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Gillian Bottomley


Bottomley, Gillian: «Preface», To book of Raftis, Alkis: The world of greek dance. Athens, The international organization of folk art - Unesco C., 1987

It is not easy to describe the significance of this book while doing justice to its unique qualities. It is not just "a study of Greek dance". Although Dr Raftis' training as a sociologist is apparent in his scholarly approach, this book is also a personal statement, as wet! as an inquiry into some of the processes of social and cultural reproduction. The author has also lived and danced his subject matter. His work, therefore, is a particularly valuable contribution to the ongoing debate about the place of the author/observer in the analysis of cultural forms. At the same time, the author's practical interest in dance has enabled him to produce an informative and useful text. The theory is immanent rather than explicit and the book is accessible to a wide range of readers.

From another, related perspective, this book is a timely examination of the politics of cultural representation. Or Raftis offers a lively critique of dance studies and the transformation of dance into performances for tourists or "patriotic rhythmic gymnastics". These processes are especially apparent in Greece, where dance remains integral to the lives of many people but also provides entertainment to a vast tourist population.

Within this debate, the present study reveals the significance of dance in the re-constitution of "imagined communities". For example, dance is closely linked to the identification of people with particular regions of origin and with the Greek nation. For this reason, dance can be incorporated in ideological practices, as it was for example during the period of the junta and as it often is in Greek populations of the diaspora. Dr Raftis also criticises the sense of urban superiority that led to the official view of demotic music and dance as "the naive expression of simple peasants" and as being tainted by non-european elements.

This reflexive approach to the study of Greek dance and music pervades the work. Discussing studies of dance in ancient Greece, Dr Raftis notes a tendency to project interpretations from our own historical era, as well as a common idealisation of the ancients, archaeolatry. He argues that historical studies must be specific to time and place and provides examples of how specific analyses might be made, both in this section and in the next, on the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods. His analyses offer the reader a fresh view of travellers' accounts of these periods, which often "classicised" Greek dances and represented them as performances with some conscious attempt at forming patterns (for example). These historical chapters provide an extremely valuable background to the study of Greek dance, which too often leaps from the ancient to the present without due attention to the intervening centuries.

Later chapters offer specific analyses of dance in more contemporary settings, again with the emphasis on the relation of dance to other social phenomena. These include material about paniyiria (village feast days) and public festivals, weddings, family celebrations, Carnival and Easter celebrations and the place of coffeehouses. Public dances are shown as generally reinforcing the social order of values, providing participants with a sense of permanency and a social location. Marriage is the most important event of the life cycle, marking movement into maturity, the transfer of property, the establishment of kinship alliances and the culmination of years of preparation. The ritual of marriage is, therefore, highly elaborated, with its own choruses and accompaniments. These are examined here through analysis of the dances found throughout the marriage ritual.

Carnival, on the other hand, is a ritual denial of social mores, with formally acknowledged leaders and dance order, accompanied by loud and frightening noises and, in the literal sense of the word, ecstatic performances, such as leaping over fires.

The institution of the coffeehouse is of considerable sociological importance in Greece. It is a place for older men who may not be welcome at home for too long. During the long hours together, they share their constructions of personal histories and recognise common destinies and common problems. They dance solo or holding each other's shoulders, practices which were transformed to a new context with the music of rembetika.

The next chapters elaborate on dance costumes and music, including instruments and musicians. The themes of earlier chapters re-emerge here as Dr Raftis describes the influence of European music and the domination of country by city. He demonstrates how village music has been considered as inferior, reminding listeners of "the miserable past" of Greek rural life. Nevertheless, it has been used for patriotic purposes, as it was in 1967 when the colonels' coup was announced to the strains of traditional music.

One of the characteristics of Greek music is that its rhythm can vary to suit the dance and the singer. Musicians are evaluated according to the results they bring to the listeners, such as making the celebrations known to other villages or "giving wings to the feet of the dancers". Traditional music, therefore, derives its significan­ce from its social context. It is directed to the specific people being entertained, in a continuous relationship between singer, dancer and musician, including historical as well as synchronic elements. The art of an instrument player is to bring the dancer out of himself: "The instrument is a hook to draw the money from the pockets of the dancers".

In the last chapter of the first part, the author offers a critical view of Folklore Studies in Greece (Laographia) which, he argues, usually fail to recognise traditional societies as equal to the so-called "civilised" societies inhabited by the laographer. Songs have been analysed, decoded, abstracted from context, and linked to ancient Greek traditions in a process of legitimation. Too often, these studies have represented another mode of domination.

The part of the book does not end on such a negative note, however. Dr Raftis goes on to outline a methodology for the study of dance, including an outline of relevant questions to ask those who dance. This is not merely abstract formulation: the author has used this method himself in extensive studies of dance. As with the rest of the book, these pages represent a sharing of experience and knowledge that will be of immense value to students of dance.

The second part of the book is a unique collection of information for those who want to dance, to watch others dancing, to listen to traditional music (live or recorded), to play such music, provide costumes for dancing or study museum collections of material associated with dance. The entire book represents years of extensive work by someone who is a practitioner as well as a scholar. Its translation into English provides a challenging opportunity to see and to listen with the eyes and ears of one who is, in this context, both subject and object. It also offers a fresh and fascinating view of Greek society through the perspective of one of its central cultural forms - dance.


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