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Mary Elizabeth Phillips

A parallelism between ballet and the Revived Greek Dance

Phillips, Mary Elizabeth: "A parallelism between ballet and the Revived Greek Dance", 14th International Congress on Dance Research, Aridaia, Greece, 13-17/9, 2000.

This presentation of the Revived Greek Dance is only a small part of a wider research on the factors that contributed to its success in the 1920's and 1930's. The Revived Greek Dance or Classical Greek Dance as it was renamed to in the 1980's, was developed at the beginning of the 20th century in the UK, by Ruby Ginner. In the creation of her dance technique, which she originally developed for self-expressional purposes, she was deeply inspired by the ideas and forms from the Golden Age (the 5th century B.C.) of Greece when, according to Ginner, "dancing with other arts, rose to its supreme height". Ginner commenced a very detailed study which not only included the achitecture, pottery and sculpture but also the Greek mythology and way of life. She then gathered all the facts that she had discovered and used them to interpret the lined and designs that she came across when she was studying the figures in the paintings, the pottery and the scultpure. The Revived Greek Dance can be seperated into several dance styles:

1. Lyric dances

2. Gymnopaedic dances

3. Pyrrhic dances

4. Ritual dances

5. Tragic dances

6. Choric dances

7. Bacchic dance.

1. Lyric dances are about transforming poetry and songs into movement. In ancient Greece, for instance, the dances did not have a dramatic quality but instead they carried the abstract emotions of the poetry so that they usually portrayed the 'fairy' beings of Greek myths, such as water nymphs or wind spirits.

2. The movements of the gymnopaedic dance have been produced from the representations of athletes, such as archers, discus and javelin hurlers and wrestlers in the Greek

3. The pyrrhic dance was the ancient Greek war dance and apart from it being an important exercise for the military training, it was normally executed by the soldiers before a battle, as a preparation of the body to come into comflict, and after the battle as an expression of their victory.

4. The ritual dances are perhaps the most complex in that they require knowledge and understanding of the Greek culture and the way in which they worshipped gods in antiquity.

5. The most dramatic of all the styles of the Revived Greek Dance, as the name suggests, are the tragic dances where emotions such as despair, misery and terror can be expressed.

6. Choric dances are performed by a large number of dancers who move in unison and the movement is an interpretation of the words of poems. Every action and gesture of the dance should "synchronise with the crescendo and diminuendo of the lines of the poem and be in rhythm with the spoken word" (Ginner, 1960).

7. The name of the bacchic dances originates from the term bacchic which in turn derives from the name of the Greek god Bacchus who is more widely known by the name Dionysus. Bacchus was the god of life, death, comedy, tragedy, festivals and wine; as a consequence the bacchic is a very diverse dance style.

The development of the Revived Greek Dance occurred simultaneously with the rise of the modern dance and hence there are certain characteristics common to both. For example a technique that is not specific to a certain type of body, the freedom of expression as well as the rejection of the restrictive pointe shoe and costumes used in ballet. Modern dance was partly a reaction against the ideals and conventions of ballet and Ginner was one of the many artists who expressed their dissatisfaction about ballet at the beginning of the 20th century. Christy Adair's view on this matter is that "by the end of the nineteenth century ballet had declined in the West. There had been no choreographer to take the place of the well-known creators of ballet. The creative direction appeared lost and the public ceased to regard it as serious art". Ballet soon became a popular subject of ridicule as an increasing emphasis on technical virtuosity, in an attempt to imitate great ballerinas like Marie Taglioni, had resulted in the loss of expressional depth.

The increasingly demanding technique of ballet was quite inaccesible in that it was "too intricate and difficult for the education of the average child" (Ginner, 1926) as well as those who decided to take up dancing at a late age. Consequently, a large section of the population in the
UK would have to find alternative dance forms in order to satisfy their need for expression through movement. The Revived Greek Dance would have been a good alternative thechnique as "it provides the medium for self-expression through a method attainable by all average physiques, adult or juvenile." (Ginner, 1933).

The most apparent similarities and differences between ballet and the Revived Greek Dance are to be observed in their technique. The turn-out, which is the foundation and essence of ballet, is a movement that is achieved by "the rotation of the thigh bone in the hip socket" (Grieg, 1994). Its origin stems from the court ballet and is associated with the display of the body so that the ballet dancer shows herself/himself to the audience as much as possible. According to Stokes an 18th century gentleman was required to have his legs turned-out while taking a bow so that he "gracefully showed himself, not only his front, but the sides of his legs and part of the back" (Stokes as cited in Copeland and Cohen, 1983). Fokine argues that if we are going to be true to the rules of ballet then "we shall find that the marble gods of Greece stood in entirely wrong attitude" (Fokine as cited in Copeland and Cohen, 1983) as none has its legs turnd-out. Similarly, in the Revived Greek Dance the steps are made on the normal movement of the leg forward. Although there is some turn-out of the back leg to support the swinging and lunging movements of the pyrrhic and gynmopaedic dances, the big turn-out of the hip is only to be found in the representations of the Satyrs in the Bacchic dances. As a general rule, however, the turn-out that is required in the Revived Greek Dance is no more or less than what is natural to each individual; hence no extra strain is placed on the dancer's hips.

A comparison between ballet and the Revived Greek Dance can also be made in relation to the use of arms. In ballet the "ports de bras are performed within a perfect sphere made by the two arms travelling from a position where the two hands are some four to six inches away from the lower half of the body to another point some nine inches outwards from the eyes and above head level. From thence they are opened and lowered sideways to the starting point. Within that sphere every position is to be found with the exception of certain positions used in arabesques, where the straightening of the elbow and the turning of the wrist will find the hands and fingers being stretched beyond that sphere" (Lawson, 1960). In the Revived Greek Dance the arms pass through the eight basic frieze positions or through their variations - the angles and triangles (which will be shown on slides). The dancer can use these basic lines to develop variations according to the feeling of the piece; a change in the rhythm and/or quality of a particular movement or even a change of the position of the head, hands or poise of the body would be enough to produce a different form of emotion

Ginner very vividly explains how the same movements can be used to express a variety of emotions: "In the condition of sorrow the whole of the physical being droops - there is a sense of weight through the oppression of the spirit; in joy everything lifts upwards - there is a feeling of lightness and elasticity; in strength there is a great muscular contraction, which should always be preceded by relaxation; and in various ways every emotion has its corresponding physical condition" (Ginner, 1933). And therefore, unlike ballet, the arm lines are intended to be used as the foundation, rather than the culmination of the dancer's art. Self-expression through movement has always been one of the strongest and most important human needs; "dance is one of the most fundamental of human activities. It is an idea both reasonable and acceptable that, when primitive man had satisfied his basic needs for food and shelter, he should express his emotions through movement, through rudimentary dance, through the most natural and immediate channel of expression - his body" (Clarke and Crisp, 1981).

One of the elements of the Revived Greek Dance that would have contributed to its success in the UK, is the freedom that it allowed for individual expressiveness and creativity, through both the dance and drama medium; "the Greek dance has as its object the expression of the highest and deepest emotions of the soul, the profoundest thoughts of the intellect. Never at any time was it purely acrobatic; it fed the mind as well as the eye. The Greek dance had the value of the words, and the dancers had to be an actor in the true sense of the word. Dancing was dramatic, as well as purely rhythmic, movement. Modern performers have seperated the great arts of dancing and acting; with the Greeks it was not so; dance and drama were to them one and the same" (Ginner, 1926).

Each Greek dance class includes a section where the teacher gives the students the opportunity to improvise around a particular theme that is usually extracted from nature. The following are a few examples of the movements that pupils are asked to imitate, "the rhythms of the sea, the river, the scudding clouds, the trees tossing in the wind, the flight of birds and the raging fire" (Ginner, 1926). Such an exercise is particularly useful for children as it helps cultivate their observation and imagination. On the other hand, the ballet teachers place all the emphasis on the technique; set exercises both at the barre and the centre that are performed in each and every class are aimed at improving the pupils' technical skills. Although the technique is essential as it "helps determine the look of the dance" (Adair, 1992), too much emphasis can act as a barrier to the expression of the dance. This does not mean of course that ballet is completely devoid of expression. In a performance situation ballet can be very expressive; the traditional mime that is used is made up by formalized gestures that can symbolize practically anything, so long as they are "accompanied by the right facial expression, the right phrasing, stance and quality" (Wooliams, 1978).

Unfortunately, not all ballet students become professional dancers and this means that only a very small proportion of the pupils actually has the opportunity to perform on stage. On the contrary, students of the Revived Greek Dance are often given the chance to perform both in the class and in a performance context. The freedom they have where "all shades of dramatic feeling are open to them, they are free to select movement which expressed their feelings" (Ginner, 1926) is not comparable to ballet, where a very "strictly-established system of steps, gestures and attitudes" (Fokine as cited in Copeland and Cohen, 1983) does not allow for "any improvisation, experiment or doubt" (Kirstein as cited in Stuart, 1972).

Along with modern dance, the Revived Greek Dance was considered a breakaway from traditional ballet, as it liberated the dancer's body from the pointe shoe. Although there are some great aesthetic advantages of the pointe work, such as "the elongated line of the leg, the illusion of weightlessness, the negation of "feet" with all their connotations, like "feet of clay" or "feet firmly planted" (Wooliams, 1978). Not only does the unnaturally shaped shoe restrict the movement of the feet but it often results in "a distortion of the dancer's foot, the toes being cramped and bent out of the straight line that nature meant them to have" (Ginner, 1933). In the Revived Greek Dance students dance barefoot; this direct contact with the floor develops sensitiveness, stability, and helps the foot become stronger and more flexible without losing its natural line. Consequently the Greek dancer is able to poise freely and can move in a quicker and lighter way than with the "blocked" shoe.

Dancers in a ballet class are required to wear a tight-fitting bodice, whilst in performances they have to wear tight costumes like corsets and tutus, all of which restrict movement to a great extent. Like all modern dancers and choreographers, Ginner rejected this attire and adopted the Greek chiton; this was the everyday clothing of the ancient Greeks that they wore for many centuries and it allowed the limbs to move around with great ease.

The comparison that has been drawn between ballet and the Revived Greek Dance has provided a variety of reasons why the latter was so popular in the UK in the 1920's and 1930's and, as Brinson (1967) wrote "The Greek Dance, less selective, seeks to realise a little of the ideal in everyone... it is concerned with everyone, of every age, everywhere".


Adair, C.: Women and dance. Sylphs and sirens. London, Macmillan Press, 1992.

Clarke, M. & Crisp, C.: History of dance. London, Orbis, 1981.

Copeland, R. & Cohen, M. (eds.): What is dance? Readings in theory and criticism. New York, Oxford, University Press, 1983.

Ginner, R.: The ancient Greek dance and its revival to-day. Part I. An outline of the development of Greek dancing, Dancing Times, June 1926, pp. 245-249, 271.

Ginner, R.: The ancient Greek Dance and its revival to-day. Part II. The ideals of the Greek dance and their application to modern life. Dancing Times, July 1926, pp. 355-359.

Ginner, R.: The ancient Greek Dance and its revival to-day. Part III. The Revived Greek Dance and its place in modern education, Dancing Times, August 1926, pp. 450-453.

Ginner, R.: The art and technique of the Revived Greek Dance. PartI. Brief outline of the dance in Hellenic days, Dancing Times, March 1933, pp. 662-666.

Ginner, R.: The art and technique of the Revived Greek Dance. Part IV. The co-ordination of mind and body through the study of balance, poise and expression, Dancing Times, June 1933, pp. 235-239.

Ginner, R.: Gateway to the dance. London, Newman Neame, 1960.

Grieg, V.: Inside ballet technique. Hightstown, Princeton Book Company, 1994.

Lawson, J.: Classical ballet: its style and technique. London, Adam & Charles Black, 1960.

Stuart, M.: The classical ballet. Basic technique and terminology. New York, Alfred. A. Knopf, 1972.

Wooliams, A.: Ballet studio. New York, Mereweather Press, 1978.

Ms. Mary Elizabeth Phillips


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