Roman and Byzantine period
With the incorporation of the Greeks within the Roman Empire changes inevitably took place in their dance. Along with their compatriot philosophers, artists and other professionals, Greek dancers were pressed into the service of Rome. They were obliged to adapt to the new prevailing conditions, to perform before motley audiences dispersed throughout the known world, of very different education and culture, for whom the Greek language was totally incomprehensible. Not only were the choreographic codes, allusions to Greek mythology and history, educative and cultural functions of dance bereft of their significance, its highly important moral aspect, expressive of the social values of the small Greek city, was lost.
As a consequence the dance-masters of the young were rendered redundant and the dancers themselves abandoned the hellenic aesthetic tradition. Dance degenerated into a facile means of entertainment, increasingly reliant on comic and acrobatic contrivances, evoking mirth and even astonishment. There was fission of the ancient Greek concept of "music" as an entity comprising song, dance and instrumental music, into its elements.
For a period songs continued to be sung in Greek, but by a passive chorus quite distinct from the dances in a performance. Eventually they changed completely. Instrumental music became a form of expression in its own right and was no longer simply an accompaniment to poetry and dance. New instruments were introduced alongside the lyre and flute, and small orchestras, capable of entertaining audiences with their performances, were created.
Dance, disconnected from word and melody, became pantomime and although mimic-dances had existed in ancient Greece, pantomime became the symbol of the Roman age. The mime sought to impress his audience with his extravagant costume, jewellery and masks and, above all, his exuberant gestures. Those mimes who could narrate whole stories without uttering a single word were highly acclaimed, captivating their audience with their expressive abilities. They aroused the public's imagination with their gaiety, force of projection and dexterity.
Initially the mimes performed stories from Greek mythology and theatrical works but as time passed they relied more on acrobatics, risque jokes and lewd gestures. Most mimes were effeminate and loose-living, classed along with circus vagrants, actors, whores and slaves. Though the most renowned entertained the emperor and the aristocracy, their behaviour was often an affront to public taste, for which they were summonsed or reprimanded.
Nevertheless dances and spectacles of this kind were immensely popular, particularly with the populace of the large cities. This continued to be the case even after the capital was transferred from Rome to Constantinople. In fact all references to dance in texts of that time are about urban manifestations, which is why we know almost nothing about dance in the villages. This, we surmise, maintained its integrity, undergoing only minor changes, up until the present century. It is indeed strange that when historians and ecclesiastical writers mention dance they make no distinction between the dances of the villagers and those performed by professionals in the theatre, the circus or the streets of the towns and cities.
There is a striking paucity of information about dance in Byzantine times, literary sources are few and iconographic representations even less. Since most Byzantine texts are ecclesiastical, references to dance are rare, terse and, in the main, censorious. A few scattered phrases and church wall-paintings are the sum total of material available about dance in Byzantium.
Like the Catholic church the Orthodox also waged a relentless war against dance. In those writings of the Fathers of the Church where dance is mentioned it is equated with sin. At the Council of Laodicaea it was decreed that dance be forbidden at weddings. However, it would be wrong to assume, on the basis of these few references, that dance was not allowed in Byzantine times: it is to be expected that ecclesiastical writers would hold more extreme opinions on this matter than their contemporaries. The very fact that they felt continually obliged to condemn dance is in itself proof of the fact that the people carried on dancing, despite their preachings and pronouncements. Moreover, it is quite clear that the ban imposed by the Council of Loadicaea was never enforced in practice.
Furthermore, on closer inspection of the references to dance it is apparent that the spectacle of people dancing was not regarded universally as an anathema. Their writers mainly lived in the large cities where dance was more an entertainment and less a ceremony, as it was in the villages. Professional dancers, mimes and actors had been a part of urban life since Roman times. Often dissolute, they had no qualms about ridiculing the Christians in their spectacles and it was these artists and their performances which were the real target of the church and not dance per se. Dance was only condemned when associated with drunkenness, lewd gestures by women and unseemly behaviour in general. Gyrations of the body, stamping the ground with the feet, immodest and uncontrolled leaps were censured, as were those women who, carried away by the dance, loosened their hair, lifted up their tunics, kicked their legs into the air and bared their bosom.
It would have been well-nigh impossible for the church to turn against dance with any hope of success, since this was such an integral part of private and public ceremonies and feasts. There was, of course, a marked contrast between Christian ceremonies and pagan ones - which continued to exist - since the former included neither dance, music, nor song. As time passed, however, the combination we see today came into being: the Mass followed by the panigyri.
Indeed there are instances recorded of people dancing inside the church, at Easter and Christmas, the Patriarch Theophylaktos having granted his permission. In his book "Life and Culture of the Byzantines", Phaidon Koukoules has assembled all known references to dance in texts of that time. From these we learn that there were women's dances at Easter, nocturnal satyrical dances in disguise at the Kaléndes, dances by itinerant bands of young men at Roussália. There were certainly dances at weddings, in taverns and at banquets. Indeed, 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 theatre to the accompaniment of the flute and kithara 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. Other times they danced and sang extemporized songs, making fun of the emperor. The soldiers danced as part of their drill and danced after manoeuvres for amusement. The charioteers danced in the Hippodrome when they won their races and, according to Efstathios of Thessaloniki, the sailors danced an unmanly dance, full of twists and turns, as if imitating the spirals of the labyrinth (EP, 1167, 15).
A ritual dance, the sáximo was performed on the emperor's name day or birthday. At the court of Justinian it was held in the banqueting hall and all the nobles, courtiers and local lords took part. The banquet over, the master of ceremonies presented each of the officials to their emperor, in order of rank, and they danced thrice round the imperial table, singing songs in his honour. The emperor expressed his pleasure by distributing purses of money at the end of the ceremony.
Though we do not know the names of any Byzantine dances and have so few descriptions of them, we know that the dancers held hands or fingers and that these were often "intertwined". The leader of the dance was called the koryphaíos or choroléktes and it was he who began the song and made sure that the circle was maintained. There were male, female and mixed dances. Again 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 zília of today) or a kerchief in their hands and their movements were emphasised 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. Byzantine instruments included the kithára, avlós (single, double or multiple flute), défi (tambourine) and tympano (drum).