Dance was an important part of Greek life. It played a role in Greek religious ceremonies, drama, education of the young, and even military training. The Romans used dance less frequently, though they did enjoy watching dancers called pantomimi, or pantomime performers.
The Greeks considered dance a gift from the gods. Dancing usually accompanied ceremonies and special occasions such as weddings, funerals, harvest celebrations, processions, and feasts. The Greeks also enjoyed watching the performances of trained dancers, usually slaves, and held many artistic competitions in dance, drama, and music. Types of artistic dance included the dithyramb, a choral dance to poetry and music, and the dance movements of the chorus in Greek dramas.
Among the most famous dance forms were those associated with the worship of Dionysus, the god of wine. In early times, participants in frenzied worship rituals performed wild rhythmic dances. In ancient art, Dionysian revelers are often pictured drinking wine and dancing at night with bulging throats, tousled hair, and startled eyes. During the classical* period, the spontaneous dances of the revelers gave way to well-rehearsed performances. Another famous nighttime dance was a winding, snakelike dance called geranos, which was performed at celebrations. The author Plutarch described such a dance performed by young men and women with Theseus to celebrate their escape from the labyrinth of Minos.
Greeks also incorporated dancing into education and military training. Athenian youths were expected to take dance classes as a regular part of their education. Men and boys dressed in armor and performed a dance called the pyrrhic at the Panathenaia, a large Athenian festival, and also in the military society of Sparta. The philosopher Socrates is said to have declared that those who danced best were also best at war. In the Iliad, the poet Homer attributes the warrior Meriones’ agility in battle to his expert dancing.
* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 b.c, to 323 B.C.
Greek dancing tended to be performed by groups of only men or only women, since the sexes were usually separated in their respective festivals and religious rituals. In Greek drama, the performers who danced as part of the chorus were always male, even those who were playing female roles. Mixed dancing by members of both sexes was mentioned by Homer and other early poets and may have been more common in early times.
Dance was less prominent in Roman culture than it was in Greek culture. Conservative Romans, such as the statesman and orator Cicero, openly expressed disdain for dancers. A few ancient Roman dances were part of certain religious ceremonies, but most types of dancing in Rome were imported, particularly from Greece. Slave dancers usually provided the entertainment at Roman banquets.
During the later years of the Republic, pantomime theater became very popular in Rome. Greek pantomimi of both sexes performed solo dancing accompanied by wind and percussion instruments. Elaborately dressed and masked, the mimes excelled at presenting stories from mythology, either serious or comic, with wordless dance and gestures. During the reigns of emperors Nero and Domitian, two pantomime dancers named Paris enthralled Roman audiences and gained the kind of attention from their fans that rock stars have today. (See also Art, Greek; Art Roman; Drama, Greek; Drama, Roman; Music and Musical Instruments; Religion, Greek; Religion, Roman; Slavery; Theseus and the Minotaur.)