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Marigoula Kritsioti

Observations on the circle as a dance shape.

Kritsioti, Marigoula: "Observations on the circle as a dance shape", 17th International Congress on Dance Research, Naxos, 22-26/10, 2003.

The use of the circular floor pattern in most dance traditions, its common line, as well as the formal variations from locality to locality may provide proof of the limits and the variations between one culture and another. Naturally, dedicated research may show these limits and variations, provided that the circle is studied in its context as a form that brings the dances to life during a celebration (glendi), those dances, which a community uses more than any other as a means of common expression during their everyday entertainment. My present study is based on these observations.

Some of the dances that are used as samples are of Dodecanese origin. In these dances, despite the fact that they belong to a common area from a geographical and cultural point of view, the variations and similarities of the round dance line show a differentiation between local communities from island to island. The rest of the dances are of different origin, so that we may realize the totally opposite form of the circle as well as the community that uses this line.

The circle as dance shape

During the function of traditional dances, the most common formation the dancers adopt is the round line, at least as far as Greece is concerned. This seems to be the most ancient dance pattern, as it appears in so many representations of ancient Greek dances. "In all countries", however, "there used to be simple round dances, closed or open," states Lilian Lawler. Similarly, Prudhommeau says, "The closed circle line is the main dance form. The primitive human being was not aware of the geometrical characteristics of the periphery but felt them as a closed form where all parties keep an equal distance from the centre," and adds that, "even in the very developed civilizations the circle line is the main dance form for a long period." In relation to the open circle line she states: "There is one first and one last dancer, but the formed line is always round". This is the type of dance line we will deal with in this study and it will be referred to as a circle.

Dances, values and research

Every local community expresses itself in a unique way through the dances that are used on the occasion of special religious festival days throughout the year. These are mainly rites of passage, such as the therapeutic ones, the martial, the carnival fertilitive, and some dances that accompany specific functions. In their movement, they may be similar to some other dances, but they are differentiated according to the procedure that accompanies them.

Some other dances are supplementary. They simply supplement the dancing variety, without however being that important to the local community that originated them. More specifically, they do not follow a protocol or specific rules through which the dancers would satisfy the characteristics of their local community. This reduces their communication role and in consequence their ability to divert the attention of the dancers. At least the eldest people's preference did not concentrate on them. In consequence their lessened social interest has resulted in their marginalisation or even abandonment. Today they are only revived by dance ensembles.

Some dances, two or more, which are danced in a defined succession, are extremely popular, as is proved by the almost exclusive preference for them during the celebration. As far as the movement is concerned they might not be the most impressive ones. Despite this fact the dancers do not interchange them with other local dances. "When the musicians saw which dancer was getting ready to lead, they did not wait for his order. The dance they would dance was taken for granted: Syrtos”, Rena Loutzaki reported in the area of Limbiniana and Lousakies at Crete. She also states that, "In the Chania area only a Syrtos dance is sufficient to carry out a celebration or a wedding," and makes clear that this refers to the movement part of the dance, since as far as the music is concerned the musical melodies interchange. Oral information relating to the Ierapetra area and more specifically to Kato Chorio, confirm that the Chaniotis dance, as the Chaniotiko Syrto is called, together with some other dances, did not give priority to other dances, and they did not leave space for them until the 1960-1970 decades, when more traditional thoughts and actions were still active. Every order (parangelia) started with Chaniotis, and was followed by a slow or even faster Pentozalis, provided that the group of dancers whose turn it was could fulfil the requirements of the latter. Otherwise the first two continued. In this way a dance meeting was accomplished. In Karpathos in the same manner at Karpathos the dance meeting was concluded only with the dances referred to above. In the other Dodecanese islands the first place was taken by the local island variations of Issos and Sousta or the Syrtos and Sousta dances. At Malandrino in Dorida they start the dance with a Tsamikos and as a secondary choice the Syrtos or Syrtokounitos dances. At Voio of Kozani, a slow Syrtos is preferred, which is supported by different musical parties on each occasion. This is followed by quick "kathismata" that assimiliate to the Hassaposervikos. At Syrrako every parangelia starts with a Syrtos and is followed by Tsamikos, while at Nea Bafra in Serres it is the Archoulamas that is the dance which starts and ends the celebration.

Considering these few examples, which come from regions among which interchanges were not favored, it seems that each ethnic group selects and approves as appropriate for representation very few dances from among those used from generation to generation. Naturally, the group organizes them according to its social rules, so that its character is expressed exclusively by them. This is their value: they represent their society as a whole and not individually.

Despite this fact most of today’s research on traditional dance, particularly in Greece where the dancing tradition is still alive, is concentrated on the number of dances of the region and the analysis of their movement. Research is confined within these limited levels, while a more constant study would discover their social meaning and value. It would indeed be worthwhile to approach past times where today's effects are not present. Because if we do not become aware of the dance significance in the past we are not able to appreciate its use today or to realize the real meanings within the society and the civilization.

Circular dance patterns, their organization and function

The dance forms are not created accidentally. The round one that we are dealing with forms a family of lines, even within the same region. Each one looks like the other but has an identity of its own and it seems to be used differently, especially when it constitutes the expression of different communities.

For this reason it is necessary to identify its formal, functional, as well as social use. In other words we will examine how it is formed, what is its composition, how it is renovated and developed within the glendi, what is its function during the dance procedure and how it works, which are the more or less functional dancers, what are the criteria that define the position of each dancer, what is the gender or the social placing of each dancer, how their social/dancing relationship is formed, in what way their position and relationships in the dance procedure are transformed from dancing to social ones or how this same system encourages communication between the dancers.

Let us examine some examples. In Karpathos the first line is formed by some men, afterwards to be joined by women who taake position among them. The circle grows due to the entry of new people, the first and the last dancers in the line always being men.

In Kassos, the first to dance are two men. Successively five to six women, invited by the first dancers, join the dance. A small circle is formed, which is dissolved in order to create a new one almost of the same shape. In Astypalaia the dance chain is formed by three men, the "kavalieros", the "apo mesa", the "piso" and several "dames". The first one to be invited is positioned at the left of the "kavalieros" and the others between the "apo mesa" and the "piso". The first man leads. The number of his dames is reduced one by one, since after having danced at his left they leave, until he also leaves together with the last one, while the "apo mesa" invites his dames, the "piso" is promoted to the position of the "apo mesa", and another man takes position at the end of the line.

In Nisyros and Tilos, between the first men to dance, the "brostaris" (leader) invites the woman of his preference. When it is the turn of another man to lead, the brostaris leaves and gives up his first position. The same will apply to this next man etc. Each dancer who leaves the line of the dance joins the other men in order to drink and to sing, while their women stay and continue to dance. The men may continuously bring new women to the dance. In this way a large dance line composed of women is created, but the first and the last in line remain men.

At Vissani in Pogoni, Epirus, the main shape is a large circle with 300-500 dancers, where at the first part men are positioned in order of age, first the eldest, while the women, in the same way, form the second half of the circle, with the eldest to hold the youngest man. The first from each group dances with the second. They temporarily leave the dance line and they dance between them, until the first one leaves and the second comes first. In the same manner he dances with his next and he leaves. When the man leaves he makes a sign to his wife who also leaves. If someone wishes to dance with his wife, he invites her when he comes to the first position and after having danced they leave. At Syrrako, Ioannina, "the dance positioning is diplokangelo or triplokangelo (double or triple spiral), according to the number of lines of women that dance inside the men's line". We meet the contrary positioning of the circles in Vovousa, Samarina and other Vlach villages. The women's circles are positioned externally and the men are positioned towards the centre.

What are the smaller closed shapes and how do the smaller dance units function as part of the dance? Often, in one single dance shape there are several smaller equal ones. In Karpathos, for example, it is called "merea", each man with his female dancers at his right. In this way we have as many "merees" as the number of the male dancers. Their function is joining the chain, by keeping internal levels, as happens widely in all the dance units.

It is important therefore to examine the unit composition: Who are the members and what is the connection between them, based on the sex, the family, blood relationship, friendship, social position, erotic sentiments? And how are the dance roles distributed between them, when it is composed exclusively of men or women and how when it is mixed men and women? In the latter, what graduations distinguish the men from the women and which the women if there are more than one? These considerations are important since relative delegations in the day-to-day social life of a community show the solidarity within the more intrapersonal relationships between husband and wife or within the family and consequently the social solidarity and equilibrium within the total.

The main convention that derives from the interior of the chain and shows the identity of the dance unit is the “turn” in which the dancers lead the dance. The line, at a first level, is the system that determines the dancers' right to come and act in the leading positions of the dance. Specifically it determines the right of those who may stand apart in the most significant position, the top. Within the rules of the line, the “parangelia” and the activity of the leading dancer shows the society's intention to permit the creativity, the independence, the personal expression, the superiority of some in comparison to some others. Essentially, the position motivates the dance mechanism, regulating at the same time its order at a practical level. On the symbolic level, by bringing units to the top, it shows the units that create the various social systems within the community, revealing its intention to be reproduced and to be preserved. In each situation the turn makes clearer the composition and the internal hierarchy of the dance unit, while at the head its function is more independent.

The representative image of the dance unit, when it comes to the start of the circle shows how equal or unequal is the relationship of its members within the dance and which social rules determine the more or less creative contribution when the public proceedings take place. At Syrrako, for example, according to oral information from Ilias Gartzonikas, in the three “kangela”, the three homocentric circles, after the three first dancers, the three second ones become leaders at the same time, meanwhile the first are withdrawn to their position, and in consequence they become third, fourth etc. It seems that ther is a parallel independent action of the male and the female. However, we should examine the establishing and the behavior of parallel circles and their relationship in day-to-day life, so that it is clear how the circles reflect the relationship of one sex towards the other or how it is expressed by their appropriate representative, i.e. by the male and female leader.

A unit within the circle of Vissani Pogoni seems to be the so-called "antroparea" (men's group) of the "vlamides". Each of those antroparea, led by one of the oldest, is like the link of a chain that joins the next. It is useful to study its connection. The chain is composed of men of approximately the same age who from their youth have confirmed their friendship and sentimental links at a specific ceremony, the “vlamiliki”, during which their priest unites them for life. Their relationships from then on are stronger than the family ties. Each man enters where his own vlamides keep a position. Each individual group of vlamides may also take the position that is defined for them in the chain. As we have seen the first dances with the next, etc.

In the case of Icaria, where the dancing chain has an informal structure (men next each other or women next to each other or men and women alternately) where in other words no uniform parties are repeated, the unit is each man and each woman. The first man as well as the second woman dance in front in their turn. If the woman can “keep the dance”, i.e. if she is fully aware of the specific dance’s technique, she stays longer at the front and she “dances”, as they say, several men or women dancers standing to her left, who, after having danced with her, leave one by one and join on the end, where she also goes, when she wishes so. Where does this equal expression of man and woman derive from? Is there a less male-dominated social culture here? How is there such a robust inviduality?

Sometimes the whole dancing chain forms the dance unit, as is shown in the example of Kasos. Occasionally one is born of the other. We have seen that in Astypalaia the moment one is reduced, the “apo mesa” creates a new one by inviting his own dames, who come to complete the line to the left of the new man.

The units are obviously equivalent but also different. In addition, they are interconnected and continuously negotiating overall within the dance procedure. We must, therefore, search for their limits, real or symbolic. As far as the real ones are concerned, each seems to occupy its own area within the dance line, equal to its number of members and relative to its ownership. As for the symbolic ones, they are interwoven with the real ones which are the mental limits that create the different obligations that support its internal relations and in consequence its connection and uniformity.

We must also realize the real and symbolic limits of individual places. Even here, the real ones are affected by the symbolic ones. Symbolic is the meaningful extension of the real ones, which relate to the identities of personalities, sex, family origin, the social category (married-single, young-old), the social position or the links towards the neighboring or other dancers.

All the circumstances that guide the person's behavior create symbolic limits, so that they are shown as the overall situation demands. The places in the dance relate to the social position of the individual.

It is reasonable that the real as well as the symbolic limits are defined by each culture. Consequently, even if some dance positions look superficially similar in the dance shapes of some regions, they may have a different significance. For example, the first and always female place after the leader at Karpathos and Astypalaia. For the Astypalitissa this means the right to choose the dance; for the woman from Karpathos this is out of the question.

The degree to which the dancers conform to the limits that the dance system imposes in relation to accessibility, and even the action in the places referred to, or the expediency for which they infringe them - and infringement is not only to occupy a position that corresponds to another, but also to exceed the poses that are justified by it - all these pressures on the dancers to act in a proper manner and to be well accepted by the others produce their own common communication codes and show the social basis of the dance.

Proportions of the circular dances structure and function to the equivalent of their society.

According to Jean-Lou Amsel's in-depth analysis civilization is a total of correlations within a community and they are set out by the territorial sovereignty, the organization of blood relationships, the way in which the authorities act, the religious intervention, the economy, the social hierarchy, the distribution of duties, the impasses that the initial organization produces and the ways by which they are faced, the external interventions, the value system that regulate the team internal relationships as well as the relationships with other groups, having taken into consideration the geographical conditions that affect the formation of the temperament. In order to understand the civilization levels at a certain moment we must go into them in depth.

Based on the above and on the examples that have been used we may come to some interpretations. The first is that in most of the shapes, even in those in which female participation seems to be superior, the male domination is obvious.

One large circle may express the entire collectivity, but it may also mean that whole groups of a society are gathering to a central authority. In Karpathos, where we meet such a shape, men from kanakarides, the first-born boys or girls who inherit the entire property, monopolise all the administrative positions: those of the judge, the church-warden, the notable. They used to say, “Whoever has the land has the authority to speak”.

Prior to referring to the circle in Astypalaia, I shall provide some information on its social constitution. At Astypalaia some of the females were considered traditional women of a superior class, since they owned properties containing the house, the stable, private churches, entire hills and relative number of animals. Men used to create properties from zero. Those that managed to improve their financial status, mainly merchants, were considered adequate husbands for these women. Similarly, the Church Charitable Fund of Astypalaia (EFTA), which was constituted in 1820, owned 60-70% of properties, which it inherited from the heirless. EFTA as well as the owners took advantage from this capital by lending. To this effect on a four-year basis an auction took place, during which the landless obtained for use at any cost a piece of land and some animals in order to survive. The EFTA covered the island’s needs at a community and educational level, until in 1964 all the educators were paid by its funds. We realize therefore that its role was very important for the local life.

The two successive circle units at Astypalaia may express the twin group of men and women of a superior class and church, who owned the territorial dominion and financial administration of the island. But male superiority could not be overlooked; it was the males who performed the dance. However, the first woman, by choosing her preferred dance, affected the activities of all the dancers, representing in this way her already defined identity of the woman as land owner and as regulator of the vital level of her region.

In Kasos, despite a territorial distribution similar to that of Karpathos, the small and stony size of the island did not manage to support its economy. People fromf Kasos turned towards maritime professions long before 1800. Ship construction was established. Ship owners gathered in small groups based on blood relationships and invested their savings at first in small ships and thereafter to larger ones. As is well-known they contributed to the struggles for the liberation of Greece from Ottoman rule. These financial partnerships united those who had been favored and those who had been ignored by the local hereditary system. The gaps between them were shortened, since both the first as well as the second became important factors in the island’s economy and promoted in a like manner the family and the blood relationship. Is the financial organization related to the small and autonomous successive circles that are formed based on blood relationships? Is it possible that these circles express a sharing of collective parts and a fairer distribution of social power and authority?

The ordering of the vlamides' "antroparea", their alignment by age in the first half of the chain at Vissani, as well as its female composition in the second half show a society with "male domination and the absolute division of sex as main characteristics", as happens in the Mani and in Crete where the phenomenon of "adelphopoiia" (brother-making) was also evident.

The patriarchal and paternal formation of the local family proves the agricultural character of the society at Sirrako. In such social systems "work distribution creates two subsystems, the male and the female one: each of them contained in its structure an internal hierarchy… and a specific specialization for activities and the responsibilities. As regards the female hierarchy the first position was held by the mother-in-law, and for the male one the father-in-law. As a whole women felt respect and obedience towards men. It was an indication of respect towards them to stay at home and to avoid going out "for any form of entertainment, except the village festival (panegyri) and then until sunset. Before going to the coffee shops, which meant that men continued the entertainment by themselves. Is it possible that the above is related to the age-related circles at Sirrako?

Icaria territory, one third rough and inaccessible, two thirds more fertile but steeply sloping, was not suitable for territorial distribution and cultivation. The low production abilities led men to emigrate very early on, initially as seasonal migration to nearby regions, with a more permanent migration since the end of 19th century. The few men who remained on the island, together with the women, carried out various work activities, the most important of which were vine cultivation and the coal kilns. The women of Icaria, according to the local customs, lived at their husband’s house. This fact was an additional reason proving how useful she could be. She went out, therefore, for the carrying out of heavy out-of-house tasks. She was caled “Gomariara” (mule-like) because she carried the wood to the coal kilns and the coals to the port, where she negotiated the price, since she could process financial transactions. She was therefore a significant worker and a strong point of the economy. Relative to this is a mantinada said by a father for his daughter: “Who is going to take care of the cows and to plough, now that my daughter has been married and it is another man who will order her?”

The distribution of responsibilities seems to render the woman equally responsible to the man for what concerns her survival, and this assures for her an internal importance which sanctions her in the social life. Her own everyday way of living influences the shops' opening hours during the evening. After her daily work she goes shopping for the goods she uses and she finds the occasion to visit the coffee shops. She visits the coffee shops on Sundays, after having fulfilled her religious duties. Her presence in public places, which are generally considered a male area, is as significant as her presence as a breadwinner. It might be that all these are related with the resoluteness and creativity she shows when dancing.

Tilos and Nissyros seem to have a territorial and family structure system similar to those of Karpathos and Kasos. The economy is based on land ownership. The church contributes significantly too, since the St. Panteleimon monastery in Tilos, as well as the Mother of God monastery at Spiliani in Nissyros, provide help in several areas of the common life. The common conditions of life lead to a similar expression in the two islands, as is obvious from their similar dances, but also from the similar formation of the circle during the official dances. It is difficult however to see the relationship between the social organisation of the communities and the organisation and operation of the dance circular line. The dance unit, the man and the woman who come as companions to the first position of the line, is divided thereafter, creating an almost exclusively female dance circle while the men form a company of drink and song. Is it due to a system of ideas that expects less male dominion? In both islands the married woman dances until the time her children get married. If necessary she may be present at dance events with her children but without her husband. The female sings in such public procedures, mainly during marriage ceremonies, where she accompanies almost all the functioning procedures. Furthermore the Koupa dance in both islands is female. The free circulation of females is confirmed by the custom among Tilos girls to gather on Sundays after church at the "plaza", the churchyard. Alone, without their mother’s companionship, they play "mapa", i.e. ball. Afterwards they dance Erini’s dance. The young men from the nearby coffee shop look on looking and address them courting words. Sometimes, if some of them play musical instruments, they join them and accompany their dance.


The temptation to compare and interpret ends here with the few data of this study. Possible interpretations do not derive from a comparative study of the complicated and multifunctional operation of the society, as well as the complicated and multifunctional operation of the dance. My intention is however to set the question.

The examination and codification of customs and habits, and their correlation with dance show that its formal rules compose a system that is substantially affected by the cultural and social system of the society where it belongs. The collective conscience requires that it should be integrated in every collective official gathering that has formality and validity. The dance as part of these procedures activates these integrations. The body with its appearance, positions, movement and behavior provides continuous forms. The participation of the body is complete. And what is shown by dancing has its origins in the ways relationships are set, as well as the ways the economy or politics are regulated in relationships. During dance the body plays all such roles, all the conditions known within the limits of the local society. Dance is transformed into an intense social action, a "polyphonic information". The information provided by each individual body and all together as a whole provides the polyphony of the whole civilization that surrounds the dance.

Ms. Marigoula Kritsioti



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