Steven H. Lonsdale, Dance and Ritual Play in Greek Religion.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. 352 pp.
Cloth US $ 39.95
Reviewed by Sallie Goetsch
Department of Classical Studies
The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, U.S.A.
It's high time somebody wrote this book. While there have been a number of recent studies, of varying quality, on Greek and Roman music, there has been no comprehensive treatment of Greek dance since the days of Lillian B. Lawler. Aided by numerous illustrations (mostly of vase-paintings) and appropriate quotations from a wide range of ancient sources, Lonsdale succeeds eminently well in his aim: 'to construct paradigms for dance and to recover a wide range of meanings that dancing had for the ancient Greeks,' (3).
Lonsdale's focus is on ritual, not theatrical dance, a choice at first startling but ultimately justified. The presence of dance in drama is by now a commonplace, but the the wider context of dance into which dramatic choruses fit has not received the same attention. After laying out his methods and explaining them--particularly his reliance on Plato's Laws--Lonsdale proceeds through the phases of Greek life and demonstrates that each had its characteristic dances, that dancing was an integral part of the way the Greeks responded to, and tried to influence, their environment. Through dance, and particularly choral dance, human beings could emulate the gods, capture the attention of the immortals, create social order and community, negotiate dangerous liminal moments safely, affirm their own will to live in the face of loss.
Although some of the passages and scenes which Lonsdale adduces as evidence might be contested due to ambiguous language or iconography, the book still presents a compelling case for a pan-Hellenically dance-oriented culture. Dance, play, and mimesis interact as a normative force, instructing children in the ways of their elders. The chapters on 'Preparations for Manhood' and 'Rehearsals for Womanhood' are perhaps the most interesting because of their focus on the way dance provided a prototype for behavior. The treatment of ecstatic dancing in Chapter Three ('Dance as a Disruptive Force') is less interesting because the ground has been covered before and Lonsdale does not add anything particularly new to the discussion of maenadic frenzy. But the great majority of the book presents new information in a lucid style which makes for quick reading. Thanks in part to his prose but primarily to his evidence, Lonsdale's arguments radiate an intuitive rightness.
They also provoke important questions. In the face of the diversity of modern culture, even within the United States, a statment like 'The very idea of dance as a form of religious expression is foreign to modern sensibilities' (40) is surely far too sweeping. The idea of dance as part of, perhaps the major part of, a worship service has surely percolated into the intellects of Lonsdale's intended readers, some of whom undoubtedly practice just such worship. Where it hasn't gone (at least to my knowledge) is into our pedagogy. We do not as a rule ask ourselves or our students to make a physical (and therefore emotional) connection with this fact of ancient life. We do not take drums and flutes and fill ourselves full of the god before approaching poetry written for just that purpose. We sit down with our dictionaries and our dessicated skeletons of texts and plod into Pindar or agonize into Alcman.
'But,'the objection will surely come now, 'we are even less able to reconstruct choreography than to reconstruct music. How could we dance to choral poetry?'
The fact is that if we really want to appreciate the power, the playfulness, and the sacredness of Greek dance, we are better off without detailed records of choreography, just as we usually do better not to use masks when performing Greek drama. The individual body movements, the codes of cheironomia, would mean less to us than the mudras of Kathakali, which at least belong to a living tradition. Understanding the profoundly religious impact of superficially frivolous songs requires rather a kind of argument by analogy. What music moves us to feel that we are partaking of the divine?
In our diverse and cosmopolitan society, the answer will be different for different people, and yet it is still possible to take a crowd of individuals and create from it a harmony and unity, a community, by virtue of introducing a little music and asking them to dance. Long after the days when Pan's dances confused utterly the distinctions between human and divine, dance retains 'a socializing, life-affirming force that can triumph over the most obdurate curmudgeon' (275).
Lonsdale does not himself argue in favor of extending the practice of performing ancient drama to other genres such as the partheneion or the epinician, but it is eminently clear from his book that the physical, performative aspect of these genres was integral to their existence, to the Greeks' own understanding and appreciation of them. And if dancing was so much a part of the way Greeks constructed their identities and societies, we may need to dance in order to reconstruct them.