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Ancient Greek Dance-off

Written by Claudina Romero Mayorga |

Claudina Romero Mayorga writes about the recent event for which she received an ICS Public Engagement grant

I can’t conceive a day without dancing and, apparently, neither could the ancient Greeks. According to ancient sources, dancing was present in everyday life, in religious ceremonies, in weddings, in funerals, dinner parties, theatre, competitions, etc. It could be performed in private or public, either spontaneously or choreographed, in groups or solo. Dancing’s omnipresence hints to a variety of functions in the ancient Greek world: it was used to tell a story, to showcase martial and athletic skills, entertain guests, shape processions and religious rituals. Dancing was part of the broad Greek category of “mousikē”, a term that encompassed all activities that fell under the realm of the Muses: poetry, music-making, reciting, singing, and any coordinated physical movement.

And with dancing comes music, of course, or at least some rhythmic pace. Fortunately, music in antiquity is one of the research lines at the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology (Department of Classics, University of Reading), where we hosted the 11th MOISA meeting in 2018 and an exhibition on Music and Materiality. My own research in mystery cults had already propelled my interest in sensorial archaeology and the perception – and function – of music and dance in ancient Greece and Rome. Meeting colleagues who shared my interests in Reading – and who definitely enriched my understanding of the topic – did nothing but encouraged me to continue researching to make music and dance in antiquity accessible to a wider audience.


Claudina Romero Mayorga guiding a tour around the Ure Museum for families


As the Education Officer at the Ure Museum, I heavily rely on object-based teaching methodologies – framed under experiential archaeology – to engage with our audience: primary teachers and students covering the ancient Greeks at school, families, UoR students, academics, etc. However, teaching ancient Greek dancing can be tricky, since it was an ephemeral art: it left no dance notation, no record about the precise sequence of steps to perform – neither in writing nor in images – and no technical literature about it has been recovered so far. Although ancient Greek written sources affirm the key role of certain dances in festivals, religious ceremonies, or parties, it is the art produced by the ancient Greeks that give us some clues about what dancing looked like. Wall painting, reliefs, sculptures, jewellery – but mostly Greek vases – showcase gods, people, animals, and hybrids dancing. Whether or not those gestures and body movements can be seen as well-documented dancing steps or mere artistic conventions to represent movement is another story.


Families looking at musical instruments and representations of pots


Thanks to the ICS Public Engagement Grant I was able to organise an event that allowed everyone to have a hands-on experience with dancing. I contacted a dance practitioner, Tanya Allen, from The Allenova School of Dancing in Berkshire, who has been teaching Classical Greek dance for more than 30 years. This is one of the many reconstruction methodologies of ancient Greek dance that appeared in the 19th-20th century. In this case, the method was created by Ruby Ginner based on the theatrical performances of the 5th century BC and their artistic representations. Tanya was as enthusiastic as I was about working together and brought with her some of her students to interact with our audience.

“Ancient Greek Dance-off” took place on August 5th, when all covid restrictions were lifted in the UK. At the UoR campus, however, certain protocols remained in place – such as social distancing – so we had to work with small groups of visitors and made sure to timeslot all the activities planned for the day. Our audience consisted mainly of families, whose children were 6-16 years old. The ICS funds also allowed me to hire a film editor who recorded the event and will soon provide us with a video which will hopefully be uploaded to our brand new research website on ancient dance at the UoR

“Ancient Greek Dance-off” was a tripartite event that included (1) a chat with a key note speaker; (2) a guided tour around the Ure Museum and (3) a dancing lesson by Tanya and her students. I was ecstatic to have my colleague Nathalie Choubineh delivering a friendly chat to parents and kids, lively challenging them with notions about dancing and society in the ancient Greek world in the first part of the day. Then, she kindly joined me in the second part, looking around our collection of vases and how easy – or not – spotting dancing people was. Unsurprisingly, visitors recognised dancing steps, collective dancing and even the gods connected to the performing arts, such as Apollo and Dionysus. This was a great opportunity for the families – most of them visiting the museum for the first time – to engage with our collection and to appreciate the usefulness of material culture to study not only dancing, but every single aspect of ancient Greek society.


Nathalie Choubineh speaking
Nathalie Choubineh delivering a talk to the audience


The third part was definitely a surprise for the families: they got to meet Tanya and learnt from her and her students. Tanya prepared “snippets” – as she called them – of the dance that could have been performed in the Spring Festival. Her students carried flower petals, wreaths and wowed everyone with their swift and marvellous movements. The best, however, was yet to come: Tanya invited families to dance with them and taught them procession postures (how the ancient Greeks held objects that were offered to the gods). She also reminded visitors that dancing was an athletic activity – it trains body coordination and strengthens muscles – and our audience took part in the challenging exercise that included throwing up and down – and catching – a ball, running, jumping – and laughing, of course.


Students dancing
Allenova’s students dancing for the audience


Families’ feedback was more than positive: they loved the opportunity of coming face to face with a specialist on the subject and with the objects of our collection. Dancing with Tanya enabled them to have an immersive experience and fully appreciated how rhythm, postures, balance, and coordination were key elements in ancient Greek dance. By joining Tanya’s students, they felt part of a group and interacted with them, proving that dancing favours accessibility and inclusivity while promoting physical activity. After so many lockdowns, the possibility of learning while dancing was fully embraced by families. If there is something I learnt from this experience is that, if I want to teach the idea that dancing was present in every sphere of the ancient word, I’d better start including a practical take on the topic in every school session, half-term family event, wide participation activity I plan. ICS has made possible for the Ure Museum to find in Tanya a new community partner who will hopefully continue to work with us in upcoming educational and research projects.


Families dancing
Families partaking in dancing