On Improvisation

The following text (without italics) is copied, with permission of the author, from the HIGHLY recommended “Traditional Dance in Greek Culture” by Yvonne Hunt, ©1996 by the Centre for Asia Minor Studies, Athens, and Yvonne Hunt. Available from the author at yhunty@yahoo.com. Although written specifically from the perspective of Greek dance, I believe these words could be applied to most of the dances of the Balkans, Anatolia, and Levant. Headings inserted by Don Buskirk.

Yvonne details the reasons why in Greece any old (or new) improvisation should not be done by anyone at any time, but requires a background in and respect for the cultural mores of the region, dance, and music. Living and 1st Generation dances, though seemingly ‘simple’ contain many embedded social ‘rules’ only dimly understood by ‘outsiders’ like us, if understood at all. Yvonne’s essay shines a light on these ‘hidden’ rules.

I am not publishing this to deter recreational folk dancers from trying their hand (or foot) at improvising, but to remind us to treat all Living and 1G dances with respect for local traditions. 2nd Generation dances, in my opinion, are fair game for experimentation with improvisation. Though they may (or may not) have been created to reflect the styling and movements of a particular village or region, the very fact of their fixed format, even if that format includes suggested ‘variations’, stifles improvisation of the type that comes from the inside, that depends on personal inspiration rather than counting measures. By learning the reasons improvisations are or are not not respected by the ‘natives’, it is hoped that recreational folk dancers will feel freer to apply ‘folk’ principles to traditional, and especially 2G dances.


One of the most characteristic features of Greek folk dance is the option (and sometimes the obligation) of the leader of the dance to perform improvisations as a means of self-expression. “The leaders, if they are skilful dancers, often vary the standard steps with more complicated ones of their own, giving the dance something of their personal character and style.”(Loutzaki, 1985:23, 25) For this reason, if there are several lines of dancers, one sees many “many dances” happening simultaneously; that is to say, although each lead dancer is working within the same basic step pattern, he is free to embellish that step pattern as desired within certain accepted style limitations.

A description of exuberant young men joining the dance at a wedding celebration and the dance in general is provided for us by Patrick Leigh Fermor, “their pace subsided to a ritual shuffle. There is nothing unusual in this; with a few exceptions, Greek dances, however may people may be joined hand in hand, are, in effect solos; everything devolves on the leader, and each dancer, when his turn comes, fulfils the temporary role of coryphaeus. The job of the others, and especially of his immediate neighbour to whom he is linked by a handkerchief, is to support him in his convolutions.” (1966: 24) Most often improvisations are for the first dancer, with the remaining dancers following along with a basic step, but occasionally a dancer in the line may also get carried away and vary that basic step.

As stated elsewhere, the execution of the dance is more than a physical experience; it is also an emotional and often a spiritual experience for the Greek. Each dancer, male or female, has the opportunity to give his or her own self-expression and creativity to the dance when in the lead position. This is a position of responsibility and the leader is well aware of it. He knows “…what kind of initiative he may exercise, for the particular dance and during the time he is in this position which makes him, in effect, responsible for the execution of the dance.” (Drandakis, 1993:60)

Because one’s mood is not always the same each time he dances, that expression may be more or less dynamic from one time to another and may not always include the same dance variations. It all depends on the individual’s kefi at that particular moment. Each time is esentally a new creation. Drandákis tells us the leader “…re-composes a pre-existing dance, but this re-composition also bears his own stamp.” (op.cit:60)

The role of music

The performance of variations in the lead position is, along with the perfecting of different regional styles, one of the most difficult elements of Greek dancing. The difficulty usually does not usually lie with the execution of the variations, although some may involve quite intricate steps. Most skilled dancers will be able to master these configurations with a little practice. The problem is not so much what to do as when to do it. A good dancer is not measured by the number of variations he performs nor the difficulty of the variation. Rather it is how well it is executed, whether relatively easy or difficult., and, most importantly, how well it relates to the music.

The use of music is extremely important in the execution of leader variations. For example, Cretan dances are usually thought of as quite spectacular because of the marvelous leaps, spins and foot-slapping of the male dancers when they are in the lead position. However, in the opinion of most native Cretans, a dancer would just be doing gymnastics if all these sensational moves were not in keeping with the changes in the music. An accomplished dancer would not be one who immediately began leaping, slapping, etc. as soon as the music started. Those more dazzling variations would be saved for the moment when the music reached a more exhilarating level.


Once again the relationship between the dancer and the musicians must be emphasized. Referring again to Cretan dances, the good dancer makes use of the tsakismata, or breaks in the music. The dancer anticipates where they may come in the playing of the song while the lyra player keeps an eye on the variations the dancer is executing and attempts to forsee where he will make a break or stop as a punctuation or for emphasis. As Petrides writes, “When both musicians and leader are skilled a very harmonious relationship develops during the dance.” (Capadilupo 1982:21) Drandákis, speaking in general of the relationship, says “He [the musician] will literally become as one with the dancer.” (op. cit:81)

This is true in all regions of Greece. Kilpatrick states, “The reciprocal nature of the music and dance performance practice became more apparent when my dance teacher…advised me to listen to the music for the motivation for certain variations and the degree of smoothness or agitation that seemed to be elicited. These principles were verbalized very clearly and were presented as basic to the performance of either music or dance.” (1980:102)

Suitability of variations

In addition to one’s personal kefi, ability as a dancer and the use of the music, there are several other factors which need to be considered when discussing improvisation and self-expression in the dance. Of primary importance is the necessity for the variation to fit within the framework of the particular dance style. Each region has its own peculiar structure or set of rules governing improvisations. Anyone who has been raised within a particular society already knows how much liberty he may take in his self-expression either as the leader or within the line. From childhood he has observed the older members of his community executing improvisations during the dance and has absorbed, without having to be told, what is acceptable. The boundaries have already been set by previous generations.

No ‘”foreign” elements should be introduced, i.e. the execution of typically mainland variations in an island dance and vice versa, or including Pontic variations in a Cretan dances, etc. On one occasion I observed a young man who was a skilled dancer leading the Páno horos at a paniyiri in Olympos, Karpathos. He was a native of the village and rightfully took his place at the kávo or lead position of the dance. As he progressed with his improvisations he began to perform improvisations that would have been quite appropriate for the tsamikos, but were entirely inappropriate for this particular dance. While some observers commented on his skill, the majority within my hearing were dismayed that he would interject “foreign” elements into their dance.

If the dancing is taking place within a rather enclosed space the leader may be limited as to the type of variations he does, whereas an open space allows him to express himself with even the largest and most spectacular moves in his personal repertoire if he so desires. Not only the amount of space available but also the surrounding area may influence the leader’s improvisation. If dancing in his own house or courtyard or those of friends or relatives or even the village square, perhaps he will feel more comfortable to express himself than if dancing in an unfamiliar place.

Both the age, sex and marital status of the lead dancer can be influential factors on the types of variations he will execute. It is natural that the younger members of the community should have more strength and stamina than older members. Therefore one usually expects them to perform larger movements, higher leaps, etc., though village men well into their sixties and seventies can frequently be seen to dance with great animation, strength, agility and endurance.

In general it is expected that women will dance in a more modest manner than men. That this has always been true from ancient times can be attested from the writings of Lucian, wherein he states, “The boy [youth] precedes, doing the steps and postures of young manhood, and those which later he will use in war, while the maiden follows, showing how to do the women’s dance with propriety…” (1972:227) In most villages the women are not expected to perform the same variations as the men, especially those involving high leg lifts, leaps, or body-slapping. This does not necessarily mean that women are never looked upon as outstanding leaders. To the contrary, a woman who executes her variations well, with great elegance and finesse as well as a clever use of the music, can “steal the show”, so to speak, from a man doing all sorts of vigorous configurations. Of course, younger women will dance in a more animated fashion than older women, especially if not yet married.

Handholds and handkerchiefs

The handhold used in any given dance may also affect the kinds of variations performed both by the leaders and those within the line. In an open or “W” handhold one has considerably more freedom of movement than in a shoulder hold or crossed handhold (stavrató). Sometimes the leader will change to the “W” hold with the second dancer in order to facilitate the performance of his variations while the remainder of the dancers are with hands on neighbors’ shoulders or with crossed hands.

At this point a word should be mentioned about the use of the handkerchief (mandili) which one frequently observes either in the right hand of the lead dancer or being held between the first and second dancers. In the first instance the manner in which the leader manipulates the handkerchief can attribute greatly to the overall appearance of his improvisations. According to Drandakis, “in many places, the handkerchief is identified with creative improvisation and often, a good dancer will not lead a semicircular group without it.” (op. cit:75) Because hands tend to perspire and become slippery, the handkerchief, when properly used in the second instance, allows for more freedom of movement of the first dancer and enables the second dancer to give better support.

Who may lead?

Who may lead the dance? In theory, anyone. However, there are local customs to consider from region to region, village to village. In Olympos, Karpathos, for example, women do not lead any of the dances. It is simply not accepted. Therefore, if the men choose not to dance there is no possibility for the women to dance no matter how much they wish to do so. At one time this was true throughout the entire island. Today, however, a woman fom the villages on the southern part of the island may lead the dance called Soústa. In Olympos, however, soústa is not considered a separate dance, but is a part of the leader’s variations in the Páno Horos.

Some dances may require the leader to have a particular community status. In Vlásti, Kozáni, the oldest man in the community leads the Tranós Horós. The local priest leads the Easter dance in Krionéri in the Argithéa region of Thessaly as well as in many other communities. The bride, groom or koumbáros (best man) may be required to lead certain dances during a wedding celebration. On the island of ‘Imvos (now part of Turkey) the first to dance was the groom followed by the bride, the koumbára (maid of honor) and then the other members of the wedding party. When the groom finished then the others could take the lead ot “dance the bride”. (see Bakamis 1979:527)

Dances which are mostly improvisational

There are dances which require each participant to improvise. When dancing a syngathistos from Western Thrace, each dancer does his own variations on the basic step whenever he wants to. There is not, nor should there be, any set pattern to those variations. The same is true of the Karsilamás or Mandilátos, other dances from the same region. Both the Syrtós and Bállos from Kythnos require each man to perform his variation with his partner. If there are three or four couples dancing at any given moment, one may observe what appear to be three or four different dances as each man leads his partner through his own personal sequence of variations as he feels compelled by the music.

Some dances are almost entirely improvisational. One example would be the Zeibékikos.


Here every dancer improvises as he feels the music and according to his own mood. Some dance it only when sad: others only when feeling happy. It has been described as “…an introspective improvised dance, but improvised according to regular patterns. It was danced with restrained but evident emotion.” (Holst, 1975:60) Drandákis tells us it is “…the one (dance) which relies to the greatest extent on improvisation…” (op.cit:80) The traditional form of the Vari Hasapiko is also composed entirely of improvised variations communicated from the leader to the second dancer.


Holst tells us, “It was a precise, smooth dance, the attraction of which lay in the synchronized footwork of the dancers.” (Ibid) She also tells us it was “danced with a minimum of movement.” Not quite like what we are used to seeing today!

Two Pontic dances which are composed almost entirely of variations are Sérra and Pitsák Oin, the latter of which is a dance for two men. Describing the Pitsák Oin, Kilpatric says, “A great deal of latitude is possible for stamping, for change in the line of direction of movement, for dancing in circles, for dancing on the knees, for bending the body over and shaking the shoulders so violently that the whole torso trembles.” He goes on to relate the importance of the use of the music: “These movements are all mirrored in the musical improvisation and the reciprocal interdependence is extremely critical for these dances.” op. cit:120, 121)

Dance as part of community unity

It is difficult for the non-Greek to understand the role of the dance variations in relation to one’s individual self-expression, and yet it is vital and basic to the understanding of traditional Greek dances. What the foreigner observes and what the Greek feels are often quite different. As one observer of a Cretan celebration writes, “I don’t know what the tourists would have made of the dancing that started in the coffeehouses that afternoon and went on intermittently for the three days of the festival. Sometimes -about once an hour on the average- there was a dance worth seeing, when some vigorous young men would do a lively pentozáli or pediktó…Most of the time, however, it was a colossal bore…” (Doren 1974:70) But was it a “colossal bore” from the dancers’ point of view? Most likely not.

Kilpatrick tells us that after learning the basic dances, he “…began to first become bored, then increasingly frustrated and impatient with the other dancers in the dance line. I had been accustomed in America to a greater variety of dances, at a faster tempo, in which no single dance lasted more than three minutes (the length of one band on a commercial [sic] long-playing record)… It became increasingly obvious that I was not experiencing the elation felt by others in the community even though I may have been dancing all the correct steps.” (op. cit:7,8) Most folkdancers whether from America or any other country could probably relate very easily to this description.

The reason it does not seem to be a “colossal bore” to the Greeks is because of the shared experience of the dance with all those who are actively participating as well as those who passively participate, i.e. watch. One must keep in mind that the entire occasion -whether it be a wedding, baptism, saint’s day, or other celebration- is a social ritual which is an extension of a community religious ritual which preceded it. One can perform the same basic step again and again for hours without being bored not only because he knows that eventually his turn will come to lead, but also because of the kinship with the other dancers and the feeling of camaraderie and unity among the other participants.

That is not to say that the Greeks never get bored within the dance. Not everyone is patient all the time, especially if someone is taking very long at the lead or if he is not a particularly good dancer. Doren continues his description of a Cretan dance celebration saying “…there would be a ragged circle with the dancers loosely linked by handkerchiefs in their hands, some of them not even dancing but just shuffling around, waving to friends, smoking cigarettes, while they waited for their turn to lead the syrtó.” (Ibid.) There are occasions when another dancer will even leave his position within the line and take over the lead because he cannot contain his kéfi.

What can the recreational folk dancer do?

How then, can the non-Greek, the folkdancer, if you will, reach the stage where he can execute leader variations without merely performing acrobatics? First of all, it is essential to remember that the variations should be done when one feels like doing them, not with the aforethought of “What shall I do next, what have I not performed?” Variations performed under such conditions are completely alien to the very nature of Greek dancing and usually appear stilted rather than improvised. But how to keep from doing so?

If you are fortunate enough to live in an area where there are many Greeks you should spend as much time as possible observing them as they dance and participating with them when it is permissable. A “feel” for the proper implementation and timing will eventually come about just as it does for the Greek in his native setting. It should be remembered that the Greek has also “learned” to do these things. His teachers, however, were the elders of his village, his relatives and friends. Alan Lomax makes a statement in regard to musical style, but the same could be said of dance style, “The child begins to learn the musical style of his culture as he acquires the language and emotional patterns of his people.” (1959:929) Similarly, frequent exposure to the music of any given area should ultimately give one a better understanding or awareness, a better feel for where variations are appropriate.

It is essential to remember that the performance of leader variations is not meant to be only a display of physical skill, although it certainly plays a part, especially for the men. Just as important is the suitability of the variation to the individual and the interplay between all variations and the very nature of the music and the dance.

Not all variations are for the leader or only to be done when in the lead position. If you observe a group of Greeks doing one of the commonest of dances, syrtós or kalamatianós, you are likely to see a variety of steps being executed simultaneously by the individual dancers. At various points some may step in front while others step behind, one dancer may perform a slight hop while another will dance in a smoother manner. In such instances there is no question as to which is the “correct” or “incorrect” way of doing the dance. Each is giving his own individual interpretation to both the music and the dance. Each is dancing correctly.


Returning to Leigh Fermor’s premise that “Greek dances… are, in effect, solos…” we see he is essentially correct. Although many people may be involved in the greater experience of community dance, each one is even more absorbed in his own personal dance which is happening concurrently with the community experience.


  • Bakamis, A. S., “Gamilia ‘Ethima tis ‘Imvrou”, pp 505-529, Proceedings on the Third Symposium on Ethnography, Institute for Balkan Studies, Thessaloniki, 1979.
  • Capadilupo, Graziosi, Raim, eds. Greek Music Tour, Ethnic Folk Arts Center, New York, 1982.
  • Drandákis, Leftéris. Improvisation in the Greek Folk Dances. Drandákis, Athens, 1993.
  • Holst, Gail, Road to Rembetika. Denise Harvey and Company, Athens, 1975.
  • Kilpatrick, David Bruce, Function and Style in Pontic Dance Music. Epitropi Pontiakon Meleton, Athnai, 1980
  • Leigh Fermor, Patrick. Roumeli. John Murray, Great Britain, 1966
  • Loutzáki, Rena. The Traditional Dance in Greece. Thessaloniki, 1985
  • Lucian, “The Dance”, in Lucian, Vol. V Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, 1972.

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