The unique, soulful Greek dance called Zeybekiko is steeped in folk tradition, has no specified steps or moves, and yet captures the essence of Greek character. I attempt to explain what it’s all about.

I was recently invited to capture my nephew’s christening in photography. Christenings, weddings and other family gatherings are important social happenings in Greece : scores of guests are typically invited, including close and distant relatives, friends, and friends of friends. Its not unusual to invite everyone (sometimes including random passers-by) to participate in the aftermath of a milestone family event : a huge dinner and dance where great food, spirits, and happiness flows. For a few hours, everyone looks their absolute best, and everyone’s happy and carefree. It’s no coincidence that the frivolous yet mystical world of Greek festivities have been the subject of numerous books, documentaries and films through the years. Myself being a terrible and reluctant dancer, and having observed numerous social functions before, this was a unique opportunity to record what is one of Greece’s foremost popular forms of expression first hand.

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Kalamatianos, a popular Greek folk dance

After the dinner and drinks have been served, followed by dessert and coffee, it’s time to dance the rest of the night away. The dancing typically begins with a kalamatianos, a spirited chain-stepped dance where dancers move counter-clockwise holding hands.

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Grandmother Xenia is leading the kalamatianos in defiance of her ninety years

In kalamatianos, the lead dancer is often linked to the chain by a handkerchief, allowing the more experienced dancers to express themselves with freedom in more elaborate moves, while the rest of the dancers follow through.  There are other regional chain dances in the same vein, ranging from the very slow dances of Macedonia and Epirus, to the fast, hopping dances of the Greek islands and Asia Minor. All of these are several centuries old, tracing their origins to the Pyrrhichios, the ancient Greek war dance that imitated the quick moves required by warriors to avoid blows and arrows in battle. The Pyrrhichios is mentioned by Homer, Plato and Xenophon, and it is said that Spartans considered it light combat training, teaching their youth to dance from a very young age.

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Dimitris is proclaiming his happiness in his Zeybekiko

Once everyone has a go at the chain-dances, it’s time for the tour-de-force of Greek choreography: The famous Zeybekiko, the most personal and expressive of Greek dances. Its origins are traced to the Zeybeks , a 17th century irregular militia active in Asia Minor. It was a population sharing Greek and Ottoman characteristics, and their war dance simulated hawks in flight, showcasing their military prowess, bravery and fearlessness. The Zeybekiko entered modern Greek folklore after the disastrous events that led to the evacuation of Asia Minor in the 1920s, functioning as an outlet for the expression of loss, sorrow and regret. However, Zeybekiko is not an inherently sad dance : it is rather one that is used to convey the inner feeling of the moment in both happy and sorrowful contexts.

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Panos performs an elaborate plummet

Although there are no formal steps in Zeybekiko, there are a number of important, yet unwritten rules. The main one is that this is a dance one dances alone. The stage is cleared for the person who picks up the challenge, giving them ample space to perform.

 

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Nikolas is ascending after a take off

The dancer then enters an introspective trance, gyrating with their arms extended, jumping, then landing again, taking slow steps low and close to the ground, then rising again : The dancers are imitating the moves of a proud Anatolian eagle, expressing themselves with the freedom and grace of the wild bird.

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Nikos in full hover

Onlookers are expected to stand away from the stage for the duration of the dance. They are often kneeling around the dancer in a display of respect, clapping to the rhythm of the dance, and spurring the lone dancers on, into their elaborate flight.

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Vasilis in a low drift just above ground

Zeybekiko dancing is a serious affair. In a well publicised 1973 incident, an infuriated spectator famously stabbed to death 3 hecklers who entered his dancing brother’s space, then injuring another 7 onlookers in an Athenian live music club. Generally speaking, entering someone’s Zeybekiko dance space is not considered a capital offence or mortally dangerous. It is however seriously frowned upon.       

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Michalis in a gliding half turn

Zeybekiko is a dance of the soul. It’s meant to express, rather than impress. It’s a show of bittersweet feelings, with notions of pride, happiness and sorrow, as the dancers are pouring themselves into their own unique, characteristic steps. It is an imitation of flight, and an elaboration of a life’s highs and lows. As a result, it’s a very distinctively individual dance capturing the essence of one’s journey in the very moment it’s performed. And such as our lives are different, not two dances are ever the same.

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Eleni is soaring with grace

Although it is traditionally considered a male dance, in recent decades ladies are proving to be confident and spectacularly graceful dancers. And rightly so, adding their own expressions of a life’s journey to the enduring lore of Zeybekiko dance.

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Yiota moves like the fabled Nike of Samothrace

Zeybekiko can be danced regardless of age, expertise, or physical capacity. But the most experienced dancers are an awesome sight to behold, dancing their life’s tune to their own inner rhythm, while requiring a minimal amount of space to express and perform their elaborate moves.

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Maximos displays the spirit of a fledgling

And the younger eagles, as you’d expect, show the most agility, lifting up to the sky with ease !

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Xenia will typically kick off her shoes before performing her Zeybekiko

Soon, jackets, ties, or shoes can become an uncomfortable formality, and are off ! Buttons are unfastened, belts are relaxed, and formal articles of clothing discarded, further expressing the unrestrained happiness and freedom of the dancer.

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Polyvios is lifting up towards the sky in the last Zeybekiko of the night

Last, but not least, you are only expected to dance once per night. More would be an excess, while less would be a shortcoming. But there are plenty of songs to choose from, so dancers wait for their turn, and then make it count. Zeybekiko is a uniquely symbolic Greek dance that captures the true meaning of life, and no visit in Greece is complete without the spectacle of a soulful, genuine zeybekiko dance.

Famous screen depictions of Zeybekiko

Since the Zeybekiko dance has become part and parcel of Greek culture over the years, it is not surprising that it has found its way into cinema and the performing arts. Here’s a small anthology of Zeybekiko dances for you along, with a note on their significance. I promise you that you won’t find a true Greek who’s not familiar with all of these !

  • Mary Chronopoulou – Tou Agoriou Apenanti (To The Boy Across) 

Mary Chronopoulou’s zeybekiko in this 1967 movie is famous for its intense eroticism and emancipatory subtext. At a time where gender equality was neither expected nor constitutionally ratified in Greece, Chronopoulou is acting herself in a spirited, somewhat unchaste, and almost inconceivably forthcoming dance. She’s riding a chair as her prop while staring the men in the club straight in the eye, dancing her alluring zeybekiko in equal terms. It may look innocent now, but it was an electrifying performance for those times. It still remains an enduring symbol of female emancipation in Greece, and one of the ladies’ all time favourite tunes.

  • Nikos Koemtzis  – Paraggelia (The Request)

This movie from 1980 is about the infamous 1973 stabbing incident, where an enraged Nikos Koemtzis performed a deadly stabbing attack to the men who interrupted his brother’s Zeybekiko. (The Request traditionally being the dancer’s wish for the orchestra to play an exclusive song for them to dance to). He did 23 years in jail, but despite the severity of his crime, public opinion has remained sympathetic, almost justifying his actions.

  • Rixto Ilia (Drop it, Ilia)

Here, the sorrowful protagonist performs the ultimate Zeybekiko : Attempting to numb his soul’s pain, he’s paying his way to drinking a music club dry, and even has every glass and plate smashed on the dance stage, down to the club’s toilets and urinals. In the end, he purchases the very building from the owner, and after evacuating everyone, he commands its demolition. As the bulldozer is bringing the club down (memorably named “Vietnam”), the anti-hero is pouring whiskey on his overcoat, then sets it on fire, while dancing a slow, morose zeybekiko. A timeless classic.

  • Nikos Kourkoulos

Nikos Kourkoulos was a famous Greek actor, and the grand master of sorrowful zeybekiko. He was typecast in the role of the honourable, good natured working class hero, facing poverty, injustice and the powers that be in every step of the way. He’s often seen in movies pouring his sorrowful soul into a slow, painful dance.

  • Dimitris Mitropanos

The late famous Greek singer was famous for his baritone vocals as well as for his masterful zeybekiko. Here’s his dance during a 2011 live show, while the audience is showering him with red carnations.

All photos © explorabilia

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