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Kinesthetic Choreia: Music, Dance, and Memory in Ancient Greece

Sarah Olsen

In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (156-164), the Ionian audience famously thrills to the performance of the Delian maidens, such that each spectator “might think that he himself were singing” (φαίη δέ κεν αὐτὸς ἕκαστος φθέγγεσθ᾽, 163-4: Lonsdale, Kurke, Papadopoulou-Belmehdi and Papadopoulou, Peponi, Power, Prauscello, Stehle).  This passage is but one example of the ways in which Greek poets and philosophers represent audience members as vividly and viscerally responsive to performance.  In this paper, I explore the conceptualization of embodied response to mousikē in early Greek thought.  My inquiry into the impact of song and dance upon the body of the spectator builds upon recent work on aesthetics (Halliwell, Peponi, Porter) and sensory perception (Butler and Purves, Holmes) in ancient Greece.  This paper also calls attention to recent developments in musicology, dance studies, and performance theory (Foster, Godøy and Leman, Reason and Reynolds).  While scholars of the ancient world lack some of the tools available to those who study contemporary performance (e.g., neurological imaging, as employed by Calvo-Merino et. al. and discussed by Hagendoorn; cf., however, Catoni and Meineck), the theoretical frameworks suggested by such research have intriguing, and as yet understudied, implications.  

Challenging claims about the universality of kinesthetic response to sight and sound, performance studies scholars have emphasized the cultural and historical specificity of ideas about empathy and embodiment (cf. esp. Foster).  Drawing upon this work, my paper explores the representation of embodied response to mousikē in a crucial set of passages: Sappho 58, Homeric Hymn to Apollo 147-165, and Plato, Laws 657d.  While scholars have identified the role of empathy and the attention to audience experience in each of these texts (Lada-Richards, Peponi, Prauscello), I suggest that a sense of recollection and familiarity, grounded specifically in the body (e.g., Laws 657d: εἰς τὴν νεότητα μνήμῃ ἐπεγείρειν, “to stir [us] towards youth by means of memory”), is a crucial and largely unexamined element of these representations.  I specifically argue that archaic and classical Greek thought consistently constructs kinesthetic empathy as a product of aural and visual perception combined with vocal and kinetic memory. 

This approach offers a fresh look at some well-studied but still enigmatic passages.  My analysis of these passages will propose a new way of accounting for the persistent and complex connection between vocal and kinetic expression in early Greek thought, and I will highlight some of the ways in which the recent advances of musicology and performance studies can inform our understanding of ancient performance practice.  I will conclude by considering the relationship between a memory-based model of embodied spectatorship and the dynamic social role of mousikē and choreia emphasized in recent scholarship (Kowalzig, Kurke, Murray and Wilson).

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Ancient Greek and Roman Music: Current Approaches and New Perspectives

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