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CYPRIOT DANCES (Article by: Alecos lacovides)


Changes in Cypriot life occurred but slowly between the first years of the century and the Second World War, they gained pace with Independence in 1960, and became quite abrupt after the Turkish invasion of 1974. On the traditionally ritualistic form of the Cypriot dance they have had a wholly negative effect.

Cypriot men used to dance mostly during wedding festivities and at various junkets on high days and holidays, but a]so in coffee-houses in the evenings, on threshing-floors, and wherever men gathered together. Social convention restricted occasions when women danced mainly to weddings.

In the period we are considering, roughly from 1910 to the seventies, the basic dance of both men and women was the "kartchilamas" performed by a confronted pair of dancers. The "kartchilamas" consists of a series of dances that vary slightly according to the performers, the locality, or the era. These dances are essentially parts of a whole, or suite, the parts being known as the "kartchilamas" or "first", "second", "third", "fourth", and "fifth" or"balos", rounded off by other dances such as the "syrtos", "zeipekkikos", and "mandra". A feast would usually end with one of the pan-hellenic dances, the "kalamatianos", a circle-dance in which all might join.

Cypriot dances are mainly of the type performed by a confronted pair, invariably two men or two women, or men's solo dances displaying virtuosity and often performed with a hand-held object, either a sickle, knife, sieve, or tumbler. In their steps and general characteristics - such as the movement of the body and limbs - they have features in common with dances of the historic Greek island area (the Asia Minor seaboard, Aegean islands and cities, and the Ionian isles). Apart from these common features, Cypriot dances are distinguished by steps peculiar to certain localities, such as stamping in one spot with the feet, crossed alternately in front of each other, in the "second" and particularly the "third" ""kartchilamas"" and in the "syrtos" for men. Improvization is another characteristic of Cypriot dances and may be attributed to their being performed by only two people and so to an overriding sense of comparison and, by extension, of competition. But it is to be noted that improvization and the freedom of the dancer to do his own thing are constrained by the community's severe strictures upon any excesses. Indeed, the more inward-looking the community, the more rigorous the restraints.

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Dancers perform opposite one another, usually within their own limited space, but sometimes changing place with their partner. The position and movement of the arms, normally held out at the sides, are quite distinctive.

In many localities a dancer would be highly thought of if he danced as the phrase had it, 'on a needle' or 'on a piece of marble' (a folk expression denoting a flagstone about forty centimetres square). He was a good dancer, too, who danced 'to the violin's measure' or else 'kept time with the beat'. But above all a good dancer was the one 'who innovated, who did his own thing'. One notes the importance of fillips, sharp snaps made with finger and thumb in time with the rhythm of Cypriot male dances. Before even taking the floor, dancers will rub their fingers in the dust on the ground or on the heels of their shoes to make their fillips louder. Many people can recall dancers who could be recognized at a distance by the smart snap of their fingers.

Dancers always begin with the first part of the "kartchilamas", and move on to the "second", "third", and "fourth" part. In some villages, particularly in the mountains, the "second" and "third" parts form one dance, called the "second", so the next is considered the "third" and not the "fourth". In some villages, the "traoudhistos" or "tis traoudhkias" ('the sung dance') intervenes between the "third" and the "fourth" parts - around Paphos chiefly after the "fourth" - as an extension of the one or the other. It may be sung by the dancers, musicians, and bystanders, or by any one of these groups. The "traoudhistos" usually comprises impromptu couplets 'suited to the occasion'. In most localities the melody of the "traoudhistos" or "tis traoudhkias" is the "ishia" or a local variation of it. They would sometimes omit the "fourth" part. One or both dancers, one following upon the other, but customarily just the "kalophonaris" (the 'good vocalist') sings in the "balos" ("first" and "second"). As in the "traoudhistos", the dancers pause while there is singing only to recommence the dance as soon as the music resumes its measure; this switch back to the dance is called the "ppestrphin". The dearth in recent decades of "kalophonarides" has led to the virtual abolition of the "balos". When danced, however, it is followed by the "syrtos", performed by the same pair dancing one dancer in the lead, the other supporting him by holding a kerchief or clapping his hands, and then the other. In many places the "mandra" is the last dance to be danced by the pair.

In the interval between the "syrtos" and the "mandra" dancers would request and perform individual dances such as he "zeipekkikos", "karotseris", "mashairin", "dhrepanin", "tatcha", "potirin", or the "arapies tis kandilas".

The "second", "third", "traoudhistos" and "balos" at the "ppestrephin", the "syrtos", and "mandra" all have steps in common, such as the typical island "syrtos" and "balos" step, a sort of promenade, which they are for ever embroidering with new patterns. The dancers themselves are given to saying: "I do whatever occurs to me".

Apart from the aforementioned similarities and dissimilarities in the steps and the close identity between the two dancers of the Cypriot "syrtos" and the two leading dancers of the Aegean island "syrtos", the former is a more individualistic dance while the latter is chiefly a group and circle dance.

Finally, steps from the "second", "third", "balos", "syrtos", and "mandra" parts are usually to be found in the "first" and "fourth" parts, but sometimes it is the other way round.

The "zeipekkikos", or "zeipekkiko", is a solo dance that allows the dancer freedom to strike his own attitudes and to range more widely over the floor than in any other Cypriot dance: it also has more composite steps within the basic step pattern. All these factors help the dancer to show off his virtuosity to greater effect. Some dancers are noted particularly for their performance of the "zeipekkikos".

The "zeipekkikos" usually follows the "kartchilamadhes" and the "syrtos", being danced by just one of the pair while the other looks on, occasionally clapping his hands. It differs from the "zeibekkikos" seen in Greece, which was originally danced virtually on one spot.

In regions where the "mandra" did not figure, the "zeipekkikos" was normally the last dance performed by each pair of dancers.

The "dhrepanin", "mashairin", and "tatcha" are solo dances, most often danced to the same tune.

The "dhrepanin" (sickle) is a harvest dance. The best reapers would 'play the sickle' as they reaped, cutting swathes in the air and making swift passes about their bodies and over their heads or neatly topping the corn ears, but without ceasing to mow.

The day reapers finished the last of a farmer's fields the "potherka" would begin: threats made in jest by the reapers against the owner lest he fails to treat them handsomely, various games, and the harvest supper. A tune the instrumentalists played to the reapers during the "potherka" on the monastic estate of Saint Andrew's survives at Rizokarpaso. Old folk living in the locality of Karpasia used to call the sickle dance 'sickle games'. Till quite recently it was still seen at festivals including the celebration of the 'Cataclysmos', a festival held at Pentecost. What we know about 'sickle games' and the sickle dance in general bears witness to its antiquity. Passages of the harvest dance in Cyprus reflect a ritual involving fertility magic and the averting of evil. Now a dance in which virtuosity is given full rein, the "dhrepanin" forms part of the Cataclysmos cycle as a competitive dance always performed solo.

In the "mashairin" ('knife') the dancer, holding a clasp-knife or bowie, moves rhythmically about his partner before plunging the knife into the ground and dancing over and around it. Supported by his partner, he bends over backwards, grips the knife in hi teeth, rises to his feet, and dances. Finally. he adroitly brandishes the knife close to his partner's face and all about his head and body. In some villages, mainly those of Mesaoria, the dancer 'knifes' his erstwhile supporter, who falls prostrate. The dancer mimes the flaying and disembowelling of the 'carcase' and then dances with it slung over his back. In both its melody and this more elaborate dance form, the "mashairin" closely resembles the "chasapis" or butcher's dance from Ayiasso in Lesvos (Mytilene).

The "tacha" is another virtuoso's dance. The dancer spins a sieve in which he has placed a tumbler full of water, of which not a drop must be split. In the past twenty years or so dancers have been using an even greater number of tumblers.

The "arapies tis kandilas" ("dance with a tumbler') has become a similarly extravagant dance After covering a half-filled glass with a kerchief the dancer turns it upside down and places it on his head, endeavouring to keep it upright as he dances. At the climax be kneels down and leans backwards to resume his original position without letting the glass fall or the water spill. The contemporary dancer balances as many glasses as he can on his head.

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A pair of women dance the "kartchilamas" in four parts, and the "syrtos". In a few villages, mostly in mountainous Cyprus, they perform the "syrtos" as a group circle dance. In some regions they dance the "arma" dance, a kind of "syrtos", and, though more rarely in recent decades, the "balos" as the "fifth" part of the "kartchilamas" preceding the "syrtos". Some villages dance the "arapies" and others the "sousta". A rather straight-laced dance with spare and simple steps, the "arapies" may once have been another part of the "kartchilamas".

Women are restrained and grave when dancing. Many dance almost without moving from one spot, on a single piece of marble, each marking out a square explicitly her own. The arms assume various positions. First one and then both hands are held against the "koxan", the hip, the free one hanging down or being gently flourished at shoulder height. One part of the "kartchilamas", usually the "second", was known in some villages as "koxes", for the girls dancing it rested both hands on their hips. As every girl holds her kerchief stretched out in front of her between her two hands throughout most phases of the "third" part, the part has come to be known as the "mantilin" or "mantilou(dh)in" ('kerchief') ln the "first" and "fourth" parts the arms are held extended level with the shoulders and make deliberate balancing movements. This position of the arms is reminiscent of certain "kartchilamadhes" danced by women in Asia Minor. Some village women join both hands together in front of them, many of them maintaining this is the oldest of all positions, or leave them hanging loosely at the sides.

Regarding the steps generally, the "first" resembles the "fourth" part and in most regions the "second" resembles the "third" and the "syrtos". As in the men's dances, so in the women's "kartchilamadhes" we sometimes find the steps of the "second" and "third" parts in the "first" and "fourth". Like other "kartchilamadhes", the sousta is danced almost everywhere by two girls. According to the locality, the steps tresemble the "second" and "third" or even the "syrtos" part. First one girl dances the syrtos, the other supporting her by holding a kerchief, and then they change places.

Some people with long memories recall violinists singing distichs or rhyming couplets as women danced the "first", "second", and "third" parts. In the last few decades we find this only during the "third" when it is danced as 'the dance of the bridal coupIe'.

The sole occasion on which a man and a woman dance together in Cyprus is when the bride dances with the groom after their wedding. The bridal couple's dance is also known as 'the bride's dance'. It is usually danced to the melody of the women's "third" part, though some violinists play a different melody for this dance. The bride's dance has been seen to be danced not by the bridal couple but by the bride with the "koumera" or maid of honour. In recent times at village wedding feasts the modern 'orchestra' ("bouzouki", "tjaspa" (a set of drums), synthesizer, accordion, guitar, electric guitar, and more often than not a violin etc. - all heard through magnetic mircophones and amplifiers) will play the dance of the bride and groom so the couple may be 'adorned'. This is the traditional dance most frequently danced at a modem Cypriot wedding. The 'adornment', that is the pinning of paper currency (since the second world war) to the couple's clothing is, in our opinion, the chief reason this dance is so often performed.

The limited study so far made of the Cypriot dance has not come to grips with every aspect of the dance, but has concerned itself rather with the music, for most researchers overlook the significance of the movements and reach conclusions based only on the melody. But, as is the case elsewhere, in most instances the movement came first and was adapted later to melodies, after which they are named.

The extensive filming of dancers, however tardily it commences, and the gathering of as much relevant material as possible will provide a basis for study.

The contemporary student has to face several handicaps: first, the rarity of opportunities for observing dances performed in their proper traditional setting, thus usually obliging him to create occasions if he is to watch them; second, the advanced age of the dancers, which prevents them from giving the fullest display of the movements used in the dance, let alone of their infinite variations arising from the freedom of individual interpretation by each dancer (improvization unhampered by the constraints of social comment); and, third, the impact of Cypriot dance groups through the general impression they have given to those who have no real knowledge of the dance and to the Cypriots themselves, especially the younger generation.

In our view, determining factors in the standardization and alienation of the traditional Cypriot dance are, on the one hand, dancing classes (both in the schools and outside them) and, on the other, local dance contests. Another decisive factor, particularly in alienating regional dances, is the direct or indirect influence exerted by 'folkloric ballets' with special reference to Eastern Europe. The result has been to reduce dance movements to a common minimum, to vulgarize the dances, and to dilute the great variety of regional characteristics and individual idiosyncrasies in regard to the steps, the posture of the body, the movements and positions of the arms, and of the style generally. In addition, the form and spirit of the Cypriot dance have been changed beyond recognition by increasing the number of pairs, the introduction of mixed dances, and the blurring of movement and bearing. The execution of movements taught by the choreographer-instructior to the masses is a contradiction of the spontaneity and initiative of the traditional dancer.

The manner in which Cypriot dances, with few exceptions, are presented on television has no parallel or precedent in any traditional community. This manner is the exclusive creation of folkloric groups with which the agrarian population of Cyprus has no connection.

More research is required in studying the Cypriot dance, first at a local level and then in a comparative study of the dance in neighbouring countries in the Near and Middle East.

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Panayiotis Zaphiris (, (