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Classical Dance: Term Definition Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Oct 15th, 2021

The ancient Greeks have long been recognized as having had an advanced society within ancient times. They produced our most sacred philosophical texts, upon which many of the thoughts of today are based, and innovative ideas regarding government, society, and the way we learn. The armies of Alexander the Great expanded Greek influence throughout the early world, making a great deal of their knowledge and science available to the peoples they conquered while still practicing many of their ideologies by allowing these peoples to retain their basic infrastructures and religious affiliations.

By the end of the Greek period, many significant achievements had been made in science and philosophy. Greek thinkers had gained a view of a universe in which the world was round and participated in an intricate dance through the heavens with other bodies named after the gods they revered. Sophistication in mathematics led to the development of geometry which enabled the ancient Greeks to discover even more, including how to determine direction while at sea and scientists were beginning to investigate the elements of earth, air, fire, and water (Williams, 1999).

Engineers were beginning to understand the physics of the earth’s natural processes and put them to effective use while others were learning more about anatomy and medicine to better heal their sick or, more probably, wounded. All of these wonderful advancements in science, technology, art, and architecture left records of their existence even after Greek society declined, but dance, with its freedom of movement, unfamiliar musical styles, and now obsolete instruments, is less clearly defined. For this reason, dance is often considered the worst of the classic arts.

The difficulty in determining the actual form in which dance was performed in ancient times is illustrated through the work of an early 20th-century dancer, Isadora Duncan. Duncan performed what she referred to as ‘free dance,’ which was based on “flowing natural movements that emanated, she said, from the solar plexus. She aimed to idealize abstractly the emotions induced by the music that was her motivating force” (“Modern Dance”, 2003).

Many of these movements were based on the forms and figures seen on ancient Greek relics and the descriptions of dance found in ancient texts. Her selected means of described her dancing style is also hauntingly familiar to the original intentions of the oriental dance that was becoming all the craze among the young men of the western world at that time, which were probably also strongly influenced by earlier expressions of dance found throughout the Mediterranean in earlier times.

While her style of dance diverged into new areas of contemporary movements, her interest in the expressiveness of dance continued to inspire later dancers to explore the various ways in which dance could connect them with their bodies and the world around them, eventually leading them back, as it almost must, to the concepts of traditional oriental dance. Although she managed to innovate to a great extent, there was no way she could fully capture the essence of ancient dance just as her successors, without the benefit of adequate video recording equipment, have only been able to guess at many of Duncan’s concepts.

As the above description indicates, there are numerous indications that dance played a large role in ancient civilizations. Homer included mention of the dance throughout his writings, indicating that Penelope’s suitors in The Odysseus occupy their time with music and dancing while Odysseus himself is also entertained with dancing. In Plutarch’s work, when Theseus and the other Athenian youths escape from the Minotaur, they participate in a dance of celebration.

“The dances of the ancient times are characterized as dances of war or dances of peace. The latter are distinguished in dances of theater, religious and worshiping dances, martial dances, symposia dances, mourning dances, etc. Each type of presentation – tragedy, comedy, and satirical play – had its characteristic dances, some staid and solemn, some featuring lewd miming with phallic props” (Lahanas, 2008). Images of these dances appear on numerous pieces of artwork scattered throughout the ancient world.

Examples include the Dancing Satyr sculpture at the Louvre, the Dance in Armor found at the Vatican Museum, and a terra cotta dancing girl found at the British Museum. However, all of these figures, paintings, and sculptures present a static, single-frame image of what these dances looked like at a particular step, not how the entire dance was performed, the tempo at which it was played, the degree of fluctuation among individuals and the interplay of the dancers as they utilized the performance space.

Because dance is so loosely defined and the possibility of recording it has only been available in recent decades, it is a poor indicator of ancient culture and expression. The example provided by Isadora Duncan highlights the difficulty of attempting to find accurate means of recapturing ancient expressions even as attempts to duplicate her work only a decade later continued to prove ineffective. If dance cannot be recaptured within a decade by direct followers of the dancer, how might one expect dances thousands of years old to be preserved through the conquering of nations and the decline of culture? This impossibility is precisely why dance is considered the worst of the classic arts.

Works Cited

Lahanas, Michael. “Ancient Greek Dance.” (2008). Web.

“Modern Dance.” The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Columbia University Press, (2003). Web.

Williams, Henry Smith. A History of Science. Vol. 1. Seattle, WA: The World Wide School, 1999.

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