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The Ancient Greek Origins of Zeibekiko and Other Contemporary Dances

greek dances
Zeibekiko. Credit: YouTube/Shakallis Dance School

Greece is home to countless traditional Greek dances, many of which have direct connections to ancient Greek forms of rhythmic movement.

In ancient Greece, dance was an integral part of many aspects of cultural and religious events as well as daily life.

Dancing was very common throughout the ancient Greek world and featured prominently during many celebrations, such as weddings, and even at philosophical drinking parties or symposia.

Additionally, the choruses in ancient Greek drama often performed a choreographed routine when delivering their lines, and dance shows and routines were common forms of entertainment in ancient Greece.

Dance, or “horos,” has held a very important place in Greek culture for thousands of years and is still an important part of life in Greece to this very day.

Over time, it has evolved to suit the needs of different groups of Greeks, who have made their own dances, leading to great regional diversity in this most physically expressive of the arts.

Dances are extremely important to Greek communities and perform a social function as well. You will often see Greeks spontaneously burst into dance at weddings, Greek Easter, or school functions.

Several traditional Greek dances that are still performed to this day have deep connections to ancient Greece, particularly the dances zeibekiko, tsifteteli, and pyrrhichios or serra.

Traditional Greek dances and their ancient roots

One of the most unique and visually striking Greek dances is the zeibekiko. Zeibekiko originated in Asia Minor, and the legacy of tragic displacement and of a homeland lost certainly lives on through this dance.

It is difficult to dance the zeibekiko, mainly because it has no set steps and a complex rhythm. It requires an inner intensity because it is an improvised movement that expresses the feelings of the individual who gets up to dance.

This meaningful dance often conveys feelings of defeat, sadness, life’s despair and unfulfilled dreams, foreboding bad luck, and the dark at the end of the tunnel.

Zeibekiko is performed solo and was traditionally exclusively danced by males, but women have begun to take part in this expressive movement, as well, breaking gender roles.

The most iconic part of the dance is when the dancer stretches out his arms and twirls, sways, and moves with deep feeling and emotion.

This movement is often linked to the eagle, a traditionally solitary and powerful bird, but it may have a connection to a different bird—the crane.

Called “Geranos” in Greek, the crane is a beautiful bird with long, graceful wings. In antiquity, Greeks were known to perform a solitary dance called “Geranios,” which was modeled after the bird’s movements.

Most famously, as mentioned by Plutarch, the ancient Greek hero Theseus performed the crane dance on the island of Delos, which was very sacred as it was the site of Apollo’s birth, after freeing a group of young Athenians from the Minotaur’s Labyrinth.

The dance involves slowly moving in circular motions while holding one’s arms outstretched, much like the wings of a crane.

The movements of the crane dance described by ancient authors certainly resemble the Zeibekiko, which means that the ancient Greek dance may be linked to the modern one.

Is Tsifteteli related to the ancient Greek dance Kordax?

The modern Greek dance “Tsifteteli,” or ‘τσιφτετέλι’ in Greek, seems to be of Turkish or Eastern origin, as the name tsifteteli comes from Turkish, but it may also have links to an ancient Greek dance.

Tsifteteli is often described as Greek belly-dancing involving the rhythmic movement of one’s hips accompanied by sinuous arm movements. While both men and women can dance tsifteteli, it’s most often considered a feminine and highly sensual dance.

The ancient Greek dance Cordax is described in Aristophanes’ comic plays as a sexual, almost vulgar dance that involves hip gyrations. Other ancient authors have also described the dance, which was considered highly sexual, and often those performing it wore masks.

Although the links between this ancient dance and tsifteteli are clear, some scholars believe that there is no relationship between the two, as tsifteteli only became a popular dance in Greece after Greeks from Asia Minor were expelled from Turkey in the 1920s.

Pyrrhichios and Serra

One of the most famous ancient Greek dances is the Pyrrhichios (Πυρρίχιος), or “Phyrric dance,” which was the war dance of the ancient Greeks.

The ancient movement was likely first practiced by the Dorians but became popular across the country in antiquity, particularly in Sparta, where it was taught to children from a very young age.

According to Plato, the dance involved both movements that mimic strikes and assaults as well as actions that resembled dodging and avoiding the blows of one’s opponent.

Even Homer, the most famous ancient Greek poet, wrote that Achilles danced the Pyrrhichios around the burning funeral pyre of his companion Patroclus in the Iliad.

Serra, a traditional Greek dance from the Pontus region of the Black Sea, is believed to have strong links to the Pyrrhichios dance.

It is named after the Serra River, in the Trapezunda (Trebizond) region of modern-day Turkey. It is also sometimes referred to as the Lazikon dance.

Serra was created by Greeks from the Pontus area of the Black Sea. As is the case with most Pontic dances, the serra originated as a war dance and would have traditionally been used to motivate soldiers before entering battle.

The serra is traditionally performed by men holding hands throughout the dance.

As is the case with most Pontic dances, it is usually accompanied by the Pontic lyra.

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