Traditional Folk Dances
Traditional folk dances come in many varieties, but can be subdivided into two basic types:
(a) the trailing dances, and (b) the leaping dances. They are proud, stalwart dances, performed in a semi-circle. When danced in ethnic costumes, they are very colourful and inspiring. The best known of these dances are the kalamatianos and the tsamikos.
The kalamatianos, said to be of ancient origin, is undoubtedly one of the most popular dances in Greece and is danced throughout the country by both men and women. As its name indicates, the dance originated from the province of Kalamata in Southern Greece, where the world-famous kalamata olives come from.
The kalamatianos is danced in a trailing semi-circle to the unfamiliar rhythm of 7/8. It consists of twelve basic steps upon which all the variations are based. The variations are usually performed only by the first, or lead, dancer, who is at the head of the line on the extreme right, facing into the semi-circle.
The tsamikos is an imposing dance whose rhythm is one of grandeur. Its variations consist of both smooth and leaping steps, which give the dance a triumphant air. In earlier times, the tsamikos was danced in the mountainous areas of Epirus, in Northern Greece, only by men. Today, it is enjoyed throughout Greece by both men and women.
The tsamikos also became the favourite dance of the mountain fighters and rebels (Klephts) of the Greek Revolution of 1821 against the Ottoman Turks. It is danced in a semi-circle, with the leader performing variations while the others follow the basic steps. The deliberate, grandiose nature of this dance stirs considerable excitement in the individual, especially the leader. The peak of the dance exhorts the leader to perform outstanding gymnastic and acrobatic feats.
Popular Folk Dances
Popular folk dances include the hassapikos, hassaposervikos, and the zembekikos. While they are called popular folk dances, they actually have little to do with the folk dances of the past. Before World War II, they were performed in rowdy taverns by a tough breed of men called manges. They were grim, unsmiling individuals who were often outside the law. With the passage of time these dances have become fashionable and are now danced everywhere by all classes of Greeks and visitors – both in Greece and overseas. The syrtakis is another form of Greek dancing that has also become popular over the last 50 years.
The hassapikos is performed by two or more dancers who execute identical steps. It is danced in a straight line, with each dancer holding the shoulders of their partners. It has many variations and is a stunning dance when performed well. We know very little of the origin of the hassapikos except that it was an ancient dance performed by the Greek butchers of old Byzantium. (The Greek word for butcher is hassapis, hence the name). Before World War II the dance was performed only by men, mostly on the islands and ports. But today, with bouzouki music so popular, the hassapikos is also danced by women and has become an international dance.
The hassaposervikos is a continuation of the hassapikos in a more intensive and vivid rhythm. Though its history and origin are little known today, it is believed to be a blend of the hassapikos and a Serbian folk dance. The dancers stand in a straight line, holding shoulders as in the hassapikos. When space is limited and there are many dancers, they often form a circle and dance facing inwards. The hassaposervikos is a relatively easy dance to learn. It is also fast, frenetic and fantastic fun!
The zembekikos is believed to be an ancient dance of the Thracean Greeks who emigrated to Asia Minor from Thrace. The zembekikos was originally danced only by men, but today it is also danced by women. It is a very free dance, usually performed by a single dancer or by a couple facing each other. Dancers improvise according to their imagination and feelings, following the distinctive, irregular, driving rhythm of the music as best they can. In performing the zembekikos the dancer dances only for himself, as though no one exists around him. It is recognised as a “heavy” dance, full of emotion and self-expression.
The zembekikos is often known in tavernas as “the ouzo dance” – this derives from the feat performed by the dancer who picks up off the floor, with his mouth, a shot glass of ouzo and knocks it back without any hands being placed on the ground or the glass!
Syrtakis (“Zorba’s Dance”)
The syrtakis is a dance form made popular by the sensationally successful Mikis Theodorakis soundtrack to the classic film Zorba the Greek. It starts with the steady rhythm of the hassapikos and speeds up into a fast and intense hassaposervikos. You simply cannot leave any Greek function without having joined in Zorba’s dance – just as the hero of the film danced on a far, far away beach on the sunny island of Crete!