The chorus of Euripides’ Bacchae heralds the arrival of the god Dionysus by promising that “right away, the whole world will dance in a chorus” (αὐτίκα γᾶ πᾶσα χορεύσει, 114). Their exuberant claim reflects the enthusiasm for dance generally expressed in early Greek sources. Indeed, it has been well established that dance – specifically choreia (communal song-dance) – played a significant role in archaic and classical Greek social life and was thus accorded a high level of value and esteem in art and literature. My dissertation argues that this esteemed status does not extend to the performance of solo and individualized dance, and demonstrates that Greek literary discourse betrays a deep ambivalence towards dance (orchēsis) when isolated from the multimedia art of choreia.
This project thus approaches Greek dance, which has hitherto been studied almost exclusively in the context of the chorus, from a fresh angle. I establish that singular dancing often signifies disruption, violation, and vulnerability within the social and political order. At the same time, I show that the representation of individualized dance constitutes a distinctive mechanism adopted by poets, playwrights, historians and philosophers to foreground and explore the complex relationship between verbal and somatic expression. As a result, the representation of individualized dance in Greek literature offers insight into the place of dance in Greek thought, while also enabling us to identify the particular biases and agendas at work in the literary description of dance performance.
My dissertation develops a distinctive methodology for analyzing the relationship between dance and literature. I begin from a basic conviction, grounded in the scholarship of dance studies, that verbal descriptions and literary representations of dance are not neutral reflections of embodied practices, but rather ideological and interpretive forms that work to frame and define our perception of dance. I argue that choreia, as a synthesis of vocal, instrumental, and kinetic expression, becomes an efficient image for poets, philosophers, and historians seeking to harness dance to the power of language. My work thus demonstrates that orchēsis, as individual kinetic expression and kinesthetic experience, not only signifies social and political disruption, but is also imagined as an expressive mode that may resist or re-figure the forces of language and verbal description.
My first chapter argues that individual dancers provide a critically engaged alternative to the prevailing model of communal, choral performance, which tends to be logocentric. This chapter lays out a dominant paradigm of choral dance as constructed in early Greek literature, offers a typology of solo and individualized dance forms, and previews the insights to be gained through the consideration of dance “beyond choreia.” Chapter Two addresses the descriptions of both choral and individualized dance in Odyssey 8, demonstrating that singular and virtuosic dance is particularly emblematic of Phaeacian culture and that its description operates as a means by which Odysseus and Alcinous competitively negotiate their relative positions of status and authority within the poem. Chapters Three and Four examine individual male and female dancers respectively in epic, lyric, and drama, identifying a complex network of political and artistic concerns that coalesce around literary representations of each type of performer. I argue that solo male dancers tend to be depicted as disruptive and anti-social political actors (e.g., Pericles in Ion of Chios fr. 109 Leurini, Philocleon in Arist. Wasps 1474ff), while individual and outstanding female dancers are marked by their sexual appeal and consequent vulnerability (e.g., the maiden chorēgoi of Alcman 1 PMG, Cassandra in Eur. Troades 308ff). These chapters also focus on the performance contexts of specific songs and their ability to frame and define closely related instances of dance. My fifth and final chapter explores how Herodotus, Plato, and Xenophon deploy the various models of individual dance discussed in the preceding chapters in the service of their own historical and philosophical projects. While my primary focus throughout is on literary description, I also discuss the visual and material evidence for solo dance, particularly in cases where it contrasts with the textual tradition.
The project as a whole makes two major contributions to the study of Greek literature, culture, and performance. First, it brings together the surviving representations of solo and individualized dance and considers them as evidence for the cultural discourse surrounding both orchēsis and choreia. Second, it develops a theoretical framework for articulating the complex relationship between literary descriptions and historical performance, bringing the scholarly insights of dance studies to bear upon the ancient world.