A couple of weeks away in Greece are just not complete without going to a traditional Greek food and entertainment night and this really must include participative Greek dancing. A real enthusiast will prepare for such an evening by purchasing a CD of Greek music to practice beforehand but this is not strictly necessary and all you really need to be able to do is to recognise the opening chords of ‘Zorba’.
What you really need to do to get ready for a Greek night is:
- Abandon high culinary expectation
- Prepare yourself for copious amounts of cheap retsina
- Be prepared to make a complete arse of yourself on the dance floor
- Have your travel insurance documents handy, as they will be needed at the hospital.
In ancient Greece, dancing was believed to be the gift of the gods. Sacred dances were held as offerings to the deities, as commemorations of key events, and as a way of keeping communities together. Dancing was also taught to soldiers as a crucial part of their military training, especially in Athens and Sparta.
Proper Greek nights will have real musicians with bouzouki and accordion players as these will play the best music and the ones to be avoided are those with electric organs because these are simply not authentic.
The first Greek dancing night that I went to was in 1983 on the island of Kos in a village tucked away somewhere in the hillside above the town. The dancers all wore red and gold and black and looked like a hand of playing cards and as they danced they moved and changed position as though they were being rearranged into a winning combination.
Most Greek dances are danced in a line and the line moves generally to the right and the person on the end with their right hand free is the leader. Everyone else follows the leader who calls the steps that can be quite complicated. Beginners are supposed to join the line at the end and it is considered bad manners to barge into the middle. One of the most common dances at Greek party night is called the Zembekiko, or drunkard’s dance. This one is easy because it has no specific steps and involves stumbling around precariously to the rhythm of the music. In the Zembekiko there are several dancers down on one knee clapping around a particular dancer, and then they’ll swap places now and again. There are no rules. You can dance alone or join the clapping for someone else. As long as people are having fun, that is just fine.
The best Greek night that I have been to was in Mykonos in 2005, which was held in a rustic bar in a village in the hills and as well as the food and the wine and the dancing also had table dancing, setting fire to the floor with lighter fuel dancing and plate smashing. Breaking plates is linked with the Greek concept of kefi, which is the spirit of joy, passion, enthusiasm, high spirits, or frenzy. Some say that it wards off evil spirits. Others maintain that breaking plates symbolises good luck (especially for potters I should imagine). Whatever it means it is a lot of good fun.
Breaking plates like this is now considered a dangerous practice due to flying shards, and perhaps also because of intoxicated tourists who have poor aim and may hit innocent bystanders. It is officially discouraged and in Greece, as well as in the United Kingdom, a bar or restaurant that wants to do it requires a license. Tucked away in the hills, I doubt if this place had a license but it didn’t last long and they very quickly substituted the plates with paper napkins to throw around. Mind you if you think plate smashing is dangerous in the old days they used to throw knives at the dancers feet as a sign of respect and manhood. This was a bit reckless and not surprisingly, due to countless injuries, that tradition gradually changed to the present-day flower throwing alternative, which is a bit pansy but a whole lot safer.
After the traditional meal of lamb washed down with razor blade wine we watched the locals perform the dances correctly and then we were all unleashed onto the dance floor with a frenzy of high kicks and waving arms as we danced with total disregard for the Greek heritage and culture that these dances are supposed to represent. What great fun it was as we kicked up the dust as we danced and as it got hotter and hotter the dances got faster and faster. Goodness knows what the traditionalists thought of it all. Thank goodness that the Greeks are most tolerant people. OPA!