Ancient Greece and Rome 1200 BCE-476 CE: Dance

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 2. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Dance in Prehistoric Greece

Minoan Crete

The Bronze-Age civilizations of Greece bear labels applied to them in modern times. The Minoan civilization on Crete, which flourished from 2000 to shortly before 1400 B.C.E., was a non-Greek culture with an indecipherable language likely linked to contemporary societies in Asia Minor. The Mycenaean civilization on mainland Greece developed a few centuries after the Minoan civilization began and ended at about the same time. Its name comes from the first site of its discovery: Mycenae, the legendary capital of Agamemnon who led the Greek coalition in the Trojan War. Since the initial archeological discoveries, at Mycenae in the 1870s and on Crete at the so-called Palace of Minos at Knossos at the start of the twentieth century, archaeologists and historians have discovered a great deal of information about these Bronze-Age cultures. For instance, at a Minoan site in eastern Crete, Palaikastro, archeologists discovered a primitive figurine made of earthenware, portraying women dancing in a circle in the center of which stood a man playing a lyre. Found with the figurine were six clay birds. The figurine dates to after 1400 B.C.E. when Greek-speaking immigrants from mainland Greece had already invaded the island, and it is the earliest portrayal that has survived of a musician playing the lyre, surrounded by dancers in a circle. Harvesting was a time for dance on Crete; as evidenced by the so-called “Harvester Vase”—a small vase of black soapstone showing a procession of harvesters, which was discovered at Hagia Triadha on Crete. The “Harvester Vase” gives scholars a glimpse of a harvest dance performed on Crete around 1500 B.C.E. The vase shows harvesters striding along, four abreast, singing and lifting their knees high with every step. They carry long objects over their shoulders that have been identified as flails or winnows, tools used to separate grain. The lead harvester is a man who shakes a sistrum, a kind of rattle used in Egyptian religious ceremonies, and appears to be singing heartily. Another Cretan dance ceremony is shown on a gold seal-ring, discovered in tombs dating to the fifteenth century Vapheio close to Sparta in Greece. The seal-ring depicts a woman dancing under a tree wearing the fashionable court dress worn by ladies in the Palace of Minos on Crete. To her right a youth leaps to pluck either fruit or a flower from the tree. While visual references are clues to dance in ancient Cretan civilization, the best evidence of the tradition of dance comes not from archaeology, but from Greek literature centuries later.

The Evidence of Literature

One of the first literary texts dealing with the Cretan tradition of dance after the collapse of the Bronze-Age civilization came from the poets of the island of Lesbos. One poem, from seventh century B.C.E., attributed to either Sappho or Alcaeus, reads “Once upon a time the girls of Crete / were wont to dance in harmony like this / their soft foot beats circling the fair altar. …” Other examples of the reputed Cretan dance rituals came from the Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad tells how the blacksmith god Hephaestus made new armor for the hero Achilles so that he could rejoin the battle after his best friend, Patroclus, was killed while wearing Achilles’ armor. The shield that Hephaestus made showed scenes from the everyday life of early Greece, at peace or war, and among them were two dance scenes. One portrayed a dance as the grapes were harvested from the vineyard, which is reminiscent of the “Harvester Vase.” The other depicted a dance on a dancing floor that Homer explicitly likens to one which the legendary craftsman Daedalus built at Knossos for Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete. The Odyssey tells how the hero Odysseus in his wanderings reached the island of Phaeacia. Phaeacia, ruled by a generous king and a wise queen, is thought to be based on folk memories of the world of ancient Crete, though the Odyssey was written at least six centuries after the peak of the Minoan civilization. King Alcinous of Phaeacia had five sons and they all need clean clothes to wear at dances. Alcinous’ daughter, Nausicaa, took the laundry to the seashore where she met Odysseus and directed him to her father’s palace. There he attended a banquet where the Phaeacians displayed their special skill at dancing. The dancing floor was swept clean, the minstrel took his place in the center of the floor with his lyre, and the young dancers performed in a circle around him. Then two dancers showed off their expertise at dancing with a ball. The one threw the ball into the air; the other leaped up and caught it before his feet touched the ground. Then they danced, the one throwing the ball to the other, who caught it and threw it back. From this example, it appears that ancient Cretan dance covered a broad range of movement: juggling, turning somersaults, and making gestures with arms and hands. It was all part of mousike, the arts sacred to the muses of dance, music, and poetry.

The Geranos Dance

One dance that originated on Crete was the geranos. Many scholars originally translated geranos as the Greek word for “crane,” creating speculation that the geranos was a dance where performers imitated the flight of cranes, or costumed themselves as cranes. Animal and bird dances of this variety were well known in Greek culture. However, from portrayals of the geranos that have been discovered on pottery, it is clear that the dancers did not costume themselves as cranes. One attempt to explain the title of the dance suggests that the dance merely simulated the migratory flight of the cranes. A more widely accepted theory suggests that the word geranos was mistranslated as “crane.” Rather it is derived from a word meaning “to wind” in Indo-European, the ancient language from which most modern European languages were derived. This idea of winding is backed up by visual representations of the geranos that show dancers with joined hands forming a row that wound back and forth, sometimes even reversing direction, as if it was making its way through a maze. Many scholars began to speculate that the geranos was a “winding dance,” meant to represent a snake, and was done in rituals to honor a great serpent such as a python. There is archaeological evidence for rituals involving snakes in Minoan Crete, and Greek mythology relates that Apollo killed a sacred python which was worshipped at Delphi when he took over the shrine and made it his own.

Mythical Origin

Another possible origin for the geranos comes from Greek mythology. According to one myth, King Minos of Crete forced Athens to send him tribute every year of seven youths and maidens who would be fed to the Minotaur, a half-human and half-bull monster who was kept in the Labyrinth, a maze of winding paths and corridors, at Knossos. Whether the Labyrinth was a building, or an open-air area, or even a dancing floor, as one scholar suggested, is not clear. The hero Theseus, the son of the king of Athens, insisted on going to Knossos as one of the seven youths to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, and once there, he killed the Minotaur and escaped the twists and turns of the Labyrinth by following a cord which the daughter of Minos, Ariadne, had given him. On his way back to Athens, Theseus stopped at the sacred island of Delos, where he and the rest of the young Athenian youths who had escaped with him danced the geranos. This scene from the myth is depicted on the François Vase, a famous vase painted in black-figure style, named after the excavator who discovered it in an Etruscan grave in Italy in the early part of the nineteenth century. On one side of the vase, under the rim, Theseus and his companions are shown disembarking from the boat, and forming a row of dancers, hands joined, alternating by gender. The dancers then wound back and forth to commemorate the twists and turns that they faced in the Labyrinth. Records exist showing the geranos was performed yearly on the island of Delos around a horned altar, similar to those found in the Palace of Minos on Crete, lending even more credence to the theory that the geranos was Cretan in origin.

The Geranos in the Classical Period

Regardless of the origin of the geranos, it continued to be danced on the sacred island of Delos into the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The dancers were both male and female and they formed a sort of chorus line with a leader at each end who were known as geranoulkoi (“ones that pull the crane”). Some inscriptions from Delos survive which furnish other evidence about the dance. It was usually performed during a festival held in the month which the Greeks called Hekatombaion—equivalent to July on the modern calendar—and it was danced at night by the light of lamps and torches. The inscriptions show payments for torches, wicks for lamps, and olive oil to fuel the lamps. They also show that the dancers were paid ten drachmas each, not a small sum when a stonemason might make between one and two drachmas a day. The inscriptions also state that the dancers were supplied with branches, which were tokens of victory, and ropes or cords which the dancers carried, props that point back to the Labyrinth myth. Because the geranos was danced at night, it was most likely part of rituals that were performed to honor the deities of the Underworld, thechthonic (“earth”) deities. Some scholars believed this is further proof that the geranos was a ritual snake dance, for snakes were creatures of the Underworld. The geranos survived into the early Roman period of Greek history, but was no longer performed after the first century B.C.E.

Other Ancient Dances

There were other dances as well that the Greeks thought originated from Crete. One was the hyporchema, a lively choral hymn sung to the god Apollo which included interpretative dancing. The paean was also attributed to Crete; it was a hymn of supplication to Apollo similar to the hyporchema. When festivals and sacrifices to Apollo were held on the sacred island of Delos, choirs of boys danced and sang both the hyporchema and the paean to the accompaniment of the aulos, a woodwind instrument similar to an oboe, and the lyre. The nomoi, poems telling the adventures of heroes or gods, which also had a Cretan origin, were sung to the music of the lyre or the double-aulos. In early Greece, the nomoi were only accompanied by a series of gestures, but later versions included dance steps as well. Dances that involved men bearing their arms—originally war dances—were widespread in the Greek world, but the traditional war dance of Sparta, known as the pyrrhike or “Pyrrhic Dance,” had a Cretan origin. A Spartan myth surrounding the founder of the Spartan constitution, Lycurgus, told of Lycurgus’s desire for dances that befitted a society of warriors and so he persuaded a musician and choreographer named Thaletas to come from Crete and instruct the Spartans in song and dance. Thaletas of Crete was an historical figure: he was a musician and teacher of dance who was known to have practiced his profession in Sparta in the seventh century B.C.E. He may have given new shape to pyrrhic dance in Sparta, but records show that Sparta had the pyrrhike warrior dance long before Thaletas arrived there. Because of their widespread influence, the Cretans deserved the reputation for dancing that they had among the ancient Greeks. Long after the Minoan civilization on Crete receded into the shadows of mythology, the tradition of their ancient dances continued.

The Paean and the Hyporchema

The paean was named for a ritual shout of worshipers invoking the god Apollo: “ie ie paian.” It was a rhythmic cry accompanied by a dance: three short syllables followed by a long, or in musical notation, three quarter notes followed by a half note. This rhythmic beat came to be known as the “paean.” The paean was sung to drive out pestilence or celebrate victory, though it probably began as a hymn to Apollo. Paeans were also sung and danced to Artemis and Ares, and also to Poseidon in his capacity as “Earth-Shaker,” the god of the earthquake. Fragments survive of more than 22 paeans written by Pindar, providing scholars with evidence that these dances and songs were part of religious rituals. Sometimes confused with the paean, the hyporchema also played an important role in religious ceremonies. The choir singing the hyporchema was divided into two sections: one sang without dancing, or if it danced, it used a simple dance-step, whereas the other did not sing, but instead danced an interpretative dance adapted to the text of the song. It used a rhythm similar to the paean, though the hyporchema seems to have been the livelier of the two. Sometimes the term “hyporchema” simply means a lively dance when mentioned in literature.

Animal Dances

Another type of dance with prehistoric roots was the animal dance, where the dancers wore animal masks, or even impersonated wild animals without wearing masks. One animal dance was performed at Brauron outside Athens at a shrine to Artemis. During the Brauronia festival held every four years, girls between the ages of five and ten danced a dance of little bears. The founding legend for the Brauronia told that a band of Athenian youths killed a bear at Brauron, thus provoking the anger of Artemis who sent a plague; the Brauronia with its choral dances of young girls expiated the sacrilege. Another animal dance focused on bulls. A Greek vase in the British Museum depicts in black silhouette three dancers who wear bull masks, the tails of bulls, and hoof-like coverings on their hands. This scene is reminiscent of the legend of the Minotaur who was kept by King Minos in the Labyrinth at Knossos on Crete. Further proof of bull dances comes from the Palace of Minos where a fresco depicts acrobats, both male and female, leaping over the back of a charging bull in graceful somersaults. The Greeks would have considered acrobatic stunts like this a form of dance, and on Crete, the tradition of acrobatic dancing lived on into later periods. Greek literature makes mention of owl dances—the owl was sacred to Athena—and a wine jug in the British Museum shows two dancers costumed as birds dancing as a piper plays the aulos. Another piece of archaeological evidence for animal dances comes from the sanctuary of the goddess known as Despoina at Lycosura, in the mountainous region of Arcadia. Despoina is not a proper name; it means “Mistress,” or “Lady” and probably this goddess was a manifestation of the ancient goddess called the “Mistress of the Wild Animals,” who was honored with animal dances. A broken piece of marble carved in low relief on the colossal statue of Desponia at Lycosura shows ornamental motifs such as eagles, thunderbolts, and girls riding on dolphins. Also included is a group of female dancers wearing animal masks. Several wear masks portraying rams’ heads; at least one wears a horse’s head. More evidence comes from finds near an altar on the slope above the temple of Despoina. Some exploratory digging turned up a large number of earthenware figurines of dancers wearing animal heads that were buried there. Lycosura was visited in the second century C.E. by the Greek traveler Pausanias who described what was left of it in his day, and noted that it was the oldest of all the cities on earth, leading scholars to believe that the worship of the “Mistress” with her animal dances was an ancient rite that was still recognized in later Greek periods.

War Dances

The Pyrrhike

The most famous war dance in ancient Greece was the pyrrhike which became the national dance of Sparta, and persisted there long after Greece became a province of the Roman Empire and similar war dances had died out in other cities. The Greeks had several stories that accounted for the name of the pyrrhic dance. One said that it was invented by a Spartan called Pyrrhicus, though an alternative version claimed that Pyrrhicus was a Cretan. Another story connected the dance with the son of the hero Achilles, who bore two names: Pyrrhus as well as Neoptolemus. After Achilles was killed in battle at Troy, Pyrrhus came to Troy to take his father’s place, and his greatest exploit was killing Eurypylus, leader of a force of Hittites that had come to help the Trojans. After he slew Eurypylus, he performed an exultant victory dance, and from his dance the pyrrhike took its name. The pyrrhike and many other war dances were common among the peoples in the Greek world, as well as in neighboring countries between the tenth and seventh centuries B.C.E. Dancing had a practical purpose in the warfare of early Greece when warriors often fought in single combat, and nimble feet made the difference between a warrior dodging the spear that his foe hurled at him, and being impaled by it. In Homer’s Iliad, the Trojan prince Hector tells the Greek hero Ajax that he is not frightened by him, for he knows the steps of the “deadly dance of Ares,” the god of war. By the mid-seventh century B.C.E., however, the complexion of war had changed. Battles became contests between two battle lines of heavily-armed infantrymen called “hoplites,” and a good hoplite did not dodge or dance; rather, he stood firmly in his place in the battle line and shoved the enemy that faced him with his shield and thrust at him with his spear. Dance ceased to be an important part of military training, except in Sparta, which maintained its militaristic traditions long after it ceased to be a military power. By the end of the second century C.E. the pyrrhike was performed only in Sparta, where boys were still trained to dance it from the age of five. Yet the pyrrhike remained the dance most often portrayed in war sculptures and vase paintings.

Accessory to Military Training

Spartan education, which was intended only for the warrior elite that controlled the state, aimed to produce superb soldiers, physically fit and skilled at handling arms. Hoplomachia (weapons training) between men was an important part of a warrior’s education, and it resembled a type of dance. When the philosopher Plato discussed the pyrrhic dance in the Laws, he described it as part of the hoplomachia. However, as pyrrhic dance developed in Sparta, youths who were being hardened for battle would first have their training session where they practiced their skill with the weapons of war, and then when it was over, they danced. A piper played the aulos, which had a timbre not unlike bagpipes, and the young warriors formed a line and danced to a quick, light dance step. While they danced, they sang songs which were composed by musicians who worked in Sparta in the seventh century B.C.E. such as Thaletas, who was credited with organizing the Gymnopaidiai (a Spartan festival). Hence, the pyrrhic dance was most likely not part of the weapons training, but was done to enhance the nimbleness of the warriors.

Changed to Pantomime

Another literary source for information about the development of the pyrrhic dance came from an author named Athenaeus who wrote a discursive work at the end of the second century C.E. called Learned Men at a Banquet. In it, Athenaeus imagines banqueters displaying their knowledge on a host of subjects, including dance. According to the Learned Men at a Banquet, the Spartans, who had a penchant for war, still trained armor-clad boys from the age of five in the pyrrhic dance in the second century C.E. The dance, however, was no longer truly a war dance by this time. Athenaeus described it as a kind of Dionysiac pantomime—the dancers performed an interpretative dance that related various myths of the god Dionysus, including his expedition to India and his return to his native state of Thebes. By the time that Athenaeus lived, pyrrhic dances were staged for Roman tourists, and in fact, pyrrhic dancers sometimes performed at Rome to amuse the crowd in the public games as a prelude to the dead-lier entertainments offered by gladiatorial games and wild beast fights. Julius Caesar staged pyrrhic dancing at Rome, and so did the emperors Caligula, Nero, and Hadrian. The North African rhetorician and philosopher, Apuleius of Madauros (c.123-c. 190 C.E.), whose novel, the Metamorphoses, or the Golden Ass, is the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety, described a typical dance entertainment staged in the amphitheater at Corinth in his own day. First there was a pyrrhic dance, performed by boys and girls, beautifully costumed, then there was a pantomime—a ballet on the “Judgement of Paris” in which the young Trojan prince Paris judges a beauty contest of goddesses—and finally, the pièce de resistance, a convicted murderess torn apart by wild beasts.

The Gymnopaidiai

Another famous war dance of Sparta was one performed for the Gymnopaidiai, which scholars first translated as “Festival of the Naked Youths.” The central feature of the festival, usually held in the heat of the Spartan midsummer in honor of the god Apollo, was a dance contest in which contestants danced naked. The contest was not just restricted to young boys, however, but was divided into three groups that were graded according to age: retired warriors too old for active service, warriors of military age, and youths still too young to serve in the army. Many scholars have come to believe that the word Gymnopaidiai should be translated as the “Festival of Unarmed Dancing,” for instead of wearing armor, as did the dancers of the pyrrhike, the dancers of the Gymnopaidiai wore nothing at all. The dancers pantomimed scenes from wrestling and boxing matches, but at all times, their feet moved in time to the music. As they danced, they sang songs by Thaletas and by another musician, Alcman, who plied his trade in Sparta about the same time.

Armed Dances Outside Sparta

The pyrrhike may have been the national dance of Sparta where it was part of the regular exercise of warriors keeping themselves in good physical condition for battle, but it was found elsewhere in the Greek world as well. In Sparta, the pyrrhic dance was sacred to the divine twins, Castor and Polydeuces, whom the Romans knew as Pollux. In Athens, the pyrrhic dance honored the warrior goddess Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. It was part of the ceremony of the annual Panathenaic festival that was held in honor of Athena, as well as the Great Panathenaic festival when non-Athenians were allowed to compete in the athletic events. The dancers were called pyrrhicists and they were chosen from among the ephebes (youths over eighteen years of age). Several relief sculptures have survived that portray the Athenian pyrrhic dance. One shows youths, naked except for helmets, shields, and swords, dancing a light dance-step; another shows them in a chorus line, presenting their shields. Their training for the festival was financed in the same way as dramatic productions; a well-to-do citizen was chosen as choregus (“leader of the chorus”) and he paid the costs and had general oversight of the production. Crete was another source of war dances, the best known of which was the dance of the Curetes. It had a legendary origin: when the mother goddess Rhea gave birth to the infant Zeus, she hid him in Crete in a cave on Mt. Dicte to save him from his father Cronus, and the Curetes performed their dance, which Rhea had taught them, to camouflage his hiding place. They whirled about their shields and banged them with their swords as they made great leaps into the air. This performance was a primitive ritual connected with the cult of Zeus on Crete, which was quite unlike the cult of Zeus on mainland Greece, for the Cretans believed that their Zeus died and was reborn with the seasons. The dance of the Curetes marked his re-birth. In the ancient world, the Greeks and Roman saw a connection between the dance of the Curetes and the frenzied dance performed by the Corybantes, the priests of the Great Mother, Cybele, the ancient goddess of Phrygia in western Asia Minor, and there may be this much connection: both rituals went back to an ancient fertility religion. The dance of the Curetes, however, was not a dance of priests like the dance of the Corybantes, but of warriors, though neither dance seems to have had much in common with the pyrrhic dance.

Women’s Choruses

Three Categories

Women’s choruses can be divided into three categories: girls before the age of puberty; unmarried girls, called variouslyparthenoi or korai or nymphai; and married women. The most evidence survives on the parthenoi, a Greek word that many scholars have translated as “virgins,” yet literary evidence points to this word meaning “women who have not yet given birth.” The size of the parthenoi chorus might vary, but most were composed of ten members. A parthenoi chorus was often portrayed on Greek vases; one vase, found in the marketplace of ancient Athens and dating to the beginning of the seventh century B.C.E., shows ten young women, all dressed in white, holding hands, their heads turned upwards as if they were singing and dancing. Another vase, a mixing-bowl for wine—the Greeks drank their wine mixed with water—which was made in Athens in the mid-fifth century B.C.E., shows ten young women holding hands and an eleventh woman playing a pipe. Similar choruses of young men existed between 800 and 350 B.C.E., but Greek artists preferred to portray choruses of women in most forms of art.


Partheneia were the songs and dances maidens performed in their choruses. One of the first poets of choral lyrics, Alcman, was famous for the partheneion that he wrote for Spartan girls in the second half of the seventh century B.C.E.A papyrus copy of this partheneion was found in the nineteenth century C.E., and many scholars have used this as a starting point for knowledge of the parthenoi. The lyrics of the partheneion indicate that it was danced to and sung by a chorus of ten girls who were related to each other, and included a Agido (“leader of the music”) and a Hagesichora (“leader of the dance”). According to literary records, it was most often performed at sunrise in competition with another chorus. There is no clue as to what the dance was like, nor how intricate the dance steps may have been, except that the meter that he used in his poetry was generally simple.

The Caryatis

The Caryatis was another type of dance, the origins of which are found in Caryae in Spartan territory. The goddess Artemis had a statue and a sanctuary there at which the young girls of the area (known as “caryatids”) performed a traditional dance every year in honor of the goddess. Much of the knowledge of this dance comes from a description written by Pausanias, a Greek traveler of the second century C.E. whose guidebook for Greece is the classical archaeologist’s Bible, but additional information comes from various art forms, including a statue group of three caryatids that was excavated from Delphi in the nineteenth century C.E. The dance was a spirited jig, with many whirls and pirouettes. In the statue discovered at Delphi, one caryatid is shown with a tambourine, another with castanets. Their usual dress was a light knee-length chiton (“tunic”) and on their heads they wore a kalathos—a vase-shaped basket wreathed with leaves from palms or rose bushes. The dance was so famous that the dancers were immortalized not only in art but also in architecture. The term “caryatid” is a description of a column that has been sculpted to resemble a Caryatis dancer—the most famous examples are to be found in the “Porch of the Maidens” attached to the temple known as the Erechtheion on the Athenian acropolis. Many column capitals (tops of columns) took on the description of “kalathos” because they so resembled the headdress of the Caryatis dancers.

The Dithyramb


Among the scraps of poetry that have survived by the seventh-century B.C.E. lyric poet Archilochus of Paros, one describes the poet’s ability to start the dithyramb (“graceful round of song”) of the lord Dionysus, when wine has loosened his mind. This is the first time that the word dithyramb appears in surviving Greek literature, though scholars are certain that Archilochus was not the first Greek to use it. The dithyramb was a song and dance in honor of Dionysus at festivals where much wine was drunk. The Greeks themselves did not know how the dithyramb developed. Several Greek states claimed it as their invention, yet it most likely developed among the Dorians who lived in the Peloponnesos south of the Isthmus of Corinth.

Contribution of Arion

In Herodotus’s Histories (c. 425 B.C.E.) there is an account of the creation of the dithyramb. During the years 627-587B.C.E., the city of Corinth was ruled by a tyrant called Periander, and at his court was Arion, the most distinguished musician of his day. It was he who Herodotus credits with the creation of the dithyramb. He also wrote that Arion coined the term dithyramb and instructed choirs in Corinth how to perform it. There were choruses of song and dance in honor of gods and heroes before Arion created dithyrambs; in Corinth’s neighbor to the west, Sicyon, there were “tragic choruses” performed every year in honor of Sicyon’s legendary king, Adrastus, and they were very ancient. Modern scholars suspect that the word dithyramb itself was not Greek, and an ancient form of the dithyramb may have predated the immigration of Greek-speaking people into Greece. Under Arion’s direction, however, the dithyramb was probably given form and structure—henceforth it would be sung by a regular choir, and it would tell a story. The dithyrambs performed before Arion were most likely an undisciplined performance of song and dance where the dancers improvised folksongs about the heroes of old. Arion added music that he composed, and choreography, and probably it was he who established the traditional size of the dithyrambic chorus at fifty dancers. Hence, Arion is most often credited by modern scholars as the inventor of the classical Greek dithyramb.

New Direction

Thespis was the leader of a dithyrambic chorus in the Athenian village of Icaria, and during the early 530s B.C.E., he made an innovation in the production of the dithyramb which had far-reaching consequences. When his choir performed at the local festival in Dionysus’ honor, he took a solo part. Before Thespis, the choir sang a story from the Heroic Age of Greek mythology, and danced to the accompaniment of a piper. Thespis, however, stepped forward and assumed the role of the hero, singing antiphonally with his choir in a kind of musical dialogue, all the while gesturing with his hands to add to the drama of the tale. Then, in 534 B.C.E., the tyrant of Athens, Pisistratus, established the great festival of the City Dionysia. The villages outside the city of Athens had celebrated festivals honoring Dionysus long before this time, but now the city of Athens itself had a festival that overshadowed them. During the festival a contest was held in which dithyrambs were performed, usually with a dancing chorus responding to a soloist who also sang and danced. Thespis’s innovation made dithyrambs very popular during these festivals, but it also created an offshoot, tragic plays, which in the generation after Thespis threatened to overtake the dithyramb’s popularity.

Continued Development

The evolution of the dithyramb continued in the late sixth century B.C.E. Around 525 B.C.E., after the death of the tyrant Pisistratus, a lyricist named Lasus came to Athens to enjoy the patronage of Pisistratus’ younger son, Hipparchus. Following Arion’s example, he standardized the number of choristers in the dithyrambic chorus in Athens at fifty, and they sang to the accompaniment of several pipers playing the aulos, not just one. It was thanks to Lasus that a separate contest for dithyrambs was established in Athens at the festival of the City Dionysia in 508 B.C.E. The first winner of the contest was Hypodicus of Chalcis, and while his works have been lost, his background has become important to scholars. Hypodicus was not a native of Athens but the neighboring state of Chalcis on the island of Euboea, proving that dithyrambic poets were not merely a phenomenon of mainland Greece and that these poets traveled from state to state, practicing their profession.

Athenian Producers

The date of the first dithyrambic contest at the festival of the City Dionysia is significant. Athens had driven out the tyrant Hippias and adopted a democratic constitution which established ten new “tribes,” political groups into which all citizens were divided according to a complicated formula that made certain that every tribe contained citizens from the three regions of Attica: the city of Athens itself, the interior of Attica where people lived in country villages, and the coastal region. At the City Dionysia festival, every tribe was expected to present two dithyrambs: one performed by boys and the other by men. The citizen who produced these dithyrambs in each tribe was a well-to-do man who was chosen aschoregus (leader of the chorus), and his duty was to pay the poet who wrote the dithyramb and the music for it, the choreographer who taught the chorus their dance steps, and the musician who played the double-reed instrument called the aulos, as well as outfitting the fifty singers and dancers who performed the dithyramb. It was no light expense, but the choregus whose choir won received as a prize a tripod, which was a kettle on three legs, the equivalent of a cup given nowadays to a winning football or hockey team, and he would build a monument to display it. There was a street in Athens called the “Street of the Tripods” which once was lined with choregic monuments that displayed tripods won for dithyrambs, tragedies, or comedies, each set up by the proud choregus whose production had won the prize. The name of the street survives to the present day, but all the choregic monuments are lost, save one built by a choregus named Lysicrates in 334 B.C.E. when his chorus won the prize for the best dithyramb.

The Dithyrambic Dance

Dithyrambs were popular in Athens and soon they were staged in other festivals as well as the City Dionysia. The performance of the dithyrambs, however, seemed to be similar regardless of the location. The dithyrambic choir entered the theater with a solemn march, and then sang as they moved around the orchestra, now dancing in a circle counterclockwise and then reversing and dancing clockwise. The music and the poetry were most likely more important than the dance. The performers accompanied their song with gestures that must have been something like the stylized gestures of the dances of India. Having finished their song, the dithyrambic choir moved out of the theater to a dance step, possibly a march. As the fifth century B.C.E. wore on, the dithyramb evolved towards a less austere and more emotional performance. A fragment of a dithyramb by the poet Pindar, better known for his “Victory Odes,” describes a frenzied dance, accompanied by tambourines and castanets, which belonged to the rites of the god Dionysus. The dancers toss their heads and shout, and a dancer representing Zeus shakes his thunderbolt. The type of music also changed; the dignified, simple Phrygian mode was replaced by elaborate flourishes and trills. A dithyrambist named Cinesias who lived in the later fifth century and early fourth century B.C.E. was responsible for some of these changes. What is known of him comes mostly from his critics who did not like his innovations, but Scholars see that the dance of the dithyrambs under his direction became a great deal more lively. The comic poet Aristophanes, who was no admirer of Cinesias’ innovations, poked fun at Cinesias’ pyrrhic dances. In his comedy, The Clouds, Aristophanes jibes that clouds have a particular fondness for writers of dithyrambs, such as Cinesias, because their feet never touch the ground and they are always prating about clouds. Aristophanes was apparently referring to a dithyrambic dance that had a great deal of leaping and vaulting, and, on the basis of Aristophanes’ remarks, some scholars have speculated that Cinesias must have actually introduced pyrrhic dances or something similar into his dithyrambs.

Later History

The majority of information that survives on dithyrambs comes from Athens, but it is clear from fragments of evidence that dithyrambs spread to many parts of mainland Greece. They took place at Delphi, where the theater overlooking the temple of Apollo is largely intact except for the stage building, and at the festival of Apollo at Delos. At Epidaurus, the cult center of the medicine god Asclepius, dithyrambs were performed in the athletic and dramatic festival that was held there every four years. By the second century B.C.E. however, the dithyrambs had given way to more tragic and comedic performances, and few records of their performances exist.

Folk Dances

Dances of Everyday Life

“Anyone who cannot sing and dance in a chorus is uneducated,” stated Plato in the Laws, which is a blunt reminder that dance was part of Greek education. Dances played a large role in everyday life. They belonged to folk tradition, and they often had a religious or semi-religious basis. Mourners danced at funerals. They can be seen on vase-paintings, in long rows with hands placed on top of their heads in a gesture of grief. There were also wedding dances. There was no wedding ceremony as there is in the Christian church, but after the families of the bride and groom had worked out the details of the marriage agreement, a chorus of young men and women escorted the bride and groom to the groom’s house with dance and song. There were usually two choirs—one of men and the other of women—and since the dance was performed by torch-light, it presumably took place after nightfall. Dances marked the change of seasons, particularly spring with its flowers and the return of the birds, for the Greeks did not understand the migration of birds and their reappearance each spring must have seemed almost magical. There was a folk dance called the “Flowers,” where the dancers divided into two groups, and as they performed, one group chanted, “Where are my roses? Where are my violets? Where is my lovely parsley?” and the other group replied, “Here are your roses. Here are your violets. Here is your lovely parsley.” There were also folk dances like farandoles, where men and women danced together, hand in hand, forming a chain. A young man led the chain, performing dance movements suitable for a virile young male, and following him was a girl performing modest dance steps proper for a decent young woman. When banquets were given, there might be dancing entertainment, and already in the fifth century B.C.E. a well-to-do man who gave a banquet might hire professional dancers. In early Greece, however, dancing was still amateur, and it was the guests themselves who danced.

Folk Dancing in Sparta in Honor of Orthia

In the fifth century B.C.E., Sparta was a militaristic state which valued prowess on the battlefield above all else. Compared to contemporary Athens, it was a smaller, less advanced community. Yet two centuries earlier, it was a center of dance and music, which attracted famous musicians and choreographers such as Alcman, Terpander, and Thaletas. Folk dances, however, were no concern of these professionals, and consequently we are ill-informed about them. For one type of folk dance, where the dancers wore masks, there is only archaeological evidence. About 700 B.C.E., a primitive temple was built in Sparta by the banks of the river Eurotas and dedicated to the goddess Orthia—or to Artemis Orthia, for by the classical period, Artemis had half-assimilated Orthia, though Orthia’s ancient cult remained largely unchanged. A hundred years or so after the temple was built, it was destroyed by a flood of the river, which sealed the temple ruins under a thick layer of sand. The temple was rebuilt about 550 B.C.E. and then a second disaster, a raid by a barbarian tribe called the Heruls in 267 C.E., once again sealed in its remains below a layer of rubble. In the late third century C.E., after the sanctuary was restored, a small semi-circular theater was built to seat tourists who came to Sparta to witness Spartan youths being flogged, sometimes to death, which was part of the ritual of Orthia’s cult. The result of these vicissitudes was that the votive offerings made to Orthia, and other remains having to do with the ceremonies at the sanctuary as well, got some protection from the depredations of time, and were preserved for archaeologists to discover in the twentieth century C.E. The finds show that there were ancient folk dances by masked dancers at the shrine of Orthia—ritual dances to begin with, but then evolving into simple folk dances as time erased the reasons for the rituals. Pipes for playing dance tunes, made of animal bones, were found, inscribed with dedications to Orthia, but the most distinctive feature of the deposits was a series of masks made of terracotta. They are reproductions of masks made of wood which were actually used in dances, but wood rots in the damp earth, and the Spartans preferred to dedicate masks made of more durable material. The dedications started at the end of the seventh century B.C.E., but the great bulk of them belong to the next century. The masks are fearsome things, which makes it likely that the dances performed in Orthia’s sanctuary were originally apotropaic—that is, they were danced to drive away the malevolent unseen powers that send plague or crop failure. The masks must have become eventually like Halloween masks, which once upon a time protected against the spirits that prowled the earth on All Hallows Eve, but lost their ritual meaning as time went on. It is uncertain how long these dances continued in honor of Orthia, as ancient literary sources yield no information about them.

The Dance of Hippocleides

Before dancing became professionalized, the performance of solo folk dances was an accomplishment of the well-bred young Greek, and a man who disgraced himself on the dance floor besmirched his character. Damon of Athens, a music teacher of the fifth century B.C.E. who counted Socrates among his pupils, asserted that song and dance arose from the movements of the soul: noble dances gave proof of noble souls and ignoble souls were reflected in vulgar dances. The historian Herodotus, who published his History about 425 B.C.E., relates a story which demonstrates how dance revealed an ignoble character of a man, and also illustrates the sort of dancing entertainment one might have found in the banquet halls of leading men in archaic Greece, when wine flowed freely and guests made merry. The story focused on Cleisthenes, tyrant in the early sixth century B.C.E. of Sicyon, Corinth’s western neighbor. He desired to find a suitable husband for his daughter, Agariste, so he made a proclamation at the Olympic Games that any young man who thought himself worthy to be his son-in-law should come to Sicyon to enjoy his hospitality for a year and after he had observed all of them carefully he would choose one to be his daughter’s husband. A small battalion of suitors arrived at Sicyon, and Cleisthenes watched them closely, noting their athletic ability and general decorum. The young aristocrat Hippocleides of Athens headed his preferred list. When the time came to announce the winner, Cleisthenes first entertained all the suitors at a banquet, and after the banquet was over, the suitors competed in mousike—song, dancing, and poetry—as well as public speaking. Hippocleides excelled, surpassing all the other suitors, and he would have won Agariste except that he got drunk. When it was his turn to dance, he ordered the pipe-player to play the emmeleia, a type of dance that choreographers used for Greek tragedy; but Cleisthenes lived before the age of tragedy, and the emmeleia was probably not a graceful or sophisticated dance during this period. Cleisthenes was not pleased by Hippocleides, but he said nothing. Then Hippocleides had a table brought in, stood on it, and performed a few Spartan jigs followed by Athenian ones. Jigs, much like emmeleia, were considered low-class dances at the time, yet Cleisthenes still said nothing. Then Hippocleides stood on his head and gestured with his legs, in mocking of an acrobatic dance, a sign of great disrespect, for it would have normally been performed by someone much below the station of Hippocleides. At this point Cleisthenes could contain himself no longer, exclaiming, “Hippocleides! You have danced away your bride!” Hippocleides replied, “What does Hippocleides care?” which did nothing to change Cleisthenes’ estimate of his character. Much learned effort has gone into attempts to identify the dances that Hippocleides performed. The Spartan jig may have been something like the Gymnopaideia, which Spartan boys and men performed naked, in which case Hippocleides stripped to dance it. As for the Athenian dance that came next, it may have been the kordax, the dance associated with Old Comedy in Athens, with high kicks, somersaults, and twists. Hippocleides’ retort to Cleisthenes, “What does Hippocleides care?” became a proverb, meaning “So what?”, and the general verdict of Greece was that Hippocleides was a foolish young man whose drunken dance cost him a good marriage, although he was undoubtedly admired for his dedication to the dance.

The Folk Festivals Honoring Victorious Athletes

Greek athletes who won victories in the great athletic contests of Greece—the Olympian, Pythian, Nemean, or Isthmian Games—received only wreaths to wear on their heads as prizes, but when they returned home, they could expect a great deal more. Sometimes a section of the circuit wall was temporarily demolished to allow them to enter the city without having to go through the city gates. They might receive meals at public expense in the town hall for the rest of their lives, which was a great honor. If they themselves were well-to-do or came from a prominent family, they could commission a poet to produce a victory ode. It could be a lucrative commission, particularly if the victors belonged to one of the great ruling families in Greek Sicily. The sound and spectacle of a public performance by a great poet is something that a modern reader of classical literature can capture only by relying on his imagination, for the music that accompanied it is largely lost and early Greek authors took dance for granted and only rarely mentioned it. Sometimes a note in passing by an ancient writer allows modern readers to conjure up a picture of what the spectacle must have been like in these folk festivals where the citizens of the victorious athlete’s home-town gathered to celebrate his victory. Famous poets such as Pindar, Simonides, and Bacchylides appeared in theaters, magnificently costumed, playing a kithara, the ancestor of the guitar though it is usually translated as “lyre,” and surrounded by dancers. The opening lines of the victory ode which Pindar wrote for Hieron of Aetna in Sicily, whose chariot was victorious in the chariot-race in the Pythian Games held at Delphi, gives an example of a typical poetic opening:

O lyre of gold, Apollo’s prized possession, shared by the Muses with their violet crowns, you the dancers heed as they start the revelry; your notes direct the singers when to lead the dance whenever the quivering strings give forth the first notes of the prelude.

With these words, Pindar cued the dancers to begin as he swept his hand over the strings of his kithara and produced the opening notes of his ode. For the fee that a poet charged for a victory ode—in Pindar’s case they were high—the poet not only wrote the poetry, he also choreographed the dance, trained the dancers, and wrote the music. Like all such poetry, it was written for a special occasion, to be presented before a specific audience. Pindar’s victory ode for Hiero—called his First Pythian—was performed before a large, patriotic audience in Hiero’s hometown of Aetna, and then performed again on other occasions, as long as the citizens of Aetna were willing to listen to praise of Hiero.

Dance in the Theater

Dionysian Festivals

In Athens, there were three days of tragedies and satyr plays, and one day of comedy produced at the great festivals of the City Dionysia in March and the Lenaean Festival in January. In addition there were the festivals of Rural Dionysia, held in honor of Dionysus outside Athens in the towns and villages of the countryside each December. The rural festival in Piraeus, the port town of Athens, was particularly famous. The difference was, however, that whereas new plays were presented at the festivals in Athens, the Rural Dionysia festivals generally had older more familiar plays. Tragedy, comedy, and satyr plays each had its own dances. The main dance associated with tragedy was the emmeleia, a term which covered a number of dance patterns and postures. The dance of the satyr plays was the sikinnis, performed by men costumed as satyrs, with pointed ears, snub noses and the tails of goats or horses. The dance of comedy was the kordax, noted for its obscene gestures. The kordax was acceptable in the theater, but in everyday life no decent person danced it unless he was drunk. Evidence for these dances of the theater comes partly from careful study of the plays that have survived, from art and sculpture, and from references in literature, many of them scattered through writings belonging to the period of the Roman Empire, when the staple of the theater was the pantomime.

Tragedy and the Contribution of Aeschylus

The tragic poet Aeschylus was a great innovator in drama production in the first half of the fifth century B.C.E. He was one of the first playwrights to produce his own material. He was also the first playwright to use two speaking actors, and when Sophocles introduced a third actor, he followed suit. He may not have been the first to use painted scenery, but his scene painter was the first to experiment with perspective. Moreover he took great care to work out appropriate dances for the chorus in his tragedies. Other tragic poets, it seems, used professional choreographers. Aeschylus did his own choreography, and did it so well that he was remembered as the first choreographer to train his dancers in schemata—the poses, postures, and gestures appropriate to the words and music that they sang. Though seven tragedies of Aeschylus have survived and the words that his choruses sang can be studied, little about the melodies or the dances that accompanied the words is known.


Writing in the fourth century B.C.E., the philosopher, musical theorist, and an alumnus of Aristotle’s Lyceum Aristoxenus of Tarentum wrote that there were three important elements to choral lyric: poetry, song, and dancing. All three of these aspects shared a common rhythm, which meant that the meter a tragic poet used for the odes sung by the chorus should identify something about the dancing which accompanied the music and the poetry. For instance, if the poet used a marching rhythm for the entrance of the chorus into the orchestra of the theater, the chorus most likely marched in step; if he used a more lyrical measure, the chorus danced into the theater. There were tragedies, too, where the chorus was already in the theater when the action began, and in that case, presumably the fifteen choristers filed into the orchestra and took their positions quietly before the play started. By examining the meter of the poetry, scholars can make an educated guess as to whether the choreography was lively or sedate. If a kommos (“dirge”) was sung, the chorus presumably made gestures of mourning, for the literal meaning of the word kommos is “beating,” as in “beating the breast,” which was a gesture of grief. By and large, however, the schemata, the poses of the dancers and the figures of the dance, is unknown. One aspect of dance that only survived in Greek art work was called the kheironomia—the art of gesture with the hands. Numerous vases and sculptures show dancers making common gestures such as the hand bent upwards—the hand is outstretched and the fingers are bent backwards, away from the palm. The hand itself could be held in many positions such as the palm down, palm turned towards the dancer’s body, and hand before the dancer’s face, and each position signified a different meaning. The Greeks and Romans both considered gesture a significant instrument of communication, one that orators, for instance, had to master, and hence it was also an important element of dance. Telestes, a dancer whom Aeschylus used, was so great a master of communicating with his arms and hands that he could dance the whole of Aeschylus’ tragedy, Seven Against Thebes, making the meaning clear by his gestures and dance figures. Kheironomia can still be seen in Oriental dances, such as the ritual dances of Cambodia, but overall it has fallen out of the Western dance tradition.

The Chorus Before Aeschylus

Aeschylus put tragic dance on a new footing by inventing new schemata (“choreography”) for the dance company, including the twists, kicks, and other poses that the dancers performed, but dance was an important part of tragedy before the fifth century B.C.E. as well. The dithyramb from which tragedy developed had choruses of fifty choristers, and presumably the tragedy with which Thespis won first prize at the City Dionysia of 534 B.C.E. had a chorus of that number. At some point the chorus was reduced to fifteen choristers; it was most likely reduced to twelve first and then later increased by three, although the reasons for this are unknown. Early poets such as Thespis, Pratinas, Cratinus, and Phrynichus were all dancing instructors as well as tragedians. By the first decades of the fifth century B.C.E. there was already a small corps of trained dancers available for theater productions—semi-professionals, but some of them immensely talented. There were both artistic and economic reasons for reducing the size of the tragic chorus. The choregus—the citizen who paid the costs of production—must have preferred a chorus of fifteen to one of fifty because it was less expensive, and the tragic poet preferred it because fifteen well-trained dancers could perform the complicated choreography which he arranged better than amateurs, no matter how talented they were. Before Aeschylus, dance appeared relatively undisciplined. This can be seen in Aristophanes’ comedy, the Wasps, where the old man Philocleon gets drunk and performs the old dances of Thespis and Phrynichus. They are dances with leaps and whirls and high kicks. This is nothing prim and proper about them. Students of ancient dance have found this evidence troubling, for it seems to indicate that early tragedy, as it developed from the dithyramb, was accompanied by dances that were much less orderly and decorous than they were after Aeschylus’ reforms. Scholars typically have not valued the evidence from Aristophanes’ work, for he was a writer of comedies and therefore may have exaggerated the old-fashioned dances of early tragedy for comic effect. Yet there would be no point to Aristophanes’ joke if the early tragedies before Aeschylus were not remembered for their lively dances, which were perhaps amateurish but very vigorous. Due to this supposition, polished, well-choreographed dances of Greek tragedy in the classical period do not precede Aeschylus.

The Dance of Comedy

Comedy and satyr plays both have their origins in the revels that were danced and sung in honor of the Dionysus, the god of wine. The word “comedy” must be connected with the Greek word komos, meaning a “band of merry-makers”—revelers who sang and jested as they danced through the streets. Where and how comedy took form as a theatrical presentation is much disputed, but in Athens it became an official part of the City Dionysia in 486 B.C.E. and it soon developed its own conventions. What is known about “Old Comedy” is based largely on nine of the eleven surviving plays of Aristophanes which were produced during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E.). His last two plays, produced after the war was over, belong to “Middle Comedy”—a term which was coined in the Hellenistic period after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E. to label the transition between “Old Comedy” and the situation comedies of the “New Comedy,” where the chorus provided interludes of dance and song between the acts, but played no role in the play itself. The size of the chorus grew smaller; at a performance in Delphi in 276 B.C.E. it was made up of just seven choristers, and a century later, a comedy performed on the island of Delos had only four.

The Structure of Old Comedy

“Old Comedy” plays had a six-part structure. First there was the prologue where the protagonist outlined the plot, usually centered around an extravagant and impractical solution to some current problem. Next came the parodos, or entry of a chorus of 24 imaginatively costumed dancers. Then came the agon, the contest or debate, where the protagonist defended his brilliant solution against objections from opponents and always won. Then came theparabasis (“digression”) where the chorus addressed the audience directly with song and dance, and vented the spleen of the comic poet against various prominent citizens. The song and dance of the parabasis contained one long sentence called the pnigos (“choker”) because it was to be uttered all in one breath, and the actors whose breath control allowed them to perform it perfectly could expect numerous applauses. A number of farcical scenes followed, separated by song and dance performed by the chorus. Finally the merry exodus, a scene of rejoicing usually leading up to a banquet or wedding, was staged. The chorus exited dancing. A good example of the use of dance in comedy can be seen in the final scene of Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae (The Women in the Assembly). Praxagora, the leader of a coup of women who promulgate a new constitution, witnesses her husband Blepyrus entering with a group of dancing girls, on his way to a banquet to celebrate the new constitution. The chorus leader orders the dancing girls to dance, and Blepyrus to lead off with a fine old Cretan-style jig, and chorus, dancing girls, and Blepyrus all exit to the beat of the music.

The Kordax

In the parabasis of Aristophanes’ Clouds, produced in 423 B.C.E., the leader of the chorus told the audience that this was a modest play: there would be no kordax dance in it. The label kordax did not refer to all the dances in comedy, but to a particular dance, which was performed solo—at least in the sense that the dancers performed it independently, not as members of a chorus line coordinating their movements. It was a suggestive dance, like the “bumps” and “grinds” of dancers in modern-day burlesque theater. The kordax-dancer rotated his buttocks and abdomen, sometimes bending forward at the hips. The dancer might also hop, as if his feet were tied together, or leap into the air, or simply wiggle suggestively. Leaps and whirls of all kinds were part of a kordax performance, and it was performed to the music of the aulos which must have had a timbre rather like the bagpipes. Proper people did not dance the kordax. The philosopher Plato thought it should be banned from the ideal state which he described in his Laws.

The Satyrs’ Dances

The dance that was characteristic of the satyr play was the sikinnis—a dance which was sometimes used in comedy as well. The originator of the satyr play was a dramatist named Pratinas of Phlius, who presented plays in Athens at the start of the fifth century B.C.E. It was a lively dance, with much horseplay, rapid movements, and expressive gestures, many of them obscene. Two satyr plays have survived, including one by Euripides that includes a sikinnis. Euripides’Cyclops is a burlesque of the tale of Odysseus in the cave of the Cyclops that is told in the Odyssey of Homer. In Cyclops, old Silenus comes on stage, and having introduced the play, summons the chorus of satyrs. He refers to their entrance as a sikinnis and so presumably they dance on stage. The satyrs have been captured by the Cyclops, Polyphemus, and made to tend his flocks, and when they enter, dancing, they drag on sheep and goats, though whether these animals are real or imaginary is impossible to judge. However, the chorus of satyrs in Cyclops only plays a secondary role, and the text gives little hint as to what the choreography was like. The role of Odysseus, however, has several solos accompanied by interpretative dance that gave splendid scope to the actor who played the role to display his talents.

Dionysian Dance

Ecstatic Dance

Dance and song were a part of every religious festival, but in some, dance was an instrument with which the dancer could achieve a closer communion with divinity by entering into a state of rapture. The violent whirls and leaps of the dance brought the dancer into a state of ecstasy. The goddess Cybele, known as the Great Mother, whose cult center was in Phrygia in western Asia Minor, was attended by eunuch priests called Corybantes, devotees of the goddess who castrated themselves with flint knives after dancing to the accompaniment of cymbals and castanets until they attained a state of utter rapture. Among the twelve Olympian gods and goddesses of Greece, the nearest counterpart of Cybele was Demeter, who presided over the fertility of the earth, and the dances performed in her honor were generally full of lively movements. In the ancient festival of the Thesmophoria, which the women of Athens held over a period of three days, one dance that was performed was the oklasma. During the oklasma a dancer crouched down, with her knees on the earth, and then swiftly leaped up as high as she could from her crouching position, trying to reach the perfect image of the god to achieve rapture. It was the god of wine, Dionysus, who presided over the ecstatic dances that are best known. Dionysus was accompanied by a thiasos—a company that parades through the streets singing and dancing—and the thiasos of Dionysus was made up of maenads (frenzied women) and satyrs. Dionysus and his thiasos were frequent subjects for Athenian vase painters working in the black-figure and red-figure techniques.

Defining the Maenads

The maenads were female devotees of Dionysus who went up into the mountains and there engaged in a frenzied, ecstatic dance in honor of the god of wine. Sometimes they caught wild animals and tore them limb from limb with their bare hands and ate the animals’ raw flesh. The myth of Dionysus relates that he was born in Thebes, the chief city in Boeotia, the region of Greece northwest of the city-state of Athens. His father was Zeus and his mother was Semele, daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes, who was destroyed by Hera’s jealous hatred. Once Dionysus was fully grown, he made a campaign into India that lasted two years and then returned in triumph to introduce his new religion. For historians of religion, there is much about the Dionysiac cult that is hard to understand. Dionysus was a latecomer to Greek religion, as the myths about him seem to suggest, for he was not originally one of the Twelve Olympian Gods, and when he was added to the list, he displaced Hestia, the goddess of the hearth. He was worshipped in the Mycenaean period, for his name appears on the Linear B tablets found in the so-called “Palace of Nestor” at Pylos, which was destroyed in 1200 B.C.E. Apparently dance was an important part of his cult. On Keos a prehistoric temple has been found, which was erected in the fifteenth century B.C.E., and continued in use for a thousand years. In it were the remains of twenty terracotta statues, all of them women, shown with their breasts bared and their hands resting on their hips, resembling Dionysian dancers. An inscription on a votive offering found in the excavation and dating to early classical times identifies Dionysus as the lord of this sanctuary. The terracotta dancers indicate that dance was an important part of the rites practiced in reverence to Dionysus, and scholars have suggested that these dancers were also priestesses of the cult of Dionysus.

Maenads in the Classical World

Diodorus of Sicily, a Greek historian who wrote in the mid-first century B.C.E., noted that in Boeotia and other parts of Greece, as well as in Thrace, which stretched into modern Bulgaria and Romania, sacrifices were held every second year in Dionysus’ honor to commemorate his triumphal return from India. Consequently, in many Greek cities, every other year, bands of women gathered for rites that honored Dionysus. Diodorus called these bands of women baccheia and the rites they performed orgia (“frenzied dances”). These women of the baccheia included not only unmarried girls but also respected married women. The baccheia danced to the music of the tambourine and the reed pipe known as the aulos, and as they danced they flung their heads back and raised the cry “euhoi” that sounded like “ev-hi.” Evidence from literature and from temple inscriptions show that biennial festivals of this sort took place in a number of cities, such as Delphi, Thebes—which claimed to be Dionysus’ birthplace—Rhodes, and Pergamum, as well as Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. As part of the festival, which always took place in midwinter, women would climb a nearby mountain and there, during the night, they would dance an oreibasia—a dance or procession in the mountains. The rite involved real hardship and sometimes danger. Plutarch, a writer in the second century C.E., reported that at Delphi, for instance, a group of women were cut off by a snowstorm at the top of Mt. Parnassus and a rescue party had to be sent out to bring them down the slopes.

The Evidence of Euripides’ Bacchae

The most graphic description that exists of the maenads comes from Euripides’ play, the Bacchae or the Bacchants, as the title is sometimes translated. It was written at the end of Euripides’ life, while he spent the years 408-406 B.C.E. in Macedon, and the play was not produced in Athens until after his death. The plot tells how Dionysus returned to his birthplace, Thebes, and there his new religion encountered resistance as it did at a number of places in Greece. Dionysus brought with him a thiasos of maenads from Phrygia in Asia Minor, who formed the chorus of the play, and they danced into the theater orchestra to the music of the aulos and the tambourine. The Dionysiac rite is taking hold of the city. Pentheus, king of Thebes, who had been away, arrives back home to find maenads dancing on Mt. Cithaeron, and in the middle of each group, a wine bowl added to the general intoxication. Pentheus’ own mother Agavé has joined the maenads. Pentheus vows to put an end to this madness. A herdsman arrives to describe the wild dance of the maenads that he and his fellow herdsmen have witnessed on the slopes of Mt. Cithaeron. Pentheus is persuaded by a stranger who is the god Dionysus in disguise to go to see the maenads himself, and when the maenads discover him, they tear him to pieces. In the final scene, Pentheus’ mother Agavé enters, frenzied and blood-stained, bearing Pentheus’ head, which she imagines is a lion’s cub. She has killed her own son in her madness, and as her mind clears, she is overcome with horror. Dionysus has brought tragedy on the royal house of Thebes.

The Dance of the Maenads in Historical Times

Euripides’ Bacchae has haunted the study of the maenads’ dance, and the speech of the herdsman that describes it is a classic account. It appears, however, that in most places where the biennial festival of Dionysus was celebrated, the rites of the maenads were not spontaneous explosions of dancing. They cannot be compared with the outbursts of dancing madness that affected communities in Europe from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, when people danced until they dropped. Nor was it the same as the tarantella, the whirling dance for couples from south Italy, danced to six/eight time, which was thought to be a cure for a nervous disorder known as tarantism. Rather the orgia seem to have been carefully regulated, and they were restricted to certain groups. The women who danced in the orgia played the role of maenads briefly and then returned to their everyday existence, which for many of them must have been humdrum. The maenads’ dance in Euripides’ Bacchae, culminating in the tearing apart of a victim, is mad and primitive, and Dionysus is a ruthless god, but to judge from the number of representations in Greek art it was a dance that haunted the Greek imagination.

Professional Dancers

Defining Professionals

The dividing line between the amateur and the professional dancer in ancient Greek society is not an easy one to draw. The first tragedian, Thespis, was not only a dancer but he also taught dance, and so did all the early tragic poets. Sophocles received instruction from Lamprus, a famous teacher of dance and music who was also well-known for his abstention from wine, which was unusual among the practitioners of mousike—music, dance, and poetry. Even the tragic poet Aeschylus, who did his own choreography, used the services of a dancing master. Yet even though choristers and dancing masters might be paid, they were considered non-professional. The fifty men who sang and danced the dithyrambs in Athens did not dance full-time, meaning they had other occupations that represented their primary work and so were not considered professional dancers. Dancers who entertained at banquets fell into a very different social category. Professional dancers and musicians were available for hire, and typically had a low social status. By the late sixth century B.C.E., contemporary literature tells of professional auletrides (“flute-girls”), except that their instrument was not the demure flute but a reed instrument which was the ancestor of the oboe. There were training schools for auletrides, but it was not their skill with the aulos that was their greatest attraction to audiences. They were also courtesans and prostitutes; by the fourth century B.C.E., the word auletris was almost a synonym for a cheap prostitute. Hiring dancers for entertainment at the lavish banquets given by wealthy hosts was a common occurrence in the Greco-Roman world. The Roman writer Pliny the Younger, who lived under the emperors Domitian (r. 81-96 C.E.) and Trajan (r. 98-117 C.E.), wrote to a friend, chiding him for failing to come to a banquet that Pliny had given, and listing the delights he had missed, among them dancing girls from Cadiz in Spain. Xenophon, Socrates’ disciple, described a symposium that Socrates attended where the entertainment was provided by a troupe of dancers and musicians headed by a Syracusan dancing-master who hired them out. Both the musicians and dancers described in the accounts of Pliny and Xenophon were most likely slaves. Among the entertainments that they offered was a sword dance performed by a female acrobat, and a mime telling the myth of Dionysus and Ariadne, danced by a girl and a handsome boy. Both of these dancers would not only perform for their dance master, but would also share his bed. The life of professional dancers was harsh and, except for a lucky few, they were at the bottom of the social scale.

The Dionysiac Guilds

Sometime very early in the third century B.C.E., the actors, dancers, and musicians in Athens formed a synodos (“guild”). It may not have been the first such association, for there is some reason to think that the earliest actors’ guild was formed in Hellenistic Egypt, where it was imposed on the actors by the government. In any case, the Athenian guild was the first in mainland Greece, and it was soon followed by the Isthmian guild centered in Corinth, and by others, until there were six in all, including one for the Greek cities in southern Italy and Sicily. They engaged in an astonishing range of activities: they exchanged gifts and honors with cities and kings, they secured tax-exemptions and front row seats in the theater for their members, and organized festivals. Travel in the Hellenistic world was insecure, for the numerous poor had turned to robbery, and the roads were infested with highwaymen and the sea-lanes with pirates. Hence the guilds negotiated the right to asylia—the right of safe passage from city to city. The rights of the Athenian guild were recognized officially after 274 B.C.E. by the Amphictionic League, an inter-state organization based at Delphi which was the association closest to a “United Nations” that Hellenistic Greece knew. The Dionysiac troupes of professional artists moved from place to place, and even small towns built stone theaters. In addition to theaters, they built odeons—music halls with roofs so that a rainstorm need not interrupt a performance. Pericles built one in Athens during the fifth century B.C.E.; it was a square building with its roof supported by a forest of columns, but later odeons look like small theaters with roofs that must have been made of wood. Their interiors were too dark for productions of tragedy and comedy, but lamps could provide enough lighting for music and dance. The music hall at Pompeii in southern Italy, which was built just after 80 B.C.E., has the design of a small Roman theater, with a low, narrow stage, and the groove in the stage where the curtain wound down can still be seen.

The Popularity of the Dionysiac Artists

The first century and a half after the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.E.-14 C.E.), the city of Rome had a large population of under-employed or unemployed, and Augustus knew how important it was to keep the mob happy. There is a story reported of Augustus which told that in 17 B.C.E., when some citizens were irritated at the strict morality laws which Augustus promulgated, he allowed the officials in charge of the festivals to spend three times the amount on them authorized by the treasury, and permitted the popular dancer Pylades to return to Rome, even though he earlier had been banished for sedition. He did chide Pylades for his noisy rivalry with the dancer Bathyllus, however, to which Pylades replied that if the people spent their time with dancers it was Augustus who gained. Pylades recognized the value of dance in diverting the attention of the mob from the failings of the government.

Dance in Rome

The Influence of Etruria

The city of Rome in 364 B.C.E. was suffering from a plague. Believing the plague to be the result of the anger of the gods, the Romans brought in Etruscan dancers in an effort to appease the gods and gain some relief from the plague’s devastation. The Etruscans danced to the music of the aulos, the precursor to the oboe, without any songs or gestures, but their graceful movements entranced the Romans, who began to imitate them. There is much about the Etruscans which is still a mystery—the riddle of their language has not yet been solved—but in the ancient world, they were known for their love of luxury, to which the paintings found in their tombs of the magnificence of their festivals and banquets can attest. In one tomb, the Tomba dei Cacciatori (Tomb of the Huntsmen), men dance in the open air, most of them nude except for a loincloth. They are shown separated from each other by trees or shrubs, dancing wildly to the music of the double-aulos. In another tomb, the Tomba delle leonesse (Tomb of the Lionesses), a naked man is shown dancing opposite a scantily-clad woman. On opposite walls of the Tomba del Triclinio (Tomb of the Dining Couch), there are two groups of five dancers each, alternating in gender. In one corner, a musician plays the double-aulos, and in the other, a man plays the lyre. Another tomb shows a man apparently dancing in armor to the music of the aulos. Like the Greeks, the Etruscans knew the pyrrhike (“war dance”) or something like it.

Roman Attitudes Towards Dance

Roman character had a strong ascetic streak. The Etruscans may have introduced Romans to the dance, but it retained the reputation of a foreign import for years after. Plato may have said that a man who did not know how to dance was uneducated, but Plato was a Greek, and his Roman contemporaries would have thought the sentiment ridiculous. The art of the dance did eventually come to Rome along with the rest of Greek culture, but for the Romans, dancing always remained entertainment. It was never part of a Roman’s formal education. By the end of the third century B.C.E., upper-class Romans did start to send their children to dancing-masters for lessons, and in the first half of the second century B.C.E., while Greece itself was falling under Roman domination, Greek dancers, most of them probably brought to Rome as slaves and then freed, set up dancing-schools. From the Roman perspective, the creation of dancing schools gave dance a status far beyond that of mere entertainment, and its possibilities for the corruption of character led to a backlash against this art form. In the middle of the second century B.C.E., Scipio Aemilianus, a Roman aristocrat who generally admired Greek culture, moved to close the schools down, but his success was short-term at best. Yet Scipio’s view of dance persisted in Roman culture into the first century B.C.E.: it was permissible for Romans to know how to dance, but knowing how to dance expertly was a symptom of depravity.

Native Dances of Rome

Nonetheless there were dances native to early Rome. One called the bellicrepa was supposedly instituted by Rome’s founder, Romulus, and was a dance in armor performed by warriors drawn up in battle ranks. The cult of the god Mars Ultor (“Avenger”) involved dances by armed men, and on a number of surviving medals and gems, as well as one bronze statuette, there are representations of Mars dancing. There were also ancient priestly brotherhoods with ritual dancers. The best-known are the Salians, priests of Mars Gradivus (“Marches Forth to War”) who, according to tradition, were established by Romulus’ successor as king of Rome, Numa. They wore helmets and breast-plates over embroidered tunics, and they carried swords and the sacred shields of Mars. To the music of trumpets they paraded through the city of Rome, making stops at places hallowed by religion, and there performing the Salian dance. They shuffled from left to right, then from right to left, and all the while they beat the earth with their feet and made leaps into the air as they beat their shields. The Roman historian Livy mentions another ancient dance performed to propitiate Juno in 207 B.C.E., during the long and difficult Second Carthaginian War. Twenty-seven young girls made their way to the forum while singing a hymn, and there they took hold of a rope and danced with it through the streets on their way to the temple of Juno. Ancient rope dances were also found in Greece; a fragment of a Mycenaean fresco shows men wearing donkey-headed masks in procession carrying a rope.

Introduction of Pantomime

The historian Zosimus, who wrote in Greek in the reign of the emperor Theodosius II (408-450 C.E.) on the decline of Rome from the time of the first emperor Augustus (r. 27 B.C.E.-14 C.E.) to his own day, has little to say about Augustus, but he does note an important development in dance that occurred during Augustus’ reign.

In those days the pantomime dance was introduced, which did not exist earlier. Pylades and Bathyllus were the first to introduce it, though there are other reasons too for the many evils that have survived up to the present day.

Zosimus was still a pagan writing at a time when the pagan religion had become a small minority in a largely Christian empire, but he reflected the old-fashioned belief that the decline of Rome was caused by moral decay, and dancing was a symptom of decay. The old Roman attitude towards dance died hard. Pliny the Younger, a writer of elegant letters in the later first century C.E., commented in one of his letters on the death of an eighty-year old woman, Ummidia Quadratilla, who owned a troupe of pantomime dancers, and enjoyed their performances more than was proper for a woman of her social station. She did not allow her grandson to see them—to that extent she remained faithful to the old Roman view that dance corrupted the youth. Since Quadratilla was enormously wealthy, she could afford to have her pantomime troupe put on private performances for her own entertainment, but by that time Rome had permanent theaters built of stone—the first of them opened in 55 B.C.E., long after many towns in Italy had them—and it was pantomime dance rather than tragedy and comedy that filled them.

Antecedents of Pantomime

Before pantomime was invented, there was mime. In Greece, a mime was a short dramatic skit that could be sung and danced on stage. The banquet which Socrates attended after the Great Panathenaic festival of 421 B.C.E., which Xenophon described in his Symposium, was entertained by a mime in which two dancers performed the story of Dionysus and Ariadne. Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete, helped Theseus escape the Minotaur and accompanied him on his homeward voyage as far as the island of Naxos where he deserted her, and Dionysus arrived to make her his bride. This mime seems to have had at least some of the features of the later pantomime. The subject was a tale from mythology, which was the stock-in-trade of pantomime. Mimes came to Rome in the third century B.C.E., where they became very popular, and they covered a wide range of subjects. Women regularly appeared in them as mimae (“mime actresses”) as well as men. One popular feature of the festival known as the Floralia (Flower Festival) was a mime in which mimae appeared naked. The masses loved mimes, and Roman emperors favored them. The emperor Domitian (r. 82-96 C.E.) catered to the bloodthirsty taste of the Roman public by ordering a genuine crucifixion inserted into a mime. Troupes of mime artists, some owned by impresarios who were mime performers themselves, toured the towns and cities of the empire, and played in the local theaters at festivals which well-to-do local citizens financed to advertise their public spirit. By the time of the late Roman Empire, it was hard to distinguish between mime and pantomime, and the Christian church frowned on both of them. In 22 B.C.E., however, two pantomine artists, Pylades and Bathyllus, invented the Roman pantomime, and whatever its antecedents, it was recognized as something new.

Describing Pantomime

Pantomime created a new kind of dance performance by marrying three arts: song, music, and mime. Song and dance had been part of Roman theatrical productions ever since the first playwright, Livius Andronicus, produced plays in Rome. Livius Andronicus had lost his voice singing, and his audience allowed him to mime the songs while a boy sang for him. In pantomime, song was provided by a choir, not a solo performer. The piercing notes of the double-aulos had provided the music in the past, but Pylades added more instruments. Pantomime musicians soon developed into an orchestra, with musicians playing the aulos, the panpipes, cymbals, kithara (a kind of lyre), the lyre, and the trumpet. The conductor of the choir marked out the beat with a scabellum (“iron shoe”)—a clapper with a sound-box which could be worked with the foot. While the choir sang and the orchestra played, the pantomime artist mimed the plot of the drama. He used masks, but unlike the masks used by a tragic or comic actor which had a gaping mouth to allow the actor’s voice to project, the pantomime masks had closed mouths, for the pantomimus (“pantomime actor”) did not speak. Behind him stood an assistant who might be an actor with a speaking part, but he also gave the pantomimus help when needed—when the pantomimus switched roles, he changed masks, and a little assistance was sometimes necessary. The favorite plots of pantomimes were taken from mythology and the audiences were familiar with them.

The Great Players

Two great pantomimi were associated with the invention of the new pantomime: Pylades, an ex-slave of the emperor Augustus, and Bathyllus, an ex-slave of Augustus’ minister of public relations, Maecenas, who also supported a stable of writers. They may have cooperated in the introduction of this new entertainment around 22 B.C.E. The performances of Bathyllus were more joyous and light-hearted performances than those of Pylades, and his dances were livelier. Pylades created the tragic pantomime: a spectacle with choir, full orchestra, scenery, and even a second pantomimus when the plot demanded it. Both Pylades and Bathyllus had enthusiastic supporters who sometimes fought pitched battles in the streets. The emperor Augustus even banished Pylades from Rome for a period but relented and allowed him to return in 17 B.C.E. at a time when the emperor’s popularity was sagging. For the Roman masses, the recall of Pylades made up for other measures that were unpopular.

The Stars

The rivalry between the stars of the pantomime was intense. Pylades quarreled not only with Bathyllus, but also with a pupil of his, Hylas, whose talent on stage challenged his master’s. Pylades became wealthy. He owned his own troupe of pantomimes and in 2 B.C.E. he financed a festival himself, though by that time he was too old to perform, and sat in the audience. The emperor Nero, who had ambitions as a pantomime dancer himself, killed a pantomimus named Paris because he thought him a rival. The names of great pantomime dancers lived on, for later dancers assumed them, hoping to inherit some of their fame. There was a Paris in Nero’s reign, another in the reign of Domitian (81-96 C.E.) and another in the reign of Lucius Verus (161-169 C.E.), co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius. Five pantomime dancers with the name of Pylades can be traced, and six with the name of Apolaustus. By the time of the fourth century C.E., women were dancing in pantomimes. They had always played in mimes, and the distinction between the two was breaking down. In the sixth century C.E. the empress Theodora (527-548) was a pantomime dancer in her youth in Constantinople, which was by then a Christian city, and respectable women could not attend the theater. Yet once Theodora became empress, she did not forget her old friends in the theater. They were welcome as her guests in the imperial palace, and she arranged good marriages for their daughters.