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Dionisis Kardaris & Zoe Sarakatsianou

The lead dancer’s improvisation as a basic element of the dancing expression in the traditional dances of Zakynthos.

Kardaris, Dionisis & Sarakatsianou, Zoe: "The lead dancer’s improvisation as a basic element of the dancing expression in the traditional dances of Zakynthos", 17th International Congress on Dance Research, Naxos, 22-26/10, 2003.

The aim of this research assignment is to present and study the lead dancer’s improvisations in the Zakynthian traditional dances as a special and basic characteristic trait of the dances of Zakynthos.

The method that was used in the present assignment for the gathering of elements and the justification for this study is the fieldwork [1]. In this fieldwork a questionnaire with open questions has been used, but in a way that assists the needs and the targets of the research. The questions in the interview were formulated in such a way that the interviewee was able to talk freely and extensively about the subject, rather than employing a set of stereotypical pieces of information. Therefore, it was preferred to use interviews with older people, in their 60s or 70s, who had themselves been lead dancers and had knowledge as well as experience in traditional dance, since it is usually they who are the most suitable people to provide us with information about the precise needs of the research. Furthermore, the information which was gathered from the interviews was cross-referenced with historical and folklore books, documents, texts, newspapers, journals and the minutes of meetings that concerned the subject of the research. Additionally, elderly former lead dancers were videotaped. Also, “the complementary views of the historical documents and the evidence of the present day allows us to restore the fragmentary tourist reference, thus providing objective historical evidence” [2]. Apart from the interviews, the schedule of the research also included, personal observation by participating in various dance occasions and festivals.

One of the most important elements that the dancing tradition has bequeathed to us is the lead dancer’s own dance, which provides us with invaluable material not only for a simple presentation but also for further study. The concept of improvisation or what is being rendered as ‘solo’ is, as it is analysed in various Greek dictionaries, “the act of doing, writing, telling, composing something extempore without any previous study or preparation” [3]. Additionally, it is possible that it refers to unprepared performance or expression, with theatrical improvisation [4] being a case in point. Basically, it is about a very important aspect of the art of dancing which remains in fact virtually unknown, since it was not recorded either by folklore tradition, the music industry, or the mass media, owing to the difficulty in capturing it at the exact moment at which it occurred. It is also widely accepted that traditional dance is transmitted from generation to generation as an oral, visual and practical procedure, and this raises many problems in recording, as the process requires a very personal relationship between teacher and pupil. In comparison to the above case, music, for example, can be studied in detail, since it is possible for it to be recorded at the exact moment at which it is played. Even the most modern systems of dance notation (such as Laban, Conte etc.) cannot entirely represent this instantaneous dance performance, due to their lack of stylistic expression.

Therefore, the improvisation is mostly based on the lead dancer’s spontaneity, which is inspired by the emotions which enable the dancer to express themselves through the dance.[5] So, it is all about a creation that develops according to the mood and inspiration of the moment, though still defined by the relationship of a) time, b) place, c) music.

A dynamic element of the improvisation is time, which has a dramatic effect on the dancer, since he/she is able to reproduce the creative elements that compose the improvisation only under certain circumstances, and if, of course, there exists the suitable and required inspiration [6]. In this concept, time is estimated as short intervals, which are, for example, temporally minimal moments (seconds or minutes). This means that the creation of the improvisation may last for a very short time and may not be repeated. On the other hand, time in a wider sense (meaning the passing of years) significantly affects the dancer’s performance, due to the undoubted reduction of his/her physical strength.

The second important element which influences the improvisation either positively or negatively is the place used for the dancing performance. Of course, the place, as a social environment for dancing, usually varies and thus each time contributes in different ways to the interpretation of the dancer, who has a direct relationship with his/her social environment. To cut the long story short, we could say that the place suggests and imposes each time on the dancer a different inspiration for dance expression, which depends, of course, on the relationship which the dancer has with his/her social surroundings.

For instance, the dancer’s behaviour is likely to be very different when somebody is dancing in a public place or on a festive occasion (where everybody stands up and dances) than in a close family environment. This dancing expression each time results in a corresponding improvisation [7]. Furthermore, the relationship between the dancer and the musicians, which is, most of the time, that of co-operation and friendliness, is one of the factors that play an important role in the inspiration and the virtuosity of each lead dancer. In general, the art of improvisation requires imagination within the limits set by the unwritten rules of the society in which the person lives, and in which there are dance elements that are either compulsory or optional or even, in many cases, are prohibited to the dancer.

In another sense, improvisation is based on a sequence of adaptations and developments of existing material or patterns and on a sequence of implied or unwritten rules. One of the elements of the term ‘improvisation’ is its temporariness, its momentary and fleeting nature; which is why improvisation is one of the least researched facets of historical research. This natural consequence presents a strange phenomenon for modern thought - the fact that very little material or information exists regarding the psychology of improvisation. This is mentioned because dance as a whole has created, throughout the world, such a strong position that it can lay claim to an important place in education either experimentally or within the system.

In traditional society each local cohabitating social group used to form and determine their music and dance tradition in relation to the particular movements adopted, but also to the locally accepted style of music. [8] Therefore, the traditional dancer’s function used to be relatively restricted, because the lead dancer’s creation and improvisation is always part of the traditional code of behaviour which means that it has by definition a team orientation. (9) Thus, although the lead dancer could make use of the dance movements for the sake of his/her skillfulness, s/he could not avoid the style that was imposed by the unwritten rules of the society in which they live, and which characterize the so-called local dialect or local colour (10) that identifies each region of our country and distinguishes it from the others.

Keeping in mind all the above, my archive and bibliographic research and my fieldwork about the lead dancers on the island of Zakynthos have brought to light some nineteenth century watercolours (aquarelles) that characteristically illustrate the lead dancer’s performance using a handkerchief. These aquarelles are the following:

1) The “Syrtis” (lead dancer) of a local dance. It is about an aquarelle of dimensions 29x21, created by Th. Ch. Koutzogiannopoulos in the nineteenth century (Private collection).

2) Local dance accompanied by a Tabourloniakaros (19th century, Private collection).

3) The next aquarelle is about a local dance. Its dimensions are 29x21 and it is created by Th. Ch. Koutzogiannopoulos in the late 19th century (Private collection)

4) The “Diagyrtos” (Great Zakynthenian) from the handwritten chronic of D. Varvianis in about the 1840s (It is preserved in the Municipal Library of Zakynthos).

It is obvious through the above-mentioned paintings that the handkerchief was a necessary requirement for the creative improvisations of the leader. A lead dancer would never attempt to improvise without having a handkerchief, by which s/he holds the second dancer, who in turn supports him/her and helps him/her in their figures [11]. During the course of the fieldwork, many traditional songs were recorded which have, as a theme or reference point the presence or use of the handkerchief. [12] Furthermore, my research has brought to light the local repertoire of the residents of the island. Nowadays, the dance repertoire consists of the following dances:

Syrtos Zakynthinos or Levantinikos; Giagyrtos; Amiri; Kinigos; Stavrotos (Crossed) dance.


From the above dance repertoire - according to the people who gave me the information - the Syrtos Zakynthinos is the lead dancer’s dance. From village to village this particular dance (according to evidence from elderly musicians and dancers) acquires a different name depending not only on the musical but also on the dance variations. Accordingly, in the village Galaro it is called Galariotikos, in the village Maries it is called Mariotikos, in the village Volima it is called Volimiatikos and so on and so forth. Even today, the expressions among the dancers and the musicians are still in use; for example “play it mariotika” (as it is played in the village Maries) or he danced it “keriotika” (that is, in the manner it is danced in the village Keri). The syrtos is the most popular dance on the island and its circular dance form gave the lead dancer the opportunity to improvise or to “embroider by dancing”, as it is referred to in the local dialect. In Zakynthos the lead dancer is also known as syrtis (the one who leads) or choreftaris (an expression used usually by the musicians). Frequently the musicians would ask which was the choreftaris, so as to be able to watch him/her and so inspire him/her to dance with passion and loving care through their playing.

The existence of a lead dancer is significantly important in the dance Giagyrtos, as well. Written documents that refer to the figure of the lead dancer in the dance Giagyrtos exist in the book “Chronic”, written by D. Varvianis [13]. Furthermore, extensive reference [14] to the movements of the lead dancer is made in the book “Zante” written by the Archduke of Austria-Hungary L. Salvator.

According to the evidence of elderly musicians and dancers, only men used to dance the dance Giagyrtos and even then only lead dancers. It is said that the lead dancers of the dance Giagyrtos used to fill their pockets with small coins and the best dancer was adjudged the one who, after the end of the dance, had the least coins in his pockets. Old musicians even recollect the name of somebody called Bakatselos or Bakiavelos from the village Bougiato, who was said to be an exceptional performer of the dance Giagyrtos.

If the dances Syrtos and Giagyrtos presupposed technical virtuosity as well as the lead dancer’s imagination, the lead dancer of the imitative dance Amiri must at the same time combine not only vocal (singing) but also theatrical (imitative) skills, since the dance-song of “amiri” (meaning a woman who is hapless) narrates with funny movements the misfortunes of a woman who tried to get away from her jealous and lazy husband. The people who have these skills are usually few, so the people who informed me for this research, residents of the mountainous villages of Zakynthos where the traditional fairs are still alive, remember very few names of lead dancers-actors (in the sense of “performer”) of the dance Amiri [15].

After all, it is an indisputable fact that on the one hand creation in the field of traditional dance could not have been a procedure cut off from the performance and the improvisation; on the other hand, the achievements that have been established and have survived were those that remained alive and became active bearers not only of the expression of the spirit of the society but also of the personal elements of the one who was finally accepted by each community. Therefore, in a way, and yet inevitably, the history and the “development” of the traditional dance in Greece is, in fact, one and the same thing with the history and development of the people (dancers-musicians) who developed and enacted it as time went on.

In conclusion, it could be said that the shape of the open circle, which is the most usual form seen in the Zakynthian dances, gave the lead dancer the opportunity to improvise and display his dancing skills by performing dexterous movements, turns on the spot, reversing while dancing etc. So, the improvisation in traditional dance could be defined as the creative combination of the traditional local dance movements in a given temporal point. (16) However, it is also the case that, in these improvisational moments, the original touches of several dancers happen to have been so successful that their use has been generalized and established, so that, little by little, these “original touches” have been incorporated into the local dance repertoire, as is shown to be happening to a high degree in the Zakynthian traditional dances.

If the Zakynthian dance tradition has bequeathed to us anything worthy of note in dance as an art, especially an art that survives throughout the years but is simultaneously modern and up-to-date, this must be searched for in the art of the very few remaining lead dancers who are filled with passion about what they are doing. These people are inspired by and continue the old tradition of the “choreftaris” or the “syrtis” or the “brostaris” (local names attached to the lead dancer), but, however, are becoming extinct little by little as time goes by. Likewise, together with the passionate dancers, the traditional public festivities (the fairs or the “panigiria”, which is the equivalent word in Greek) tend to disappear since they follow the demands of modern tourism,

and are adjusted to up-to-date expectations and facts.


[1] More precisely, the fieldwork attempts to base the theoretical orientations on the information that the research will result in, and aims at understanding fully the local cultural system (Gefou-Madianou, Dimitra (1999). Culture and Ethnography. Athens: Ellinika Grammata, pg. 272). Additionally, this method is the reference point of modern sociological and anthropological studies. It is based on the material that is gathered during long-continuing local research, and is a result of systematic observation, which is complemented by interviews. Only in this way can dance be completely recorded in the form it which it exists and develops as a central element of social life and in relation to social and cultural changes (development, spreading, co-existence, predominance, disappearance). With reference to the above, see also Loutzaki, Rena (1983-85). Marriage as a dance act. The case of the refugees from Anatoliki Romilia to Mikro Monastiri of Macedonia. Nafplio: Peloponnesian Folklore Institution-Ethnographies, Vol. 4-5.

[2] See Kyriakidou-Nestoros, Alkis (1993). Laographical Studies. Athens, pg. 130 (ibidem).

[3] See Dimitrakou Dictionary (1983). Athens.

[4] See Tegopoulos-Fytrakis (1997-1999) Major Greek Dictionary. Athens: Armonia (limited company).

[5] Drandakis, Lefteris (1993). The improvisation in Greek traditional dances. Athens, pg. 33.

[6] As above, pg. 33.

[7] Compare to Dimas, Ilias (2001). Music and dance folk tradition-Students’ dance habits. Athens, pg.57.

[8] See Dimas, Ilias (2001). Music and dance folk tradition-Greek students’ dance habits. Athens, pg. 53

[9] Tirovola, Vasiliki (1999). The sense of improvisation in Greek folk creation. Traditional dance and folk creation. Athens: Papazisis Publications, pg. 110.

[10] For the concept of local colour also see Raftis, Alkis (1985). The world of Greek dance. Athens, pg.95 and Dimas, Ilias (2001). Music and dance folk tradition-Greek students’ dance habits. Athens, pgs. 55-60 and, additionally, in the magazine Ipirotika Chronika, Ioannina 1992, Vol.30, pg.271.

[11] Compare to Dimas, Ilias, as above.

[12] Some of these songs are the following: in the village Katastari there is a song, which is also a marriage dance, which says “I took my blue and white handkerchief and started dancing so as the stars would see me first”, sung by the traditional lead dancer George Gouskas or Erotas (Love). In the village Agios Leontas there is reference to the handkerchief in the traditional song “The Kamposkaloula” in the line “I dropped by mistake my gold-embroidered handkerchief”. Additionally, in the village Galaro there is a song which accompanies a syrtos dance, whose words say, “Girl, you are at the loom and you weave the handkerchief” sung by Katerina Kakli, aged 92. (The above songs are preserved in my personal archives).

[13] Varvianis mentions about dancing the following: “The dancers are divided into two parallel and very close lines, they are accompanied by a man or a woman and each one holds the hand of the other forming a semicircle. Each line must consist of at least 12 people. The leaders of each line hold a handkerchief with their right hand. The leader of the first line must be a woman, who holds the dancer on her left side with a handkerchief. The ends of the two handkerchiefs are held the lead dancer’s left hand. The first part of the dance is performed with violin accompaniment because it is not long and lays emphasis on the rhythm. When repeating the first part of the dance the lead dancer releases the two handkerchiefs and with his left leg does a kavata and performs a solo. He leaves the right side and goes up to the left. During the repetition of the first part, he leaves the left side and goes to the right by dancing in the same way (namely, doing the same steps) and takes in his hands again the ends of the two handkerchiefs. During his solo dancing, he does circles and rounds with his legs. In the second part of the dance, the lead dancer closes into a circle, the two lines of the dancers, and the dancers, always holding each others’ hands, do steps without jumping. The lead dancer continues dancing in this particular way in the third part of the dance. In the fourth part, the lead dancer releases the two handkerchiefs and dances in front of the woman, who is on the right edge of the first line. The woman dances by doing a round and, passes under the handkerchief, which she holds with the dancer on her left side. During the repetition of the fourth part, the dancer takes the handkerchiefs again and continues leading the dancers. In the same way, he performs the other parts of the dance by leading the dancers, doing alternate tertses and kavatses with the lower part of his leg and by quickly touching with three knocks of the right heel the centre of the upper part of his right leg. Next he does a kavata with the right edge of his right leg and touches the earth. In the Allegranto part, the leader stops dancing and, with both hands, takes the ends of the two handkerchiefs and raises his forearms, forming two arches, under which the dancers pass, always holding each other’s hands. Next, the dancers, by joining the two handkerchiefs and holding each other by the forearm (alabratso), undertake the formation of a parallel structured semicircle and dance slowly in a circular manner. In the second part, as in the first part of the Andante, the leader leaves the circle and dances solo with the first and the last woman, the three of them displaying their virtuosity. This solo dancing could be repeated two or even three times. according to the dancers’ wishes.

[14] Salvator describes the dance in the following way: “All the dancers stand in a circle and hold each other with a handkerchief. One dancer jumps in front of the others with abrupt and sudden movements and glides under the handkerchief, which is being held in front of him by two dancers. Next the dance is performed circularly in two lines, with the leader jumping in the middle of the two leading dancers. The rhythm of the dance is given vocally. The lead dancer jumps alone and, afterwards, mingles with the other dancers in the circle”. See relatively Salvator, Erzhherzog Ludwig (1904) Zante. Prague, Vol. B, pg.128.

[15] Nowadays (2002), one of the few elderly singers-dancers of the dance Amiri is Bastas Stamatis, aged 70, from the mountainous village Agios Leontas.

[16] Compare to Dimas, Ilias, as above, pg. 62

Bibliography in Greek

Chronic of Zakynthos. The centenary of the Union of the Ionian Islands with Greece. Athens, 1964.

Drandakis, Lefteris (1993).The improvisation in Greek traditional dance. Athens.

Dimas, Ilias (2001). Music and dance folk tradition-Greek students’ dance habits. Athens: “Art work: Giorgos Tziortzis” Publications.

Dimas, Ilias (1993). The dance tradition of Ipiros. Athens.

Dimas, Ilias (1989). Doctor Treatise: The traditional dance in Syrrako- Folklore and Anthropological Approach. Ioannina.

Kamba, Soula Toska (1991). Traditional dances of the Greek islands. Athens.

Konomos, Ntinos (1981-1983). Zakynthos: Five hundred years. Athens, Vol. 3 Civil History, Issues A, B, C, D (1478-1978)

Koukkou, Eleni, E. (1983).The history of the Ionian Islands from 1797 to the English Possession. Athens: Dim.N.Papadimas Publications.

Kyriakidou-Nestoros, Alkis (1975).Laographical Studies. Athens: Nea Sinora- A. Livanis Publications.

Loutzaki, Rena (1983-85). Marriage as a dance act. The case of the refugees from Anatoliki Romilia to Mikro Monastiri of Macedonia. Peloponnesian Folklife Institute, Ethnographies, issues 4-5.

Major Greek Dictionary (1997) Athens: Tegopoulos-Fytrakis Publications.

Pouchner, Walter (1982). Vivid acts, folk spectacles and folk theatre in South-Eastern Europe. Athens, Laography, Vol. Nr.32.

Raftis, Alkis (1985). The world of Greek dance. Athens: Politypo Publications.

Stratou, Dora (1978). Greek Traditional Dances. Athens: Teaching Books’ Publishing Organisation.

Tirovola, Vasiliki (1999). The sense of improvisation in Greek folk creation. Traditional dance and folk creation. Athens: Papazisis Publications.

Tirovola, Vasiliki (1992). Greek Traditional Dance Rhythms. Athens.

Varvianis, Nikolaos (1840). Chronic of Zakynthos. Zakynthos.

Zachou-Vrelli, Marina (1991, reprint).Doctor Treatise: The attire in Zakynthos after the Union (1864-1910). Ioannina.

Zografou, Magdalini (1999). Dance in Greek Tradition. Athens.

Zois, Leonidas (1963). Biographic. Athens: Laographicon, vol. B.

Zois, Leonidas (1955). History of Zakynthos. Athens.

Zois, Leonidas (1898). Philological and Historical Dictionary of Zakynthos. Zakynthos.

Bibliography in other languages

Erzhherzog Ludwig Salvator: Allgemeiner Theil, Druck und Verlag von Heinr Mercy Sohn” Praga, 1904.

Zante Srecieller Theil, Druck und Verlag von Heinr Mercy Sohn” Praga, 1904.

Minoto, Marieta: Zante, le village et la campagne. Conferense radio diffusee par le poste de Bari, Athens, 1935.

Mr. Dionisis Kardaris

Teacher of Physical Education, PhD in Chorology, University of Sports, Athens

Dance tutor in the Military Academy of Cadets, Artistic in charge of traditional dance in Municipality of Argyroupolis

35-37 Papadima Street, Ag. Dimitrios, GR-17342 Athens, tel. 210.995.2497,, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Ns. Zoe Sarakatsianou



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