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Lily Antzaka-Weis

Greek dancing at school. The very beginning.

Antzaka-Weis, Lily: "Greek dancing at school – The very beginning", 17th International Congress on Dance Research, Naxos, 22-26/10, 2003.

1. The introduction of Greek national dances in public education

The data for the introduction of teaching Greek national dances in public schools are well known to research today [1]. The first accounts date from 1910-1915, when national dances were first introduced, either as a subject to be taught in the "School for gymnastics" or in the curriculum of public secondary schools. All these early references occur in royal decrees, instructions for teaching and curricula which complete an older law that got to be very important for gymnastic education in Greece. The law number 2621 issued in 1899 was introduced by Athanasios Eftaxias, then Minister of Religious Matters and National Education.

Gymnastics was part of the curriculum of public secondary schools as early as 1862 [2]. Its contents and ideology were strongly orientated towards military exercise. As there was shortage of gymnastics’ teachers, they were taught by army and firebrigade officers. Anyway, the Greek society did not highly appreciate the matter. Since the foundation of the Greek state, it was the intellectual development that has been emphasized, and there was a general contempt for physical activity, generally associated with labour and lower social starata. Physical exercising reminded of acrobats and wrestlers acting in folk fairs [3]. Although doctors and others pleaded for the benefits of physical training, the response was meager. Only a few of individuals practiced in the Public Gymnasium along with the high school youth and the university students [4]. Upper class was interested in horse-riding, fencing and shooting, sports that were considered as aristocratic and at the same time were of military character.

Since 1880, the government of Charilaos Trikoupis attempted once more to make gymnastics at school more effective. Proposals included the construction of gymnasiums adjoined to schools and the systematic education of gymnastics’ teachers. Still physical exercising was thought as a military preparation in the service of national claims [5]. It was the discussion about the reestablishment of the Olympic Games as a national and international institution that provided new arguments in favour of gymnastics. These were now enriched with new prestige, as physical exercising was understood as the uninterrupted athletic tradition of the antiquity [6]. Moreover, the classical ideal of "kalokagathia", i.e. the balanced development of the body and mind, was at that time the essence of new pedagogic theories and of all national ideologies in Western, Northern and Central Europe[7]. Last but not least, rapid westernization of the Greek society resulted in the adoption of bourgeois practices and values by increasingly larger numbers of the population. Sports such as lawn tennis, paddling, football etc., typical european upper class activities, considered as entertainment without gain, but subject to rational and objective rules, were thought to promote the concept of time, i.e. the development of individual initiative, self-control, the recognition of the best, as well as the values of equality and solidarity within the group [8]. This ideology has been progressively incorporated into the pedagogic intentions of gymnastic lessons in Greek schools.

The law of 1899 [9] established the lesson of gymnastics as mandatory in schools of all levels, from elementary to the University, and enriched it with games, athletics as well as outdoor activities. An analytical educational curriculum was issued for the first time. A serious effort was made to improve the status and reputation of the gymnastics’ teachers. The "School for gymnastics" was reoorganized following the model of the swedish gymnastic system [10], which, in 1909, was introduced in public schools. The royal decree of 1910 following the law of 1899 clarifired and specified some issues on the subjects that had to be taught on the School for Gymnastics. There, for the first time, we have a reference to national dances along with "regional games" [11]. Unfortunately we still do not have the texts that would enlighten us on the specific arguments related to the introduction of national dances into school curricula. A study of relative texts gives us an idea of the contemporary attitudes and views and lead us to underline three points:

1. The suggestion of "regional" or "folk" games.The main argument, besides the recreational benefit ("a real joy and recreation" for children) stresses the fact that the use of "native" material would make it easier to approach lower strata, so that they would get acquainted with gymnastics and start to approve its physical, intellectual and moral benefits [12]. From this argument we understand that there is an already formed bourgeois conception concerning what is "regional" (or "local") and what is "folk". Responsible for such categorizations and characterizations was the academic school of folklore studies.

2. A general interest for rural areas and their population. This interest is not confined to playing in the fresh air. The new idea that is introduced is that outdoor activities help in the development of aesthetic criteria instigated by the beauty of nature, as well as in the social instruction of the children by bringing them in contact with the intensively working peasant [13]. This attitude remind us of the respective development of "ethographia" in modern Greek literature. It should be once more underlined, that national dances as a subject of instruction in schools was first suggested, in 1914, to be taught as an outdoor activity and not as part of the gymnastics in a gymnasium [14].

3. The fact that school education and in particular physical education serves national purposes. The aim is the creation of a homogenous national population in good physical and psychological shape [15].The national dances find their place in school curricula since 1915, along with "regional games" and soon also with singing [16]. A royal decree of 1920 concerning promotion tests in the School for Gymnastics states that the candidate should be able to sing one of the songs he learned in the class of singing and to teach a dance he learned in the dancing class. As for the female candidate, she has to teach in class a Greek dance and the related song [17].

A comparison with what was going on in Greek music at that time reveals a parallel evolution. This is the period when the so-called National School of Music evolves. Composers as Labeulette, Kalomiris, Samaras, Lavrangas and others were arranging the music of Greek dances for European-set orchestras, and institutions involved in the conservation and presentation of Greek dances were also concerned for providing the means of an acceptable musical performance of these dances [18].

2. Private initiative and Greek dancing

Who were the institutions interested in Greek dancing? In first place, some societies that quite early incorporate Greek dancing into their recreational activities. In the spring of 1900 the Gymnastic National Society organized an excursion to a mountain near Athens, where all day long "musical harmonies and Greek songs and dances" were to be heard and athletic games performed [19]. Here we have again the combination of excursion, games, athletics and folk dances as the recreational extension of gymnastics, in the same way we find it since 1914 in the schools.

A much more important role was given to Greek dances in the Lyceum Club of Greek Women, a ladies’ society founded in 1911. The Lyceum Club aimed, among other things, to fight "xenomania" (westernization) of the time by emphasizing, in a programmatic way, Greek traditions. From the very beginning the ladies of the Lyceum Club seemed to have clear opinions about modern Greek dances: they regarded them as genuine, although aesthetically weakened, descendants of ancient Greek dances [20], and anyway as an "art". Greek dances provided the primary material for special performances, great shows of Greek music and dance promoting Greek national ideology, which were enthusiastically received by the Athenian audience (the Anthesteria in the Zappion House in Athens in 1911, the Festival in the Stadium in Athens in 1914 etc.) [21].

The term "the dances", always used in plural, clearly shows that there existed already a "corpus", a definite group of such dances. Indeed, there is such a "corpus" to be found in books written by dance teachers as early as 1893 (the "Perfect manual of dancing" by Herakles Pingas). One of those dance teachers, Argyrios Andreopoulos, who edited his "Dance teaching course" some years later, strongly influenced the way Greek dances were taught and presented in the next decades [22].

Such manuals for ballroom dancing were edited in a series that was concerned with social behaviour and were targetting a middle- and petty-bourgeois audience [23]. On the contrary, the dance teacher’s activities involved all urban social classes, differing only in the approach: upper classes invite the dance teacher to home lessons, whether other social groups attend a dancing school or try to learn by reading the booklets. We are not certain why dance teachers added in their ballroom dance manuals some Greek dances such as kalamatiano, tsamiko, island syrto and others. Was there a "demand’ for those dances? Or did the dance teachers act as innovators, responding by that to the ideas of pedagogists and others that cruisaded already since the middle of the 19th century against "xenomania" and propagated the devotion to Greek customs?

"Xenomania" was extremely common in Greek upper classes, and the Lyceum Club of Greek Women had already started, as said above, a fight against it. It is not accidental that especially womens’ social life is critisized as being "foreign-orientated". The same accusation applied to Greek girls’ education, that was strictly in private hands till the end of the 19th century and was strongly Western-oriented indeed, since it was addressed mainly to Greek upper classes. In the 1860es and 1870es, pedagogists underlined how much Greek values had been forgotten, saying for instance that "our nation doesn’t need British or French fathers and mothers, but Greek ones" [24]. The demand for a Greek education and social behaviour is expressed in many writings and handbooks in the turning of the 19th century. The statement of a pedagogist and school controller, Miltiades Vratsanos, in 1899, brings us back to our very subject. Vratsanos wants the national dances to be taught in every school, since so far they had been "neglected and disgraced" in favour of the waltz and other "disgusting" imported dances [25].

It is true that private schools reacted with more flexibility to social demands than public schools. In the girls’ school of the Philekpedeftiki Eteria in Athens, gymnastic had been introduced some years earlier than in public schools [26] and as early as in 1861 they were also teaching dance there, although we do not know what sort [27]. Private schools in Athens teach their pupils national dances and give in 1911 a show in the Stadium: at the end of their annual gymnastic exhibition the girls showed up in "shepherdesses’ clothes", the boys wearing the "fustanella" costume of the National Guard [28].

The enthusiasm about national dances and folk songs is even greater among the Greeks of the Ottoman Empire and those of the diaspora. In Cyprus, in Smyrna, in Artaki, in Drama, in the Greek communities in Egypt, in Crete, in Rhodes, and also in the USA and elsewhere, in theatrical performances, in festivals, in social events and in schools, national dances celebrate and affirm national conscience [29]. As far as we know it wasn’t the various regional traditions of Greek music and dance that played that role but a "corpus" of dances from the early liberated provinces that formed the first territory of free Greece ("old Greece"). These were the "national dances". They seemed to assure the symbolic ties of the diaspora with the main body of Greek nation and its metropolitan (merely ideological than economic) centre, Athens.

Concluding, the formation of the "corpus" of national dances as a new symbolic national capital was initiated by private initiative which preceded public education. The latter followed as soon as the political leaders receptively got aware of the new currents and were willing to add the new subject to formal national education [30].National dances taught and danced at school should not be regarded in a continuing line with the dances of the "klephts" (fighters of the War of Independece against the Ottoman Empire) and Greek peasants, as often is so easily proclaimed in speeches on national holidays. They consist a new phenomenon which should be seen as serving new purposes and having new functions. "National dances" should be understood as a phenomenon which develops in a historical and cultural context responding promptly to the strong national and bourgeois demands of the times [31].


See the Greek version of the same text.

Ms. Lily Antzaka-Weis


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