Homeric Dance

This is a video demonstration, performed at St. John’s College, Annapolis in 2001, of the way in which a six-measure modern Greek syrtós, a dactylic round dance descended from the ancient world, corresponds in its articulations to the Homeric hexameter. In particular, the trochaic caesura and the bucolic diaeresis exactly frame a distinctive retrogression in the rightward motion of the dance. There is no claim here of authentic performance practice. The piece was filmed indoors, on a wooden floor,  and hence with an unnatural volume (although Homer does speak of an unbreakable voice), and without a lyre to boot. But the correspondences are readily apparent, and the performance also demonstrates the new theory of the Greek accent, for which there is no scruple about claims of authenticity. Circling with heliacal retrogressions is the motion of the heavenly gods (the planets), as seen from the earth: the students who experienced the dancing of this dance know why it was called the dance of the Muses. I do not personally believe that the Iliad or the Odyssey were composed for dancing. But the catalogue poetry from which the Homeric art emerged surely was. Hence we danced here from the beginning of the Catalogue of Ships, with a supplement from a passage describing the dancing in the court of Alcinous, where a pair of soloists toss a ball (Odyssey 8.370-80). For a fuller discussion, see below.

Pronouncements about the death or the vanishing of ancient dances, those patterns of physical movement that are known to have formed the rhythmic basis for the lyric poetry of the ancient world—ancient χορεία—have been premature. My new theory of the Greek accent links the diacritical marks that one finds in the texts of ancient Greek to a modern linguistic theory of stress in the ancient language. The upshot is that the texts of ancient poetry can now be read off as notations for the voice, as musical scores. But these texts served also as a choreography, in that the rhythmic elements to which the words moved were called ‘feet’, or steps in a dance. To find clues to the movement that must have embodied this poetry, my partner, choreographer Miriam Rother, looked exclusively to vase paintings and statuary from antiquity. Hence our approach in these workshops was rooted in concrete textual indicators.

We began with Homer. For the participants in these workshops, dancing to Homer served as a kind of warmup for the more challenging art of dancing lyric. In a sense our practice recapitulated what we believe to have been the actual historical development. (For a detailed discussion of why the prevailing, unhistorical counter-argument, that epic metre developed out of lyric metres, cannot be sustained, see my ‘Rejoinder’ to a review, published here [see especially pp. 6-14].) The most obvious evidence that Homeric poetry originated in dance is in its metre. Apart from the fact that the components of a hexameter line, or a lyric period, were called, literally, ‘feet,’ or steps whose rhythm can be properly actualised by the movement of human legs, the distinctive isochrony of the dactyl itself—the time equality of the strong and weak elements of the foot—as well as the isometry of hexameter lines, recall the isometry and isochrony of dance patterns.

There is also direct evidence from Homer: the bards in the Odyssey, including Phemius and Demodocus, are at times depicted as singing their tales while others danced (1.150-5, 8.256 ff.; see also 4.17-19). The mere fact of this possibility in performance must distinguish Homeric epic formally from other claimants to the title of ‘epic’. In the case of Demodocus, the performance depicted is no impromptu affair, but a carefully prepared event, supervised by nine officious judges, who smooth out a suitable circle. Demodocus is placed at the centre of this dancing space, then surrounded by boys who take their stand in a circle. The boys are said to be skilled (δαήμονες) at the dance.  They are not casual improvisers, responding to the singer’s rhythm; rather, the dance comes first in this depiction, before the song begins, and appears to continue through the song. That the dance supplied a rhythm—a backbeat—to the singer is an obvious inference. Against this backbeat, the singer (he is called a singer, ἀοιδός, not a poet) syncopates and counterpoints the accentual music of his six-measure lines.

The dance we used is a modern remnant of ancient dance that survives and thrives in the folk tradition of Greece, a dactylic round dance called the syrtós. The name itself, συρτός, carries the stamp of antiquity; a Boeotian inscription from the 1st century CE refers to the dance of the συρτοί. While this is a late date in relation to Homeric or Classical times, the dance has apparently survived for nearly two millennia since then, and what is more, it is referred to, even in the first century inscription, as the πάτριος ὄρχησις: the dance of the forefathers. (Taken as descriptive rather than limiting, the adjective πάτριος yields an even more intriguing sense: the dance of the ancestry, that is, the catalogue dance.) This dactylic round dance of the twenty-first century clearly has a prodigious history. It has been neglected by philology as a clue to epic form. Note that the articulations of this dance, the moments that mark when it changes directions and retrogrades like a planet in the heavens, correspond to the articulations, the characteristic breaks in the rhythm, of Homer’s verses. (The traditional names for these moments are the trochaic caesura and the bucolic diaeresis.)

The diaeresis in particular, a division between words that coincides with a division between feet, in this case the fourth and fifth, occurs just before the end of the six-foot hexameter line. How can one account for the feeling of a new beginning (a kind of ‘kick start’) immediately before the end of the hexameter line? (The standard introductions do not seem to feel even the pressure of a problem here.) In the modern folk dance (the συρτός of ancient name), it so happens that the locations of these classical divisions of the line, caesura and diaeresis, frame a distinctive retrogression in the circling step. A resumption of movement after the retrogression in the dance corresponds to a ‘second beginning’ in the words of the verse. Hence dance is very likely the source of this peculiar feature.

I should point out that in dancing to the ‘speech of the Muse’ (λέξις Μούσης)—interpreting that phrase to refer to epic poetry—and then dancing gymnastically, we followed a specific prescription from Plato’s Laws (795d-e) for gymnastic education. But I should also point out that as far as I know, there is no record of Homer’s poetry actually being danced to, before February 2001, at the first of the Choreia workshops. By the same token, there is no evidence that the opening chorus of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion has ever been danced to. All the same, it is a siciliano, and the music moves, the music itself dances, in a directly recognisable way. In a similar sense, all of Homer’s music is dance music.

The centre of a ring dance is a potent, magical place; it is a place of conjuration. Ritual circle dances, as they are depicted on Minoan and Mycenæan artifacts, were occasions for the god’s epiphany, descending into the very midst of the dancers. The possessed motion, the hypnotic rhythm, the mask-like faces serve to turn the circle into a kind of lens at whose focus sits the bard. Under such conditions, his invocation to the Muse is no literary conceit; it is an invitation to the palpable, living presence of the goddess of poesy. In one scholar’s words, ‘the experience of the dance merges with the experience of the deity.’

Danced verse intends to conjure a presence. This is the peculiar aim and native power of the art form χορεία, as the poet’s vehicle for bringing to life in the present the stories of his community’s past. The dramatic actor, and his evocation through impersonation, represents the choral poet’s ultimate innovation in the art of conjuring a presence. In the same stroke, however, this innovation transformed the original power of the chorus of dancers—it turned them at some level into actors as well—and so involved a move from what may be called a poetics of evocation towards a poetics of imitation.

Catalogue poetry is surely, from a literary point of view, the most boring portion of the Greeks’ poetic legacy. But consider what the effect of this poetry must have been like in performance. What begins as a self-subsistent, retrogressive and rhythmic movement in the round, takes on a semantic force, as the song strikes up, and the rhythm and harmony of the ancestral names interweave with and, as it were, re-harmonise the rhythm and direction of the steps. And conversely, just as the dance becomes meaningful, so also does the word in dance take on the power of circle magic, so that it not only points, but summons. As one danced to the florid chant of names in their rhythmic ideality, one felt the very presence of one’s ancestors gracing the communal circle: the storied warriors and their well-balanced ships on the expedition to Troy, or the noble women of the past in the matriarchal line.

There is no intrinsic or necessary connection between catalogues and dance. The function and functionality of a catalogue or list is mnemonic. The archetype of a catalogue is the series of counting numbers, a list of proper names in fixed and unchanging order. That is, one remembers that one element follows another in a catalogue or list (whether a shopping list or a genealogy) in the way that one remembers that six follows five; and the way that one remembers the latter is lost in the very first functioning of the active memory. Dance adds to the speaking of a catalogue, which is a list of substantives, the phenomenological summoning of each substantive. The power of dance therefore turns memory into epiphany.

Many scholars believe that the Catalogue of Ships is an independent poem that has been incorporated by Homer. In all of Homer, it is therefore the most likely passage actually to have been danced.  

I used a book in performance. I did this for several reasons: I recite better when I work from a score, for one. But I also wished to illustrate that a text of Homer is a score, one that has to be prepared in order to be performed. It has become painfully obvious to me that there is a sheer phonic prowess, in lung capacity and the articulations of the vocal apparatus, as well as rehearsal required for the performance of Homer, in dividing the breaths and punctuating the phrases, to register and to render all the effects that his poetry contains. The situation is similar to that of a Mozart text in relation to a modern singer or instrumentalist. What is more, an Homeric storyteller must not only prepare the content of his lines, but also the way in which he shall render them: at times he is a lyric poet in his own voice, but at other times he must be Zeus, or Achilles, or Helen, or Penelope. He must therefore be both an excellent singer and a multidimensional actor. (The patient audience had to settle for me.) Our only evidence from the ancient world suggests that the rhapsodes were just such skilled performers in relation to their Mozart. They were exceptionally good at selecting and performing from a text. I say this because many serious scholars believe that Homer’s text was composed in the midst of performance, in some unrecorded period of history. The notion of composition in performance—a notion of an extemporaneous combination of stock elements, with an improvised style and delivery—seems fantastic and counter-intuitive if it is to be applied to Homer’s extraordinary music and the fully realised histrionics of his script. No, folks: Homer’s composition must be prepared to be performed, like so many compositions in poetry and music. Perhaps such scholars should stop talking about performance, and try it.

Ἴτε Χορευταί!

© A P David 2019