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Dancing to re-connect: what ancient Greeks knew about the art

Written by

Sahya Samson

When we think of the word ‘dance’ nowadays, we may have images of some TV show dance contest, a night club, a couples’ salsa class, or a ballet performance pop up in our minds. But what were the origins of dance? What was it like, and what was its purpose in antiquity? Art in modern times can be quite intellectual and dry, seemingly random and devoid of values such as beauty and truth.

The further back in time we go, to the Ancient Greek civilization, for example, the more we see these values expressed through art. In fact, to the ancient Greeks, dance was a civilizing activity that developed the precious taste for beauty in its people. The more we draw inspiration from these times, the better informed and enriched our imagination for our own life or artistic endeavours.

Ancient Greek Dance began around 1000 BC and has evolved into what we are familiar with: the ballet and theatre arts of Europe. Back then, however, the dance integrated both music and poetry. This wholeness is something modern actors, dancers, musicians, and other artists can learn a lot from. The disciplines of theatre, movement, poetry (or speech), and music (or song) relate to each other intimately and needn’t be thought of as completely separate. Dance communicated the truth, beauty and strength of the Greek myths. The actor Thespis added spoken verse to the dances, thereby uniting speech, acting and movement.

Dance and dancers ranked high in ancient Greek society, with a strong connection to religious rites. Dance began in the holy temples as movement rituals. Festive and primeval in nature, it was separated into two distinct kinds: one belonging to the temple of Apollo and the other to that of Dionysus.

Apollonian dances were often accompanied by the pure and golden sound of the lyre. These dances were slower, ceremonial, and reverentially performed for religious festivals, communal events and also funerals. The apollonian element is that of wisdom, beauty, order and harmony. Apollo is the god of music, healing and justice.

Dionysian dances were the opposite. Here, passion, emotion and desire came into play in the frenetic, chaotic energy of the ‘carnival’ festivals. One was led into a sort of surrender to the instinctive and dynamic energy of the universe; if there was resistance or tension in the participant, it caused madness. The Greek god Dionysus brought wine, pleasure and festivity to humanity.

All artistic creation emerges from a feeling of connection to the cosmos (‘the bigger picture’). For the ancient Greek dancers it was a deep relationship with their gods that enabled them to create potent and meaningful dances that nourished their culture. Recognition of the existence and tension between the apollonian and Dionysian forces has brought unending inspiration to the imagination of artists, including writers, today, and will continue to do so. Perhaps there is much we can learn from the ‘knowing’ attitude with which they approached dance and culture as a whole?


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