History Greek Folk Dancing

Greek folk dancing ties Greeks to their past and to their future. Greek folk dancing is very much an active art, both in Greece and throughout the world where Greeks have immigrated. Dancing is a vivid expression of everyday life and everyone of all ages dances at important occasions – weddings, baptisms, family celebrations and community social events. Folk dances are passed down from generation to generation. The origin of many today’s folk dances can be traced back hundreds and thousands of years in the history of the Greeks.  Today’s young dancers have a sense of pride and tradition that they are carrying forward the same dances performed by generations of ancestors.

There are hundreds of traditional Greek folk dances. Most dances share some common characteristics but each region has developed unique characteristics of their dances, music and costumes. Cretan dances are proud and lively. The dances of Thessaly are controlled and composed. Some of the mountain people’s dances are wild and full of leaps. The dances of Epirus are slow, heavy and dignified. Even a region’s weather and terrain affected dance style based on the clothes and shoes worn.  Many of the dances tell a story.

The most common dances enjoyed at a typical Greek festival in America will be the Syrto, Kalamatiano, Tsamiko and Zembekiko. Most dances are circle dances, starting with the right foot and moving counter-clockwise. Each dancer is linked by a handkerchief or by holding hands, wrists or shoulders. The common “Circle” dance is part of a great Greek tradition that dates back to the Byzantine period.

The dances described here are the more popular dances performed by the Glenzethes dance troupe at the Pensacola Greek Festival.   

Descriptions of Glenzethes Dances

Hassapiko is a very popular, relatively modern Greek circle dance. It is called a panhellenic dance, because it is danced all over Greece. It is a lively hopping style dance that dates back to Byzantium when it was danced by the butchers of Constantinople. It has become known as the “sailors” dance. When danced fast it is called the hasaposerviko and resembles the Jewish “hora”.

The Syrto is the most popular dance throughout Greece, and is danced by Greek-Americans at all festive gatherings. Syrto and Kalamatiano use the same dance steps, but the Syrto is in 3/4 time and the Kalamatiano is in 7/8 time. Both of these are open circle dances.

The Syrtaki dance was created for the movie “Zorba the Greek” on music written by Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis. It is basically a combination of two traditional dances, starting with a very slow Hassapiko step and eventually becomes faster and danced in the lively steps of Hasaposerviko.  

Karagouna – This dance comes from the plains of Thessaly. The name Karagouna comes from the Turkish word “kara” for black to describe the women’s clothes. Karagouna is a flirtatious couples’ dance where the men dance in a line behind the women’s line. In the days before dating, young people might meet and dance in the village square after church, to get acquainted.

Pentozali – This very vigorous dance was used to help keep the Cretan soldiers in shape. It starts out slowly with men and women dancing together. Then the men break out and each do leaps and kicks. The name of the dance comes from its five (pente) basic steps and word “zali’ meaning dizzy.

Tsamiko is stately dance, traditionally performed by men. It originated in Epirus and was danced by the fighters of the 1821 revolution when Greece won its independence from the Ottoman empire.  The dance follows a strict and slow tempo with emphasis put not on the steps, but in the “attitude, style and grace” of the dancer. The steps are relatively easy but have to be precise and strictly on beat.

Zeibekiko is a solo and intensely personal dance. The dancer performs alone, very focused on his movements in a totally improvised manner. It comes from the Asia Minor refugee camps in Greece where the Rebetika songs are slow and sad. It was originally danced by men only but has gained popularity by both men and women. Often with this dance you’ll see other dancers on one knee clapping while a lone dancer performs.   

Yerakina is a women’s dance sung to an old folk song about a beautiful girl named Gerakina who lived around 1850 in Nigrita, Greece.  One day, she went to the well to get water but fell into the well. The song and the waving of the girls hands refers to the sounds her bracelet made as she screamed for help. On hearing her screams, one brave man climbed into the well to rescue his beloved but she died in the well.

Mihanikos – This fascinating men’s dance originated in Kalymnos. Mihanikos means “machine” and refers to the diving bell used by sponge divers which allowed them to dive deeper for sponges, but which left many crippled from the effects of the bends. This dance has two parts, with alternating slow and fast melodies. During the slow part, the lead dancer hobbles on two canes and is half held up by the others, mimicking the crippling effects of the ‘bends’. During the fast part of the dance, the supposedly crippled dancer suddenly begins dancing joyfully with the others, only to return again to his crippled wobbling.

Compiled by Maria Weisnicht
October 23, 2007