Recently, I observed the performance of one of the more skilled Greek dance groups in Melbourne, one that takes great pains to master every single detail of the dances of the region whence its performers derive their origin, and reproduces them with exacting accuracy.
“See,” the dance master beamed, “every single detail is authentic, from the steps to the costumes, and the music, right down to the expressions on the dancers’ faces.”
“Not everything,” I observed.
“What?” the dance master shuddered, half in surprise, half in indignation. “We’ve enlisted the help of dance experts from Greece. Every single aspect of this performance has been meticulously researched. What is not authentic?”
“Their shirts,” I responded. “I don’t think they had collars and buttoned barrelled cuffs in those days.”
“You are right,” the dance master conceded in horror. “We have to do something about this immediately. After all, we are talking about 4,000 years of history here.”
Our dances may have evolved over four millennia, but somewhere between the 19th and early 20th century, that tradition became ossified, and impervious to the corrosive effects of globalisation, or indeed, to organic evolution within the changing society that it is supposed to express.
Instead of responding to the manner in which modern Greece emerged, it became embalmed as one of the chief symbols with which to articulate the discourse of Hellenic identity. If a British person ventured that one of the key constituents of their ethnic identity was the Morris dance, the 18th century quadrille, or the Renaissance-era volta, this would raise eyebrows. But for a Greek to assert that his identity is inextricably linked to dances popular 200 years ago among mountain brigands is perfectly natural.
After all, though the traditional dances and music of the Greeks have proved largely impervious to change (with the unspeakable Gogo Tsampas’ pernicious Τα καγκέλια proving the disastrous effects of the theory of unnatural selection), they are still performed, in the areas where they originally arose, and within similar social contexts, such as annual rural panegyria. In the cities, that social context largely does not exist, so dances tend to be forgotten, rather than ‘sullied’ by the westernising influences of urbanisation.
As such, traditional Greek dances can be paralleled to the Orthodox liturgy: inexpressibly old, enshrined in millennia of arcane ritual that is unquestioned and faithfully replicated, employing an antiquated, pre-modern idiom, and yet, intelligible to all those who partake of its mystery, in a highly emotive experience that infiltrates to the very core of one’s self-perception.
In Melbourne however, the social context that tethers the relevance and immediacy of Greek dance to a topos, does not exist. Not only is Melbourne an urban entity, and thus antithetical to the rural discourse that has shaped the construction of Greek identity, it is also an entity that, prior to our arrival, had no relevance to the history of the development of it whatsoever.
In one way, the nature of the appearance of Greek dance in Melbourne can be likened to dances that were forcibly extricated from their place of origin by means of man-made catastrophes, such as in the case of the Pontians, where the social context, if not the topos, was faithfully replicated in the areas of Greece where the Pontians settled, suggesting that places, real and imagined, exist contemporaneously and have great power.
In Melbourne, where Greeks from all parts of the country intermingle throughout the city, there has been a remarkable sharing of traditions, with dances that in Greece would be generally known only by those stemming from that region, enjoying cross-regional dissemination.
As is the case with Pontian dance in Greece, vast importance is placed in Greek Melbourne on ‘authenticity’, the exact replication and/or reconstruction of dance steps, even when the time period of the snap shot of what a dance ‘should’ look like, is completely arbitrary.
For young Greek Melburnians in particular, born and raised in Melbourne, steeped in globalised culture and able to alternately twerk, rap or croon with the best of them, moving to the cadences of mountain shepherds that expired two centuries ago, 13-and-a-half thousand kilometres away from their place of residence, and which, ostensibly, at least, seem to have no bearing upon their contemporary lives, is somehow of great significance.
Intriguingly, though many latter day Greek Melburnians may no longer speak Greek with ease, though they may have a limited, or next to no experience of modern Greece, its politics, history or society, though they may not be churchgoers, though they may reject what they perceive to be the obscure and superseded traditions of their ancestors, a considerable number of them employ centuries old Greek dances as the primary method of articulating their Greek identity within modern Melbourne.
The reasons are obvious. Dances require less commitment and are less demanding than language learning or following a prescribed code of conduct. With their accoutrements, ornate standardised traditional costumes, they are also a most visible and attention-grabbing form of identity assertion. They provide, through the joining of hands, an instant kinship network, a sense of belonging, placed within an imagined, reconstructed past.
On the night that my discourse with the Greek dance master took place, I was seated at a table in the company of a group of 60-year-olds. All of them, bar one, were, while the dancing display was taking place, intermitted looking down at their phones so they could simultaneously watch the footy. Context, as always, is key.
“Why don’t you get up and dance?” one of them suggested.
“I’m not from there,” was my reply, and it was immediately accepted, without question.
In actual fact, I am born and bred in the suburb where the dance took place. As the suburb in which my grandfather settled over six decades ago, it is my πατρίδα (homeland). Even so, there is something within me that has not permitted an Antipodean backstory to develop, sufficient for me to identify with dances that do not derive from my ancestral homelands, in order for me to enjoy them, even if they are Greek, and thus acceptable.
Like so many others, I am emotionally and ideologically tied to places that have had no tangible role in my personal evolution, but which have shaped it in ways invisible nonetheless. In this way, ossified dance expresses complex and conflicting facets of a Greek Australian identity that is still struggling to come to terms with the loss of its primeval context and to reconcile it with the benign monoculture to which it is marginally appended. The overzealous can thus be pardoned for lamenting the corruption of even the most insignificant dance step. It serves as a metaphor for the diasporic condition.
There is immense power in our fossilised dances. Even as we depart further and further, linguistically, politically, and socially from those who first traced their steps, they serve as arks which connect us to that context, into the future. We must have enshrined them just at the moment of Greek independence in order to retain just one spark of freedom as a flame imperishable, to sustain and nurture us into the future. For some reason, our prescient ancestors must have felt that we had need for it.
One group that never achieved that emancipation are the Assyrians. As one dances with them, to the disconcerting sound of a keyboard, one is told: “This song is very old.”
“How old?” one enquires. “Oh at least 50 years old,” comes the response.
One stifles the laugh of derision that can only be chortled by those possessed of a long pedigree because these are people who have suffered genocide at least every two generations.
“What are your traditional musical instruments,” one asks them.
“We don’t know,” they respond sadly.
“This knowledge was lost after the massacres.”
“What are the lyrics to your traditional songs?” one asks.
“We don’t know, they perished with our grandparents,” they sigh, dolorously.
Having no anchor, these hapless people drift from one tradition to another, buffeted by the extreme violence meted out to them in their homelands by their intolerant conquerors, until, forced to leave, they are left with few tools with which to graft their sense of self onto the broader social fabric and even less fragments with which to reconstruct or invent an identity. Only dance remains to them.
The Greek within the Greek Australian sighs with sympathy. This could have been us, had we not the good fortune to have been freed. Each dancer I spoke with on the night confirmed that every time they begin to perform the steps of any given traditional dance, the concept of freedom lurks somewhere at the back of their minds. And this, in spite of the lightning gaze of their puritan instructor who will accept no improvisation.
The poet Cavafy was held, in his famous poem, to have viewed the Poseidonians’ repetition of arcane rituals they no longer understood as a symptom of assimilation. Yet, he provides a clue that their dismay at that assimilation, was misplaced.
After all, even if they no longer understood the original historical meaning of those rituals, they had, in their inability to emancipate themselves culturally from their motherland, invented a unique context for them, all of their own, one of longing and loss, within a topography that provides all of the material comforts unavailable in that imagined home.
One can only guess at how he would view the heavy participation of our own dance groups in all our communal celebrations.
Which is why every night, when I come home from work, I gather my half-Greek Australian offspring together, and with manifest exuberance, dance the Μπεράτι with them. We then go on to lament the death of Markos Botsaris and the sullying of Yiannis’ handkerchief, perhaps, the greatest loss of all.