Folk dancing in Crete is acknowledged everywhere as something special as in contrast to elsewhere around the globe, it is not just staged for the sake of the tourist but it is a part of the festive side of life. It is not unusual to find that these festivities carry on into the early hours of the morning.
The Cretan dances are bound by traditions; it is no coincidence who is to start and who is to end the chain. At weddings there is a fixed order for who is to dance and when.
Very often a whole family or parties will «pay» for a dance, and it is considered impolite to participate unless you are invited, however later at night everybody is normally welcome to take part.
Being a guest you are supposed to follow customs and traditions, and join in on the dancing, but please make sure that you do not place your self in front of the chain as this is considered to be an act of ignoring the order of the dance, you have to follow the lead dancer at all times.
The Cretan’s close relationship to music and dancing can be traced back to the beginning of the history and myths of the island. In one of the most famous myths, that of the «Kourites» for example, it is described that the Kourites, the guardians of the infant Zeus, danced while beating their shields in order to cover the infant’s crying.
Furthermore, historical testimonies give evidence of this relationship as well as pieces of art such as the well-known sarcophagus from Agia Triada, on which for the first time a lyra with seven cords is depicted.
With respect to the same issue Homer mentioned the shield of Achilles, which was ornamented with pictures displaying revelry at Knossos.
All these testimonies give an exact description of the geographical area where music and dancing were of major importance in every event of people’s life, as for example in the event of religious ceremonies, entertainment, birth, marriage, death and even war.
The basic instrument of Cretan music, the Cretan lyra, first made its appearance in the 17th century, while the art of playing the lyre became common practice from the 18th century.
It is a small, pear-shaped, three-string fiddle, held upright and played by stopping the strings from the side with fingernails, widespread in Crete and the Dodecanese.
The strings are named
1. psilí or kandí or kandini;
Of course the initial shape of the instrument was rather different from that of the lyre of modern times, which the Rethymnon citizen Manolis Stagakis built in 1940. The lyre was first accompanied by the «boulgari» and only later by the «laouto», the fretted lute, which is still used today.
Both the sound and shape of the Cretan lyre and the traditional songs changed after World War II; to the music of the lyre, the laouto and occasionally of the violin and the guitar, the musicians sing «mantinades«, which are mainly amorous compositions arranged in couplets.
Apart from the mantinades, the «rizitika», which are slow songs of narrative character, are also a widespread variety of Cretan music. Their main subjects are marriage, death, historical events, heroic characters etc.
Closely connected to the traditional music and songs as they developed in the course of time was the art of dancing.
Most Cretan dances are performed in chains or circles, holding on to each other’s shoulders. The small steps and jumps are more complex than what they seem at first glance. The leader of the dance is the one who can impress with acrobatic jumps and difficult steps. For the young man has an outstanding chance to impress and catch the attention of his loved one and friends alike.
The most common Cretan dances
There are especially 5 dances, that each have a local character. These are found in most parts of Crete. Pediktos and Siganos originate from the area of Iraklion, Pentozalis and Sousta from Rethimnon and Sitos Haniotikos from Hania. The dances are mostly into 2/4 beat.
Pidiktos or Maleveuziotikos is the most common Cretan dance. It is a very fast and difficult dance – the steps are small and quick and typical for Crete; up on your forefoot!! It requires endurance. It is a chain dance and danced by both men and women.
Siganos is a wedding dance; originally it was the first dance after the ceremony at the church square.
Pentozalis meaning 5 steps, an exiting and varied dance and one of the most popular. It’s a very powerful dance, which requires endurance and skill. Especially for the leading man who jumps up high and with his hands, slaps thighs and feet in a fast and furious movement. The dance is also danced by women but in a subtler manner, and naturally without the high jumps.
Sousta, which in contrast to the other dances is a dance for pairs, can easily develop into a semi flirtation. Sirtos is also an extremely popular dance, danced to hundreds of different tunes and songs.
The above are dances that are famous across Crete. However there are many other ones that have only regional popularity.