All wore a sword (the sword is allowed in such circumstances even though the island is under Turkish domination). Each man took a woman and led her in a close, swirling, circular dance. The musicians, playing the lute and other instruments, kept up the same tune until the last member of the company stopped dancing, usually some two hours later."
Other travellers wrote also of the dances of the Greek islands. According to Grelot, 1670, there were three occasions in the life cycle marked by family celebrations: matrimony, the birth of a child and the death of the parents. The latter seems somewhat strange to us today, especially since such a ceremony is no longer encountered in Greek villages. However, there are even earlier testimonies of funerary wakes where the laments end in dances, not just in Greece but in other Balkan countries. Public dances were held four times a year in the village square and the Greeks in Constantinople danced in the large square behind the Seraglio of Mirrors at Eastertide.
The Jesuit missionary Sauger says in his description of the islands: "All the islanders, and especially the women, are fond of dancing. On the eve of every festival they come in groups to the church courtyard and dance. The aristocratic ladies rode on horseback, their arrival heralded by the accompanying bagpipes and drums. Missionaries tried to put a stop to these activities, but to no avail."
An English gentleman, Porter, was struck by the fact that whereas the Turks had no liking for either music or dance, the Greeks sang and danced all the time. He was particularly impressed by the Greek sailors who danced on ship and on land, either to music or without instruments. Chandler, who visited Greece a century later, witnessed a similar sailors' dance aboard a Hydriote ship: A sailor played the violin or lyra non-stop. This lyra was guitar-shaped but with three chords and shorter fret board. The captain, portly as he was, danced wonderfully, as did his son. You would have thought they were on dry land and not on board ship. Their movements on deck were so sure and skillful. They danced in a tiny space, just big enough for their feet. Most of the dances were in couples. The two dancers stepped forewards and backwards, stretching out their arms, clicking their fingers, changing places and twirling with agility. Some of the turns were comical, others were apt to become bawdy.
In his account of his travels in the mid-18th century, the French gentleman Guys devoted a whole chapter to Greek dances, supplemented with comments by Madame Chenier, a lady of Greek extraction. This book was to become essential reading for subsequent travellers to Greece who all refer to it without checking the accuracy of its information. According to Guys the principal dances are the Kritikós, Hellenikós, Arnaoutikos, Vlachikos and Pyrrhichios. These names were presumably of his own invention, indicative of his attempt at classifying those dances he had seen, since it is highly unlikely that the Greeks would have called one of their dances Hellenikós (literally Greek) and they certainly would not have known about the Pyrrhichios.
Guys' description of the Kritikós is very like a Syrtós, slow at first, gathering momentum as it proceeds. It is always led by a young girl holding a kerchief or silk ribbon and dancing intricate and varied figures. He claims that it is a re-enactment of Ariadne leading Theseus and his companions out of the Labyrinth. The Hellenikós is danced on the islands by two groups, of boys and of girls, who initially dance separately exactly the same steps and figures, and then join hands to pass under an arch formed by the arms of the first couple (this formation is seen today in the Kangelleftós dance from Hierissos). The first girl then leads the dance around her person and emerges from the couples, waving her kerchief.
In another version of this dance the dancers formed two circles, the inner of boys and the outer of girls. When the boys raised their arms the girls passed beneath and danced on the inside, then returned to the outside, without releasing their hand-hold. This formation is somewhat elaborate for Greek dance and is more reminiscent of French and Italian folk dances, both countries which were highly influential in the Aegean at that time. Of the Arnaoutikos or Arvanítikos (Albanian) Guys writes: "It is led by the chief dancer who holds a lash in his hand and a stick. He runs up and down the lines from end to end, inspiring them, indefatigable. Sometimes he stamps his foot on the ground, sometimes he cracks his whip. And the others dance, hand in hand, following him with uniform, controlled steps. "Madame Chenier adds that similar dances were danced by Greek butchers (kasap-oglan) in Constantinople, Pera and the Hippodrome. Some 200 to 300 butchers would participate, led by 15 "generals" and a chief. These men were tough, brawny Macedonians who had been granted special privileges by the Porte, such as the right to wear a turban, green garments and sport a large knife in their belt. As they danced they drank wine from pitchers, held by young boys and refilled by the women of the neighbourhood so that the virile company would dance in front of their houses.
The dancers held each other firmly around the waist and all danced exactly the same step as if a single body. Sometimes they progressed and sometimes they danced on the spot, as if swaying or staggering. The chief was opulently dressed with a tassel on his cap, the "generals" held knives, canes or whips and when the dance commenced each knelt down rhythmically before the chief who ordered him to convey his commands to the ranks. The "generals" then hastened back to their squads and initiated the dance by either stamping their foot or cracking their whip. The chief, his hands behind his back, skipped rhythmically through the ranks, inspecting the dancers who fell to their knees as he passed in front of them. There then followed a circular dance, executed by the chief and his "generals", rather like a council of war, after which the "generals" quickly returned to their positions. The dance livened in tempo and each squad moved forward determinedly, jumping quickly so that an exultant crescendo was achieved. Madame Chenier interprets this dance as echoing the crossing of the river Granicus by Alexander the Great and his mighty army. As the music resumes its original tune the dancers form two opposing columns, rush at one another as if engaged in battle and, intoxicated by the wine, excited by the music and dance, they often engaged in savage combat and twenty or so victims was a not uncommon toll, which was why the dance was eventually banned.
Another dance mentioned by Guys is the Vláchikos which was slow and demanded precision in executing the steps. The dancers, few in number, held each other at arm's length and the only movements were to stamp the feet on the ground, turning right when stamping the left foot and left when stamping the right, and clap hands. This was supposedly a Bacchic dance associated with the vintage and was quite unlike any other Greek dance.
Madame Chenier completes her remarks by describing yet another dance, the lonikós, danced by couples with linked arms. First the groom, holding a kerchief, proffers his right arm to the bride. She rests her left hand on the belt while the bridesmaid supports her forearm and they are followed by other couples, according to degree of kinship. They dance a few steps in the parlour and then stop, though the groom, bride and bridesmaid (paránymphi) continue their paces with great gusto. The bride has a demure demeanour as she dances her mincing, dainty steps, holding the groom's kerchief but not daring to look up at him directly. He is impatient to clasp her hand, dances in tempo but punctuates his steps by kneeling expressively before his bride. The paránymphi eventually retires from the scene and there ensues a vigorous and vivacious dance between the newly-wedded couple. According to Guys the Pyrrhíchios is a dance-duel between Turks or Thracians who leap nimbly and with astonishing alacrity and agility, brandishing knives and clutching shields, to the strains of a pipe. It is not danced by the subject Greeks and so can only be traced in those parts of the empire enjoying a degree of autonomy, such as the Mani, Mystras and Sfakia.
We have included these detailed descriptions not only because they are characteristic and pertinent but because from them stems an attitude to Greek dance which still persists today. First there is the conscious effort to identify traditional dances with those of the ancient Greeks. In the imagination of the travellers the girl holding the kerchief is Ariadne reincarnate with her clew. Any dance with knives and swift, staccato movements is immediately identified with the Pyrrhíchios and dances of gay abandon and risque gestures are undoubtedly Ionian, while ponderous steps derive from pressing the grapes, hence the Epilénios.
Secondly, there is the conviction that there exist panhellenic dances. Travellers cite the Romaíika and the Arnaoutiko, in the same manner as we are nowadays told of the Kalamatianós and the Tsámiko. It is understandable that to foreign visitors in days gone by, all Greek dances seemed very much alike and, indeed, those not under the spell of their putative ancient origins found them boring, repetitive and the music cacophonous. This was a perfectly natural reaction of anyone coming from so far away and from a totally different culture. Nowadays, however, there is no excuse for perpetuating this misconception of the so-called "panhellenic" dances for these are simply the dances of "Old Greece" which have been transplanted by civil servants and government officials into those regions liberated later.
A third misunderstanding evident in the travellers' narratives and still fostered concerns dance as a spectacle or performance to be seen by others. Attention is mainly focused on the floor patterns: lines, labyrinths (a direct legacy from Theseus!), pairing and passing. In Western Europe this emphasis on floor patterns developed when folk dance was embraced by the nobility and performed in their ballrooms, thus changing its function. But in Greece dances were and still are performed outside, in village squares and neighbourhoods, so floor patterns are of little significance.
Last but not least there is the "labyrinth" a formation observed in the dances of many peoples with no claims whatsoever to an ancient Greek ancestry. A dancer leading a long chain of other dancers in a confined space has little choice but to proceed towards the centre of the circle, thus forming several concentric rings, known as díples, kangélia or kátia in different Greek dialects. Indeed, when three or four inner circles are formed this is a source of village pride for it reflects its strength and vitality - a thriving village is a populous one. Theseus' labyrinth is a figment of the imagination of intellectual doyens; it does not exist in the mind of the villager.