It takes only a brief holiday in Greece to notice the plethora of tradition this country still hosts. That’s why it is always so fascinating and – at the same time – unsettling to get in touch with customs that have survived centuries.
In the last week, in fact, I had the chance to learn more about them. It was a fair-weathered, pleasant Greek summer night when I saw a man performing a strange dance. He was self-centered, revolving around his foot in circles that were closer and closer as the music rhythm increased. A rhythm that was funky as resulting in odd moves, like the dancer was lame but still dancing with all his spirit. The next night, helped by a couple of glasses of beer, I asked him about this dance and what it represents to him. That’s what he answered me.
Back in the Ottoman Empire
The dance is called Zeibekiko and it has not only a strong meaning but also a long history. It takes its name from the Zeybeks, an irregular militia composed by Islamized Greek who lived between the 17th and 20th centuries around the city of Smyrna, under the Ottoman Empire. At the time, the dance was performed by two armed men, dancing around each other in a sort of simulated fight.
That’s why someone refers to it as “Eagle dance” because the dancers look like birds of prey flying in circle. After the end of the Balkan Wars, Greeks living on Turkish soil were forced to move to Greece (and vice-versa) carrying with them the legend of Zeybeks and their tradition. In fact, these guerrilla fighters were renowned for their bravery and their acts celebrated in songs by both Greeks and Turks. So it’s logical that the dance that takes their name relates to the values of traditional masculinity.
Even though today everyone can dance Zeibekiko, it is traditionally a dance for men. Only a real man has what it takes to face the downside of life with dignity, enduring pain and suffering without a single whimper. Following this idea, dancing was the only moment in which men could express their feelings. They just had to choose the song that better related with their state of mind and letting it out in front of the orchestra. Alone. Because there is no need for an audience or for friends. Zeibekiko has to be danced alone. Furthermore, it is an insult to join the dancer or to interrupt him. Doing so can lead to a fight, and it can get very serious. People got stabbed for that.
Dance with dignity
As my master kept telling me, Zeibekiko is not a way to show off. It’s not about being fierce and magnificent as Tango or Flamenco. It’s more about dignity even in bad times. And – of course – it’s about humbleness. The dancer is not dancing for the audience, he doesn’t want to be seen. He dances for himself, with his head down and his body that gets closer and closer to the floor. Dancing Zeibekiko doesn’t express joy or passion, it’s more a journey into one’s personal abyss. A wounded soul’s dance with his inner demons, as the odd rhythm stresses out the agony with its crippled steps.
As long as he has this feeling inside, everyone can dance Zeibekiko. There are no codified steps, improvisation is the key. It only takes to follow its strange rhythm (that is 9/8 instead of the more common 4/4). And it takes bravery to step in front of the others, let the body go and face your personal failures for the time of a song. Are you up to it?