In one of the most memorable and meaningful scenes from the Academy Award-winning movie Zorba the Greek, the title character Alexis Zorbas (played by the Anthony Quinn), is asked by his uptight, existentially-challenged boss, Basil (played by Alan Bates) to teach him how to dance after their mining venture literally collapses at their feet. With a look of surprise, the spirited Zorba responds with the words: "Dance? Did you say, 'Dance'?!" And the story famously ends with both men dancing enthusiastically on the beach. See it for yourself!
It is hard to imagine anyone in today's world who is not familiar with the story (or at least the name) of Zorba the Greek. Based on the novel written by Nikos Kazantzakis, who is arguably Greece's most important author and philosopher of the 20th Century, the film made "Zorba" a household name and brought global recognition to the extensive and profound work of Kazantzakis (he also wrote The Last Temptation of Christ).
The film's music, especially the main song, "Zorbas," also known as "Zorba's Dance" or "Horos Tou Zorba," is equally -- if not more so -- well known in popular culture. Moreover, the dance at the end of the movie later became a popular cliche of Greek dance called Sirtaki. If, by chance, you haven't seen or remember the movie, I'm sure that you are at least familiar with its main song which, among other things, has been used at various athletic events for years to incite crowds to root for the home team (for example, the New York Yankees). Indeed, just thinking about this inspirational song makes most people want to dance like Zorba!
If you don't believe me, I highly recommend that you watch the award-winning, short animated film, "Mariza," produced by my friend, Constantine Krystallis. I promise that Mariza will not only get you in the mood and spirit of Zorba but also will show you, in a very creative and entertaining way, something about the deeper meaning of music and dance in Greek culture, including their role as a way to manage stress and diversity Take a minute to watch Mariza.
There is no question that dance is vitally important in Greek culture. The dancing Zorba, as a case in point, mythically captures a spirit of life that is uniquely and "typically" Greek, especially in the southern parts and islands of Greece. In this regard, I don't think that it was by accident that Zorba was portrayed as being Cretan, like Kazantzakis himself, and that his characteristic, magnetic charm by design always has evoked primitive, sensual, individualistic, and free spirit feelings among Greeks, as well as those who would like to be "Greek" (According to the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, "We are all Greeks, our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their roots in Greece"). And to no small degree, it is through the cultural expression and interpretation of dance, most notably embodied by the Sirtaki, that these qualities have come to fundamentally represent the persona of a "typical Greek" in the contemporary era.
In a recent journal article, Patricia Riak, a social anthropologist, underscores that one of the reasons why dance is so important as a source of self-identity is that it provides a level of engagement and cathartic expression that is more powerful than listening to music alone. Let's face it, using one's body is a powerful catalyst and vehicle for expressing a wide range of emotions and is therefore a meaningful form of body "language."
Moreover, according to Dr. Riak, Greek dance is an important correlate and determinant of kefi, "a social activity that engages the relationship between self and collectivity." In this regard, it has been observed that Greek music provokes emotions that inspire a person's kefi. A Greek man, for example, may have a favorite song that, for him, has a strong personal meaning because it triggers memories of an event in his life. By listening to this song the man responds to it with dance, which not only gives his emotions a coherent, tangible form but also provides a platform for manifesting and authenticating kefi in a powerful and meaningful way. In this sense, dance represents both an opportunity for him to express emotions and to surrender to them. Besides being a physical and emotional outlet, dance, in other words, represents the unleashing of one's spirit along with the integration of mind, body, and spirit at the same time.
During dance, the social bonds among men and women, along with the heightened emotions creating and sustaining kefi, are authentic and transparent. The dancers share cultural expressions in an environment where the whole truly becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The social value of dance, in this context, is priceless as each person becomes an accepted and connected member of the collective. Physical expressions of the act of "giving a gift" in appreciation of the social and symbolic value attached to Greek dance, as well as to the associated experience of kefi, are commonplace. I'm sure that most readers of this post are familiar with plate-breaking and throwing money on the floor as expressions of appreciation and pleasure for dancers experiencing kefi (at least on film)! Both for dancers and observers alike, this kind of gifting can definitely be described as a heightened sense and experience of what Greeks call "Opa!"
On a personal note...
Not so long ago, I visited the same beach in Crete and practiced the "dance" in the very footsteps of "Zorba the Greek" (aka Anthony Quinn)! In the process, I simultaneously connected with my Greek (Cretan) ancestors like never before. This very special and meaningful occasion, among other things, allowed me to honor my family roots, the life and legacy of Nikos Kazantzakis, and the lasting memory of one of my favorite movies of all time. It also was an opportunity for me to "decompress" and "refuel" my mind, body, and spirit in an uninhibited way. Put differently, it was a chance for me to regain my "kefi." Whatever one's nationality, ethnic background, age, gender, religion, or even skill level with the Sirtaki, it is impossible not to feel "Greek" and experience kefi in such a mystical place! Put differently, the very experience of being on that special beach encourages and challenges each of us to unleash our inner "Zorba." Wouldn't it be great if we all could unleash our "inner Zorba" wherever we are, whenever we need to? Who says that we can't?
Dance, did you say, Dance?!
Alex Pattakos, Ph.D.
author, Prisoners of Our Thoughts
founder, Center for Meaning