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Komos and Choros: The Language of Dance in Greek Vase-Painting

Tyler Jo Smith

University of Virginia

The appearance of dancing scenes on ancient Greek vases enables a unique area of exploration in the combined areas of gesture and ritual. Vase-painters in the city of Athens, as well as in other regions (e.g. Laconia, Corinth, Boeotia) active during the 6thand 5thcenturies BC, frequently choose dance figures and contexts as subjects to decorate the surfaces of their vessels. Among the best studied are the so-called ‘padded dancers’ or komasts (lit: ‘revellers’), figures dated throughout the 6th century BC who may be identified based on the regular exhibition of a ‘bottom-slapping’ gesture as part of their routine. While the dances demonstrated by these figures reveal some indications of gestural regularity, in a large number of examples their dancing seems spontaneous and unrehearsed and a specific context can be difficult or impossible to determine. Another category of dance iconography, and one which appears by the late 7th century on vases, is circular or line-dancing; the participants, often in the presence of a musician, join hands and execute identical poses and gestures.  The mood oftentimes seems more sombre and there is the sense of a more serious, perhaps religious, occasion. Regardless of type or circumstances, expressing and communicating ‘dance’ to the viewer/user of the object would have presented a particular set of challenges for ancient artists, and can be equally difficult for the modern interpreter. As a three-dimensional art-form rife with gestures, translating dance –its movements and postures - onto the vase’s two-dimensional surface must have been rather more difficult than showing episodes of mythology, for example, where a number of other visual indicators (of which gesture is only one) provided clues to the subject being conveyed. A further set of complications unique to the study of dance on vases have come with attempts by Classical scholars to identify gestures and named dances on the basis of surviving textual evidence – a trend echoed in efforts to match certain scenes on vases with known or lost Greek dramas. For over a century, scholars and professional dancers have attempted to recreate or reconstruct ancient Greek dance. Although upholding rather different agendas, these seemingly disparate groups have uniformly drawn on the combined evidence of text and art. Starting from such figures as Maurice Emmanuel and Ruby Ginner, this paper will present this modern Greek dance history and explain how it has influenced other areas of ancient performance studies in the Classics. Using black- and red-figure vases, produced in Athens and elsewhere, it will then concentrate on the iconographic evidence of dance as a self-contained system of visual communication. Keeping in mind the inherent challenge of conveying a three-dimensional art form in two-dimensional space, the ensuing discussion will be framed according to categories, such as gesture (repetitive/non-repetitive), movement (in space/on vessel), and writing (letters/words in scenes). It will be concluded that vase-painters depicted dance on their own terms rather than as visual descriptions of ancient texts. By recognizing that dance is a special class of performance that combines movement, rhythm, facial expression, and music, and accepting the limitations of conveying it as a subject in vase-painting, it is hoped that we may better comprehend the special language of dance employed by ancient Greek artists.

Session/Panel Title

Moving to the Music: Song and Dance in Antiquity

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