The character of Crete and the Cretans is reflected in their music and dance: Crete is one of the very few places in Greece where the traditional music heritage is growing rather than remaining static or even withering away.
The Greeks of old believed that the Cretans had discovered a special way of communicating with the Gods through music and dance, The Shield of Achilles was decorated with the scene of a party at the Palace of Knossos, according to Homer, who also mentions circular dancing floors, like some recently discovered at Knossos.
Contemporary Cretan dance is especially energetic, fast and characterized as warlike and aggressive. Many dances are for men only. In particular they mirror aspects of Cretan nature – the storm-tossed sea or the wild and craggy mountains. The slower dances are generally for women, and turn on the themes of marriage and love.
Pentozales is perhaps THE trademark dance of Crete - performed all over the island. It is especially lively and rapid, especially at the end.
The basic steps are five in number (hence its name in part – pente=5, zales from the word to jump, with a play on the word for dizzy); based on a rhythm with 8 beats to it.
You dance it with your arms on your neighbour’s shoulders, in a near circle.
It is said that the dance was invented by Daskalogiannis (the hero of the Cretan Revolution of 1770) and his chieftains who decided to create a new and warlike dance – to symbolize the revolution, the fifth to date.
The fifth ‘leap’ against the Turks, so to speak. At length the revolution failed; Daskalogiannis met a most tragic end: but the Pentozales remains as a remembrance of his attempt.
An equally well-known dance of Crete is the Syrtos (Chaniotis). Its rhythm is in 2/4 time.
If not as fast as the Pentozales or the Maleviziotis, it yet requires more skill and the ability to dance well.
Variations on the dance exist – with regard to the steps and the melody. To the west of Crete it is more dynamic, whilst to the east it is more ‘lyrical’. Its origin probably is in the west, from the broad area of Chania – from which comes its alternative name Chaniotis.
Sousta is a particular dance where the partners face each other, which also contains many elements of the old war-dance, the phyrrikos.
Danced by men and women, alternating and arranged at first in a semicircle; after a while the separate off into couples.
Essentially the dance tells a story of love and seduction. The man in various ways (with hugs, turns and small jumps) makes advances to the woman, who at first resists the call. But gradually she gives in, until at the end they are as one. The story is unfolded through the dancing and expressions of the performers: the interplay between the couple demands great skill and co-ordination.
Kastrinos Pidihtos.. or Maleviziotis, is probably the most lively and athletic dance of Crete.
It comprises 16 steps – 8 forward and 8 back; and is danced in a circle with the performers holding hands. It unfolds with dash, enthusiasm and joy – leaving the first dancer (male or female) to improvise freely.
It was performed in the district of Malevizio (hence its name), close to Heraklion: since another name for Heraklion was Kastro, the dance was also called kastrinos. In Chania it is called the Kastrini Sousta. The dance became popular throughout Crete in the 1920s.
Siganos, as its name suggests (Siganos=slow), is a slow dance, conducted almost at a walking pace. The performers clasp each other’s shoulders. It has 6 or 8 steps, depending on where it is danced, but the music has an 8-beat rhythm.
It is said that it represents the escape of Theseus from the Labyrinth. Not enough historical evidence or literary references exist to be sure of its origin, but most likely it was invented in the time of the Ottoman rule.
The Lassithi Pidihtos is one of those from the ‘leaping’ family of Cretan dance-forms – all with a common origin in the old Pyrrichios dance. In it were expressed the nobility and modesty of the East Cretans. It Siteia, it is called ‘Stiako’ and in Ierapetra ‘Gerapetritiko’.