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Wendy Timmons & Agisilaos Aligizakis & Spyros Gigourtakis

Traditional Cretan dance, past and present training methods.

Initial investigation and suggestions for interventions in future training - Underpinning safety and prevention of dance injury.

Timmons, Wendy & Aligizakis, Agisilaos & Gigourtakis, Spyros: "Traditional Cretan dance, past and present training methods. Initial investigation and suggestions for interventions in future training", 17th International Congress on Dance Research, Naxos, 22-26/10, 2003.


Regional Cretan dance is believed by many scholars to be linked with an ancient Greek dance form originating in the Minoan Period (2800 BC-1400 AD) and continues to be a popular form of recreation in Crete today. The common and increased occurrence of injuries in this dance style brought about questions as to both their etiology and frequency and an investigation instigated. During 2002 one hundred and fifty people that participated in this dance form on a weekly basis were screened by questionnaire, orthopaedic and technical assessments and the statistics from this investigation analysed. Results indicated that all of the injuries were due to technical errors, injuries occurred with the same frequency both during training and performance sessions and all acute injuries occurred during the faster dance forms. Etiology for the injuries was a direct result of poor or improper performance and training techniques, of which environmental factors, poor physical condition and preparation; weight placement and lower leg alignment were fundamental issues. This initial investigation indicates the need for further research in this area of dance medicine and the development of a training protocol focusing upon safety and prevention of injury in this regional style of dance.

1. Introduction

Many scholars believe that the dynamic cultural phenomenon “Dance” originates in ancient Greece and more specifically in Minoan Crete [2800BC to 1400AD] (Hatzidakis G. 1958, Lawler, LB. 1964, Oesterley WOE.1923). This may be considered by many a rather general conception, however, evidence from the documentations of scholastic scripts including those of, Plato, Lucian and Homer do indicate that the existing form of regional Cretan dance has some common contextual and kinaesthetic qualities with the ancient dance form performed in the Minoan era. Dance is a live, expressive, visual and often spontaneous form of art and therefore documentation of the exact performance of dance movements, patterns and rhythms from Minoan times cannot exist. Further evidence that these dance forms are linked however, presents itself in the representation of static postures and gestures adopted by the ancient dancers within numerous clay figurines and frescos originating from Minoan times. The strong resemblances between these and the postures and gestures that are fundamental to today’s regional Cretan dance form are clearly demonstrated in, Fig. 1 (Clay figure from Minoan Period, museum no. HM9308) and Fig 2 (Cretan dancer 2002), Fig 3 (Clay figure from Minoan Period, MunichState museum) and Fig 4 (Cretan dancer 2002).

Dance played an important role in the education system and military training in ancient Greece, dance movements of these times originating from the natural movement patterns of the people and their way of life. In the past scholars (Plato, Lucian) wrote of the ‘Noble and Correct’ movements of the dancers, later during times of occupation and war the Cretan people expressed these characteristics through their dance style as ‘honour and bravery’ and until recently in modern times as ‘role and sense of status’ (Tsouhalarakis, I. 2000). Recent documentation related to this dance form indicates that Cretan dance steps have over the past century remained relatively unchanged (Hatzidakis, G.1958) unlike the life styles, environmental conditions and consequently the natural physique of the Cretan race that have changed considerably.

In the past traditional Cretan dance was absorbed through social means, song, dance and live music were part of every day life and dances were performed within a proper context, by no means were they formally taught and respect for role and sense of status was high. Today such opportunities to learn this way are becoming fewer and fewer and the advantages of the traditional mode of learning are slowly being lost (Copeman, C. 2002).

2. The characteristics of regional Cretan dance

There are two basic dance forms, the Syrtos, whose name indicates a drawing action and reflects the basic motion of the line being drawn forward by the lead dancer, the dance being performed in an open circle and is based on a walking step (Raftis, A. 2003), and the Pidiktos dance which is comprised of springy steps as its name indicates (Pido means to jump). Regional Cretan dances are made up of these two basic dance forms and have predominant improvisational characteristics, their rhythmical context is strong and often very fast, e.g. in the Maleviziotis dance, one crochet =116 (Tyrovola V. 2002). Traditionally performed in heavy costume which was regularly worn up until fifty years ago, tight cummerbunds held the traditional Cretan knife across the abdomen, the women wore long headscarves and necklaces adorned with heavy gold coins limiting the use of the head and upper body, the men also wore a type of black crochet scarf wrapped around the forehead. The slower form of the Syrtos dance, traditionally danced by men, has a very noble character and is designed to show off the charismatic male physique (Hatzidakis G. 1958).

All basic dance steps in regional Cretan dance forms are performed within a natural anatomical range of motion however Cretan dance has a very repetitive nature and specific technical demands e.g. the deep knee bends, leaps and virtuosity feats that are traditionally performed only by the first and second dancers. The upper body and head are ‘held’ upright in a quite static position and the performance of dynamic and often rhythmically intricate steps is carried out with ease and grace. The arms are either on the waist, holding hands with the elbows bent at the side, in a basket weave hold, or bracing the shoulders as in the case of the Pendozalis dance that is traditionally a male dance.

In both the basic Pidiktos and Syrtos forms of dance, a slightly externally rotated alignment of the legs and feet is used, common practice in all dance forms, to allow for greater movement in the hips and a more attractive presentation of the footwork (Huwyler, JS.1999, p81-82). The springy dance steps of the Pidiktos form are performed on the balls of the feet with the knees slightly relaxed, the women wear heeled shoes (not exceeding 5cm) and the men wear long leather boots. All dances travel to the right either in a circle, open semi-circle or in a line moving forward and back, circles never travel to the left. The Lead dancer, who is considered the most proficient in the group takes the place of honour followed by the Second dancer or Astari, these are followed by the middle dancers and last in the line are the less experienced dancers known as the Koundouras. The line up is very important and traditionally formed according to status, age and sex, certain dances only being performed by the men, e.g. the slow Syrtos dance and the Pendozalis. The Second dancer’ otherwise known as the Astari, plays an important role in the group partnering the First dancer in the impressive lifts [Fig 5].

3. Regional Cretan dance today

It is estimated that at last 25% of the population of the island (total population approx. 600,000) engage in this form of dance on a weekly basis. Since 1998 the instruction of Cretan dance has been integrated into the junior school curriculum and there are many schools and cultural organisations that teach regional dance on the private sector. There are also a number of semi-professional Cretan dance ensembles that work seasonally, either entertaining the tourists during the summer season or at weddings and baptisms the whole year around. The status, age, proficiency and sex no longer predetermine the line up of the dancers and often a younger and less experienced dancer is allowed to lead the group. Females learn and perform the traditionally male dances and costume is now only worn for public performances, fashions developing in the footwear used. Live musical accompaniment is seldom used at specialised dance schools, generally pre-recorded music at an inappropriate tempo is used during the learning phase and often specialist practitioners do not have expertise in the rhythmical or musical context of the music.

4. Research

A research body in Crete, The Science of Dance Medicine Associates, became aware of a significant number of Regional Cretan dancers that suffered from orthopaedic problems such as over-use syndromes and acute injuries to the lower leg, as a result of this investigation was instigated during the year 2002. During this period, one hundred and fifty traditional Cretan dancers were screened by means of a questionnaire, technical, orthopedic and clinical assessment with an aim to determine the frequency and etiology of dance injuries in this style of dance.

5. Results

Statistics taken from the screening indicated a complete absence of warm up and cool down techniques both during training sessions and performances. Injuries occurred in 14% of the dancers of which 75% were to the foot and lower leg. Acute injuries included strained muscles, cartilage problems and sprains of the ankle. Chronic injuries included over-use syndromes, herniated- discs, and patellar chondral problems predominated in the female dancers, patellar tendonitis in male dancers. Both sexes suffered from anterior/medial stress syndromes (shin splints) and Achilles tendonitis. Economical factors meant that professional dancers were forced to subsidise their income by engaging in two or more professions, consequently cutting down training and recuperative hours. The average training for the professional dancers per week was low (3hours) compared to the average weekly performance time (12hours). Both performance and training took place on hard unsuitable dance surfaces in inappropriate footwear and these adverse environmental conditions were sited as leading factors in 70% of the injuries. Additionally, anatomical abnormalities were also evident in 20% of the injuries. (Aligizakis AK, Timmons WM, Aligizakis EK, Gigourtakis SE, Korakaki E, Korakaki D, 2002, a, b &c)

6. Conclusion

Dance performance is interdependent upon technical proficiency, musicality and the ability to aesthetically demonstrate the context of a particular dance style through postures and gestures with a correct line of gravity throughout the body. Today, research in dance medicine has led to the recognition and integration of the science of dance training into most forms of dance, aiding dance students to accomplish the vital components of technique and skill acquisition successfully and without injury (Ryan A.J., Stephens R.E, 1988. Solomon R, Mecheli L, 1986). However the training of Regional Cretan dance remains rigidly traditional and the inclusion of warm up, cool down techniques, alternative or somatic training and postural alignment are not addressed in physically preparing the body for this dance style. Life-styles in Crete have changed dramatically over the years more and more people now work in offices and live sedentary lives. In the past the Cretan people would work on the land all day long and dance would be the main source of recreation to pass evening or celebrate some type of festival. These occupational factors would mean that their bodies were much fitter and stronger than the present day dancers, and already warmed up from their physical day’s work.

In all dance forms the body needs to be mechanically balanced over the feet, these act as a solid base from which to articulate with a physical equilibrium, the feet often withstanding forces put upon them exceeding many multiples of the actual body weight. Increasingly dance training now acknowledges and incorporates the fundamentals of core stability as an aid to achieve this equilibrium. The static postures combined with the compression of the Cretan dance steps render the spine, pelvic area and lower leg vulnerable to injury. The injury statistics from the screening undertaken indicate that training in postural alignment and weight placement would benefit this form of dance training. Absolute function and alignment of the foot and lower leg are fundamental to correct weight placement and transference, unfortunately our culture today has little regard for the foot and both unsuitable footwear, lack of exercise along with treading on hard surfaces often lead to premature degenerative conditions and changes in the feet (Huwyler, JS.1999, p94). In the past the architecture of the housing in Crete, up until the 20th century, meant that floors were either wooden or dirt and often dance activities would also take place in the open air on dirt ground, consequently dance surfaces had better shock absorbent properties than those of the present day. Recommendations are therefore made that the strength, dynamic alignment and flexibility of the foot and lower leg are considered in the training of this dance form and that appropriate footwear is worn. Recent research on dance surfaces (Foley M. 1998) shows that a less rigid and slippery dance surface provides a healthier and safer environment for dance activities, reducing the shock absorbed by the feet, legs and spine together with increased propreoception, suggestions are therefore made that more appropriate dance surfaces are fitted into the areas where Cretan dance is trained and performed today.  

Strength in the ‘core’ together with greater mobility in the hip region are necessary tools by which the characteristic upright posture of the torso may effectively and safely achieved, facilitating the required technical skills and agility necessary to perform the intricate precise footwork characteristic to this dance style. The propreoceptive effect and carriage of the heavy traditional costume, including weapons, would in the past help to develop increased strength, physical endurance and stylistic upright posture, therefore it is recommended that the historical context and style of this dance form is considered in the present teaching of this dance form.   This initial research indicates that certain physical components, fundamental to Cretan dance, are somewhat lacking in the modern Cretan physique as a result of, changing environmental and physical lifestyles.

As a direct result of this initial study, further research in this area is currently being undertaken with an aim to substantiate the need for ‘informed training’ in Cretan Dance and the development of a protocol for a safer training program. This protocol will underpin the importance of: a) fundamental physical training components related to this dance form, injury prevention and safe practice, b) the specialist practitioner’s ability to recognise the motor and cognitive potential of today’s students, c) acknowledgement and respect the specific historical context and style of this dance form that are necessary for both a safe and accurate dance performance.


AligizakisAK, Timmons WM, Aligizakis EK, Gigourtakis SE, Korakaki E, Korakaki D. Announcements made at the 11th Pagritio Medical Congress, 2002: a) Screening in Traditional Cretan Dancers b) Musculoskeletal Injuries in Amateur Cretan Dancers, c) Musculoskeletal Injuries in Professional Cretan Dancers

Copeman C. Children Learning Dance in Dance as an Intangible Heritage: Athens. CID, 2002, pp24-30.

Foley Mark, Dance Floors. Dance UK (1998)

Hatzidakis G. Cretan Music, Historical Musical Systems, Songs and Dance. Athens. Benaki. 1958.

Huwyler JS. The Dancer’s Body, International Medical Publishing Inc. U.S.A. 1999,

Lawler LB. The Dance in Ancient Greece, MiddletownConnecticut, WesleyanUniversity Press, 1964.

Lucian. Ancient Greek Scripts, Answers, On Dance. Volume 10. Translated by the Cactus Group of Philologists. Cactus, Athens. 1992.

Marijeanne Liederbach, M.S., A. T., C. Screening for Functional Capacity in Dancers Designing Standardized, Dance Specific Injury Prevention Screening Tools. In: Dance Medicine and Science 1(3): pp 93-104. 1997

Oesterley WOE. Sacred Dance: A Study in Comparative Folklore. CambridgeUniversity Press. UK. 1923

Plato. Translated by Saunders TJ. The Laws. England. Penguin Books. 1970.

Raftis A, 2003, The Present Situation of Dance in Greece in Conference papers, Dance in the World Today 2. The International Dance Council.

Ryan A.J., Stephens R.E. The Dancer’s Guide to Healthcare and a Long Career, Chicago: Bonus Books, 1988.pp 1-13.

Solomon R, Mecheli L. Technique as a Consideration in Modern Dance Injuries. In Phys Sportsmed 14(8): 83-90, 1986.

Tsouhalarakis, I. The Dances of Crete, myths, history and tradition. Athens. The study center for Cretan culture, 2000, p.31

Tyrovola V. The Greek Folk Dance Rhythms. Gutenberg. Athens. 2002.

Photographs of Cretan Dancers were taken by Wendy Timmons with kind permission from the Lekio Elinidon, 2002.

The presenters

For further information on this and other Dance Medicine research projects you may contact the Science of Dance Medicine Associates; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; Tel/Fax 0030 2810 289486

Ms. Wendy M. Timmons, B. Phil (Hons) Dance Educator

Dr. Mr. Agisilaos K, Aligizakis, PhD Orthopedic Surgeon

Mr. Spyros E. Gigourtakis, SRP.MCSP Physiotherapist



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