The Treasure of Greek Music, Song, and Dance
Greece is known to have one of the richest folk traditions in the world. Hundreds of documented dances, lyrics that go back to ancient roots, musical instruments that reflect geography, and garments that showcase skillful handiwork create an abundant collage reflecting the Greek—his life, his beliefs, his story. One could say that no anthropological study of Greece is complete without acknowledging music, song, and dance as an integral part of being Greek.
With zealous fervor, Greeks in Greece uphold their folk traditions even today, and with a hungry passion for the motherland, Greeks in the diasporas preserve these traditions as if their very survival depended on it. This is not surprising, for music, song, and dance feed the Greek psyche in a most intriguing way. Most often one may witness these traditions around significant times in life: weddings, betrothals, baptisms, days honoring patron saints, and other festivities, but other times an intimate, spontaneous get together with family and friends can be a reason to get up and dance. If the feeling is there, the singing and dancing will follow.
It all begins with kefi. Kefi, the word that describes the feeling that overcomes the participant in a given celebration, has no exact translation in English beyond being in a good mood or in high spirits, but these definitions fail to express the word’s genuine meaning. Kefi may be considered a prelude to singing and dancing, a requirement to participation in many ways. If the Greek does not feel kefi, he just will not participate in the festivities, for participation without kefi is understood to being contrived, forced, even superficial. Thus, when a Greek gets up to dance or jumps in to sing a verse in a song, one can be certain that he is participating with all his heart and what he expresses is real.
Musical tunes in Greece can be meant for singing around a table of friends or for dancing. The tunes even allow for the poet in each participant to come through with the option to create spontaneous verses that fit the melody. They sing of life, love gained, love lost; they poke fun with their verses and even curse at their misfortunes if the social climate and audience is right. This vehicle of expression is exceptionally flexible, which has allowed it to evolve with the Greek people over generations. Likewise, the musical instruments have paralleled this evolution with choices like the lyra, laouto, tsambouna, violin, santouri, and more. Regions of Greece favor certain instruments over others, not merely as preference, but as a result of how the region has been affected in history and influenced over time, its geography, its depth, and its richness. You can see the beauty and diversity of Greece through its dances: the power of Pentozali from Crete, the boldness of Tsamiko from the Peloponese, the grace of a Ballos from one of the many islands or the passion of Hasapiko that one may see in a local taverna in Athens.
Greeks understand music, not necessarily with the knowledge of a formally educated musician, but on an emotional level. One who feels the kefi to dance first identifies the tune, the circle gathers, and one takes the lead. Highly democratic, the Greeks take turns in the lead, and oftentimes in some villages, the dance does not finish until all or most dancers have taken the lead. All dancers in the circle understand their respective relationship to one another, promoting a oneness in the dance and a synchronization that goes beyond the steps. Moreover, the leader understands when in the music it is appropriate to embellish the steps. The embellishments are never choreographed or presumptuous; they are soulful, spontaneous, in the moment. Whether it is a circle dance of men, women or both, couple dances or other variation, the Greek observes a kind of etiquette while in the dance that allows him to express himself within the boundaries of a given dance. From one perspective, the village has come to define a given dance where one village may dance the same dance slightly differently. From another perspective, the festivity defines the dance. Thus, context in the form of location, celebration, participants and more governs how dances come to life.
The handmade garments worn only in isolated places today visually encapsulate the wealth of Greek culture. The variety in costumes overwhelms the eye with colors that reflect the entire spectrum, fabrics of all kinds, needlework, beading, and diverse designs. A guide is usually the weather of a given region: high, mountainous regions prefer woolens and darker colors while coastal regions and islands prefer lighter colors and silken fabrics. Regardless of the location, however, the garment will always reflect the amazing handiwork of the women with skills that go back generations.
Greek folk culture is among the Greeks’ many prized inheritances. Its preservation is vital to being Greek. Come to the Greek Festival, and see our own Nisiotes Dancers perform or better yet join the dancing circle and hold hands with the Greeks. While dancing, be sure to shout out the expression that communicates joy and celebrates life: OPA!