The ancient world is incomplete if you leave dance out of the picture. Dance was everywhere – it was part of everyday life and festivities, of teaching and learning skills, of religious rites and dinners. It could be practised alone or together. Dance in one form or another was for everyone, regardless of gender or age.
The dance being performed for others to see was especially linked with the idea of skill and technique. Dance was a skill, tékhne in Greek, like sculpture or playing a musical instrument. Dance was not a by-product or an activity that supported other forms of expression. It was an integral part of the Muses’ skills, mousiké tékhne, and belonged in the same package with music and poetry. For dance as a broad concept, there was no single Muse. Terpsikhorē was known by her name, especially as the Muse of choral lyric poetry and choral dance (khorós), and Polymnia or Polyhymnia as the Muse of pantomime dance, among other things.
Antiquity is a broad concept in terms of geography and time. It covers thousands of years of different cultures in the Mediterranean region. Instead of discussing dance in that broad context, I will look at it in more precisely defined framework. In the article, I focus on dance specifically from the perspective of professionalism in the Eastern Mediterranean. The focus is on pantomime dance, which was extremely popular in Greco-Roman Antiquity (c. 100 BCE–500 CE). Pantomime was a solo dance with a plot, performed for large audiences in theatres as well as for guests at private parties. Although there were musicians and a singing and dancing chorus on the stage with the dancer, the main focus was on the dancer who performed all the roles without uttering a word, changing mask and costume during the performance. Originally the dancers were men, but over the centuries women also joined the ranks.
Of course, there were other professional dance besides pantomime, and I will also look at these other forms of dance in the article. However, pantomime sheds particular light on the debate surrounding art dance. It continued the tradition of ancient Greek drama, placing dance expression at the centre of performance. Dance was used to tell a story and, above all, to express emotions and issues that could not be expressed as effectively or as multidimensionally as dance, which was a multisensory medium.
I have divided the discussion into a few themes that relate not only to professionalism but also to the physical conditions of the dancer and the teaching of dance. In the article, I highlight some extracts from a speech in defence of pantomime dance (Oration 64), presumably written in Greek by Libanius in 361, which is the second complete work on dance to survive from Antiquity, along with Lucian’s essay On Dancing.
Dance as a Profession
Dancers were hired to perform in a wide variety of situations. Professional dancers were a very heterogeneous group in terms of gender, social and economic status, dance context and movement language. Roughly speaking, the common factor is that these dancers earned at least part of their income from dancing. There are no explicitly identified terms referring to professional dancers in the written sources, but professionalism can be assessed through other means, such as written employment contracts. Just over 20 such contracts written in Greek on papyrus material are known from Greco-Roman Egypt. They date from the 200s BCE to the 300s CE. The are contracts typically made with performers hired for festivals in small villages. The performers may be left unspecified – i.e., the contracts only refer generally to a group of performers – or they may be more specifically defined as dancers or musicians. In other words, there is a modest number of contracts and only some of them explicitly mention dancers. Nevertheless, the recurring formal aspects of the contracts, such as the phrases used, the pay conditions and other benefits agreed for the performers, show that the contracts were routinely concluded.
Because the dancers and musicians in the contracts performed for a fee, and because some of the contracts use words that may also be associated with prostitution, researchers have easily interpreted all the female performers mentioned in the contracts as prostitutes. The contracts thus also shed light on the extremely important and interesting idea of sexual immorality and prostitution associated with dancers, both in Antiquity itself and later on, in research on the ancient world. In ancient literature, dance and music performed in certain situations and ways were associated with inappropriate sexual and social behaviour. Since then, scholars who have written about dance or music in Antiquity have tended to interpret female performers in particular as prostitutes, without considering the context of ancient literature in detail. As I have written elsewhere, the survival of ancient literature and other sources is so limited and haphazard that different research traditions and scholars have been able to interpret the sources based on very different assumptions. The close reading of written contracts underlines the fact that dancers and musicians were seen as providers of services that required a particular skill, rather than as providers of bodily services such as, e.g., breastfeeding or sex. Skills are learned and taught. Dance was tékhne, one of the many skills that could be taught and learned, but only some individuals’ social backgrounds were suited to learning dance to the highest level and to earning a living through dancing.
The Body’s Suitability for Pantomime Dance
First of all, then, it is not within the capability of everyone’s body to take up the profession, but just as in the case of puppies and foals and those who intend to become athletes, the men who are skilled in examining each of these apply a test, and select all who, through their physical type, show promise of excellence in the actions involved, but reject others who will not be appealing enough for the work, so it is necessary also for a boy to show that he will attain moderate height and will not become plump. And also he needs a straight neck and a look which is not furtive, and fingers naturally well-formed, and in a word of beauty, which is an essential attribute in matters to do with stage performances and especially in the case of the dancer.
The moving body is the object of the gaze and the medium of expression. According to Libanius, not just anyone’s body is suitable for dance, but the body must meet certain predefined criteria. The key is general proportions, and average height and weight. Lucian goes into this in colourful terms when he describes the unfortunate performances of pantomime dancers who deviate too much in one direction or another from the contemporary ideal body. Of course, Lucian’s anecdotes also show that there were dancers of different sizes – although they may have been at greater risk of failing in expression and were not suitable for all roles because of their external characteristics. In the light of ancient sources, a proportionate body is a key characteristic of dancers in general, not just pantomime dancers. The philosopher Socrates took a stand on the issue of proportion hundreds of years earlier. He admired the group of professional performers who came to entertain guests at a feast. The group included a female dancer specialising in acrobatic numbers and a young man described as beautiful, who played the kithara (a lyric stringed instrument similar to a lyre) and danced. Socrates was uninhibited in his admiration of the young man’s dancing body – how it was even more beautiful when it moved than when it stood still, and how the whole body was in motion, from neck to feet to hands. Socrates stated that this is exactly how to achieve a harmonious body.
In pantomime dance, the hands were extremely important. Hands were used to tell a story, as illustrated in the anecdote by Lucian about a man who, at first quite reluctantly, agreed to watch a pantomime dance performance. After the performance, the man was completely sold and exclaimed: ‘Good man, I can hear what you’re doing! Not only can I see, but it looks like you are talking to me with your hands!’ In the excerpt quoted above, Libanius mentions beautiful fingers as a prerequisite for expression.
Interestingly, since the pantomime dancer was performing with a mask on his face, in the same context Libanius refers to the gaze. This comment can be seen as referring to both the dancer himself and the audience. The only openings in the pantomime mask were at the eyes – the mouth was closed, unlike in Greek drama. The eyes were therefore the only visible part of the dancer’s face, and although the eyes may not have been seen to the audience seated further away, they were at least somewhat visible on closer inspection. A lazy gaze or heavy eyelids could well have made the mask-covered face appear stiff. For the dancer, however, visibility might have been more limited. Although the mask did shield the dancer from the gaze of the audience, the dancer’s experience of the dance may have been similar both without and with the mask. In other words, in the dancer’s experience the expression of the dance extends to the face in the same way, even if the mask covers it.
It is also possible that a pantomime dance could be performed without a mask belonging to the role. Ancient sources do not tell us this directly, but typically they emphasise the centrality of the mask. However, the sources do mention that the dancer who played all the characters in the story changed roles at lightning speed, so the mask could have been a more generic version allowing different roles, or the dancer could have danced without the mask. The Christian church father Augustine, who was influential some decades later than Libanius, mentioned the expressive power of the dancers’ eyes as a side note, and it may well be possible that unmasked pantomime dancers were more common in the times of Libanius and Augustine, 300–400 CE, than, say, in the time of Lucian, who wrote about pantomime dance a couple of centuries earlier.
Becoming and Shaping a Dancer
And when he has taken him on, the gymnastic trainer will twist him round into more numerous and more remarkable bends than a wrestler, bringing up both his feet over the back onto his head and in addition even forcing them back to project further past the face so that his heels approach his elbows. And when he has made the body into a circle, like some willow cane, he sets it in motion for running like a hoop, and it runs. And the running does not harm the limbs. For each of them has long been trained to be supple, with the trainer almost separating the limbs from each other, both keeping an eye on the joints and at the same time drawing them apart, so that hands and feet follow to whatever point of the rest of the body one brings them, just like, I imagine, the property of wax.
Such will the trainer render the body for the dancing teacher, and he, when he has taken it over, will render the framework of the limbs obedient with a view to the imitation of each figure. And the labour of both is not small, of the one that he might give instruction, and of the other so that he might take it in. and part of the time involves practising and part involves reflection on what has been practised. For the pupil who has ceased from movement must also retain in his heart what has been won by his toil. So that these men too know clearly that the gods sell all good things at the price of toil.
Libanius praises the teacher, who spares no effort to twist and turn the body in training to become a dancer. Naturally, the teacher also had to teach the repertoire of the pantomime dancer, and there were a huge number of plots, human destinies and emotional states represented in the pantomime. A lot was required of the student, as pantomime dance was physically and technically demanding. The dancers had to have the strength and quick reactions needed for jumps, spins and sudden stops. Centuries before the appearance of the real pantomime dance, Xenophon described Athenian feasts of the late 400s BCE and the acrobatic elements of the dancer’s repertoire seen in them, including hoops and swords. The performer in question was a woman, which prompted Socrates, a guest at the banquet, to point out that women were no less than men – ‘except in their physical strength and lack of judgement’ – and that women should be allowed to study like men.
No detailed information on the actual teaching methods has been preserved. The main teaching method was by example, but written instructions may have been used to help teach dance and music. However, there are no surviving notations for dance of the kind known for music, or a manual for the language of movement, which has possibly been preserved for wrestling moves.
There is, however, some evidence of a master–apprentice type of education from Socrates onwards. He asks the leader of a group of performers who have come to a feast to show him some step patterns. When the other guests ask Socrates what he would do with them, Socrates replies curtly: ‘I would dance, by Zeus.’ There is an anecdote that has survived elsewhere according to which Euripides taught the dramatic chorus by his own example. Remembering that professions typically ran in families and that slaves might have been trained in a particular profession from an early age, children learned at least the basic skills of performers when they were young, and by imitation. Even public performance at a very early age was not uncommon: on one tombstone, a boy as young as five is named as a dancer, suggesting that the boy had already attained some level of dancing skill.
Organised teaching was provided in dance and music schools. These schools were considered morally questionable and dubious, at least among the elite. So not just anyone could become a dancer because of their status, even if they had the ability and desire to dance.
Some of the audience were nevertheless familiar with the basic movement language of dance, at least up to a certain point. After all, upper class boys underwent rigorous physical training, and the basics of dance were part of these skills. The themes of pantomime performances, however, were inextricably linked to the elite’s cultural education that included mythology and historical events. Pantomime performance thus provided a point of personal identification, both in terms of the plot and the movement language of the pantomime dance.
Dancers, however were trained much more rigorously. The training that began at a young age probably enabled the endless repetitions of postures, gestures and step patterns, based on strength, coordination and flexibility, which are part of the movement language of pantomime dance, and made the characters they were performing real. Webb has compared this to the Indian tradition of kathakali, where only through mechanical, physical repetition is expression achieved. Only when the technique has been absorbed into the self can one move on to characters and expression. The movements bring the characters into life, as if from within. This kind of deep expression may be referred to in an epitaph, which states that a dancer or actor moved as if he felt the same as the characters he was performing. Adopting a movement language is then comparable to acquiring a spoken language: the speaker does not have to consciously recall grammar when speaking. The pantomime dancer’s skill may have been similarly unconscious. The gestures of the hands, the movements of the feet, the bending of the neck or the swaying of the cape in precise accordance with the accompanying music were so deeply ingrained in the body’s memory that the dancer could concentrate on the characters and the story. But control was not to be lost.
Competing and Touring Dancers
Performances linked to the Greek theatre tradition were of huge importance well into Roman times. They cemented Greek culture throughout the Roman Empire, which was concretely perceived in architecture, with Greek theatres and concert halls, and widespread theatre festivals. They were also often competitive – a key part of the Greek festival tradition. These events communicated the foundations of Greek civilisation in an entertaining way to the general public and were thus excellent tools for political influence. The audience was not necessarily interested in the ulterior motives of the organisers. They came to be entertained and to watch skilful performances and an exciting competition.
Among the performer contracts I mentioned at the beginning, there is one case where two mime dancers and their accompanists were hired to perform in an Egyptian village. The basic structure of the contract is no different from that of other contracts for performers: it states when, where and for what remuneration the mime dancers will be hired. The pantomime performance was, in principle, an entity of one dancer and group accompanying and supporting him, but in this case two dancers were hired for the same event. The wreath mentioned in the contract may shed some light on the reasons for hiring two dancers. This wreath was included in the salary, was apparently an integral part of the dancers’ performance and could well indicate that the dancers were performing in a competition between dancers, imitating a typical event of the period, at the end of which one of them was awarded the winner’s wreath.
Theatre festivals also increased the demand for performers and other professionals in the field, and the need to move across a wider area. This need had already arisen in the Hellenistic period, between 400 and 300 BCE, when there were several independent kingdoms in the Eastern Mediterranean, such as Egypt under the Ptolemies and Persia under the Seleucids. Like other professions, theatre professionals were often organised. By the 200s BCE at the latest, theatre professionals began to organise themselves at first locally, and then also formed an influential umbrella organisation that was known by its Greek name Hoi perí ton Diónyson tekhnítai, or the Artists of Dionysus, which transcended boundaries of the kingdom, The umbrella organisation guaranteed its members freedom to move from one country to another, and other benefits such as exemption from taxation and military service. The local branches of the umbrella organisation had considerable influence in organising of local festivals. It is possible that a performer even had to belong to the organisation in order to perform.
In principle, membership was granted to performers who were involved in the drama productions included in the competitions. These performers included actors, chorus members, musicians, costume designers and makers of the masks. The pantomime dance, which is performed as a kind of interlude at drama festivals, was not originally part of the competition disciplines, so pantomime dancers were not allowed to join the Artists of Dionysus. Nevertheless, scattered references to the membership of individual dancers can be found from the early years, and gradually pantomime dancers were also accepted as members of the Dionysus community, like drama performers.
The Artists of Dionysus gradually faded away, and the last mention of the organisation dates from the late 200s CE. This did not stop the competitions and theatrical events. The best pantomime dancers wowed the crowds, and some became legends of their time. As time went on, female pantomime dancers joined the ranks of male dancers. In literary sources, pantomime and comic spoken mime begin to blend and traces of ancient pantomime faded over the centuries, until references to pantomime disappear altogether by the 600s CE. However, the legacy of ancient dance, from pantomime to community choral dance, lives on in the ways in which much later dance performers performed ancient dance.
2 The central work on pantomime is Lucian’s On Dancing, whichis earlier than and has clearly influenced Libanius. Lucian’s work has been translated into Finnish and annotated in Satama 2021, while Libanius’ work has not been translated into Finnish. All quotations from Libanius in this article are translated by the author for this article. The original text by Libanius, an extensive introduction and an English translation with explanations can be found in Molloy 1996, cited in the bibliography. For clarity, the other ancient authors referred to in the article are listed at the end of the bibliography in a separate group with web addresses for the sources.
3 Vesterinen 2007, 5.
4 Satama 2013, 66.
5 E.g. Wilson 1999, 84–85.
6 Satama 2013, in which the theme is discussed in the article on the dancers’ and musicians’ workshop.
7 Vesterinen 2007, 6–7.
8 Libanius, Or. 64, 103 (translation Molloy 1996).
10 Xenophon, The Symposium 2, 1.
11 Xenophon, The Symposium 2, 15–16.
14 Webb (2008, 49) compares the situation to Balinese dance, where dancers have reported a similar experience. Although we cannot get behind the mask of the ancient pantomime dancer in the same way as interviewing a dancer today, such an observation of experience is interesting also in relation to ancient pantomime dance.
15 Webb 2008, 48.
16 Augustine, De doctrina christiana 2, 4, 5.
17 Libanius, Or. 64, 104–105 (translation Molloy 1996).
19 E.g. Webb 2008, 51–52.
20 Xenophon, The Symposium, 2, 7–8.
21 Xenophon, The Symposium 2, 9.
22 E.g. Landels 2001, 206–207.
23 P. Oxy. III 466.
24 Xenophon, The Symposium 2, 16.
25 Plutarch, Moralia 3, 46b..
26 Stephanis 1988, no. 2006.
27 E.g. Macrobius, Saturnalia 3, 14, 7; Isocrates, Discourse 15 (Antidosis), 287.
28 Webb (2008, 55–57) has based his discussion on Zarrilli 1990.
29 Webb 2008, 56.
30 IG XIV 2124.
31 Webb 2008, 56–57.
33 E.g. van Nijf 2001, 312–312; Vesterinen 2007, 55.
34 P. Flor. I 74.
35 Vesterinen 2007, 61.
36 Pickard-Cambridge 1988, 298–301.
37 Pickard-Cambridge 1988, 284–285.
38 Lightfoot 2002, 211
39 Vesterinen 2007, 114; Roueché 1993, 23–25; Molloy 1996, 73.
Landels, John G. 2001. Music in Ancient Greece & Rome (2nd edition). London & New York: Routledge.
Lightfoot, Jane L. 2002. ‘Nothing to do with the techītai of Dionysus?’ In Pat Easterling & Edith Hall (eds.). Greek and Roman Actors: Aspects of an Ancient Profession, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 209–224.
Molloy, Margaret E. 1996. Libanius and the Dancers. Altertumswissenschaftliche Texte und Studien Band 31, Hildesheim – Zürich – New York: Olms-Weidmann.
Nijf, Onno van. 2001. “Local heroes: athletics, festivals and elite self-fashioning in the Roman East.” In Simon Goldhill (ed.) Being Greek under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic and the Development of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 306–334.
Pickard-Cambridge, Arthur. 1988. The Dramatic Festivals of Athens (2nd revised edition, John M. Gould and David M. Lewis). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Roueché, Charlotte. 1993. Performers and Partisans at Aphrodisias in the Roman and Late Roman Periods, JRS Monographs 6, London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.
Satama, Manna. 2021. Tanssia antiikin näyttämöllä – Lukianos ja tanssin puolustus, Teatterikorkeakoulu, Taideyliopisto, Helsinki: Kinesis 12, Online: kinesis.teak.fi/lukianos.
Satama, Manna. 2013. “Tanssijoiden ja muusikoiden työpaja.” In Mika Kajava, Erja Salmenkivi & Manna Satama (eds.). Kivi – sakset – papyrus. Kirjoituksia professori Jaakko Frösénin 70-vuotissyntymäpäivän kunniaksi. Helsinki: Suomen Ateenan-instituutin säätiö, 64–72.
Stephanis, I. E. 1988. Dionysiakoi tekhnitai. Symbolés stin prosopografía tou theátrou kai tis mousikis ton arhéon. Heraklio: University of Crete.
Vesterinen, Marjaana. 2007. Dancing and Professional Dancers in Roman Egypt. Helsinki: diss. University of Helsinki.
Webb, Ruth. 2008. “Inside the Mask: Pantomime from the Performer’s Perspective.” In Edith Hall & Rosie Wyles (eds.). New Directions in Ancient Pantomime, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 43–60.
Wilson, Peter. 1999. “The aulos in Athens.” In Simon Goldhill & Robin Osborne (eds.). Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 58–95.
Zarrilli, P. 1990. “What does it mean to ‘become the character’: Power, Presence and Transcendence in Asian In-body Disciplines in Practice.” In Richard Schechner & Willa Appel (eds.), By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 131–148.
After the title of the work the original title in brackets, followed by a colon, a reference to the edition used and, if available, the web address.
Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana: http://www.augustinus.it/latino/dottrina_cristiana/index2.htm.
Isocrates, Discourse 15 (Antidosis): Norlin, George (ed.). 1980. Isocrates with an English translation in three volumes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd.
Xenophon, The Symposium: Marchant, E.C. (ed.). 1955. Xenophontis opera omnia 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0032.tlg004.perseus-grc1.
Macrobius, Saturnalia: Kaster, Robert A. (ed.). 2011. Macrobius: Saturnalia. Loeb classical library 510–512. Cambridge, MA/ London: Harvard University Press.
Plutarchs, Moralia 3, On listening to lectures (Peri tou akouein): Bernardakis, Gregorius N. 1888. Plutarch. Moralia. Leipzig: Teubner. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0007.tlg069.perseus-grc1.
Other ancient written sources
IG XIV 2124: In Kaibel, Georg & Lebègue, J. Albert. 1890. Inscriptiones Graecae. Vol. 14. Berolini: Apud Georgium Reimerum. https://epigraphy.packhum.org/text/141430?&bookid=26&location=1696.
P. Flor. I 74: In Vitelli, G. (ed.). 1906. Papiri greco-egizii, Papiri Fiorentini I, Documenti pubblici e privati dell’età romana e bizantina. Milano: Ulrico Hoepli. https://papyri.info/ddbdp/p.flor;1;74.
P. Oxy. III 466: In Grenfell, Bernard P. & Hunt, Arthur S. 1903. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Part 3. London: Egypt Exploration Fund. https://archive.org/details/oxyrhynchuspapy00huntgoog/page/n7/mode/2up.
Manna Satama (PhD) is a scholar of antiquity whose PhD thesis was on the social status of professional dancers in Roman Egypt. In addition to her research on antiquity, she has worked on issues of data management. Her book Tanssia antiikin näyttämöllä: Lukianos ja tanssin puolustus, published in 2021, consists of a Finnish translation of Lucian’s essay on dance (2nd century AD)and supporting material on the theory, aesthetics and role of the dancer in the period. orcid.org/0000-0003-3775-9363