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  The Dance Phenomenon and Social Reality - Ass. Prof Anna Lydaki  


The Dance Phenomenon and Social Reality

Methods of Research


Anna Lydaki, assistant professor

at the Sociology Department of the

Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences



Condillac calls the expression of dance factual language and writes that this language was evidently preserved, even after phonetic-verbal expression was created, in order to notify people about topics of prime importance related to law or religion.  And this was because there was power and grandeur in factual language which acted on the imagination in a lively manner, leaving a permanent imprint on the memory.  Subsequently, perfecting their preferences, people varied their dancing, giving it charm and expression.


 *The partial or entire republication of articles and texts is prohibited without the written approval of "Greek Dance Archives".

The Dance Phenomenon and Social Reality

Methods of Research


Anna Lydaki, assistant professor

at the Sociology Department of the

Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences



Condillac[1] calls the expression of dance factual language and writes that this language was evidently preserved, even after phonetic-verbal expression was created, in order to notify people about topics of prime importance related to law or religion.  And this was because there was power and grandeur in factual language which acted on the imagination in a lively manner, leaving a permanent imprint on the memory.  Subsequently, perfecting their preferences, people varied their dancing, giving it charm and expression. Not only did they draw up rules for the movements of hands and windings of the body, but they also defined the steps to be followed.  In this way dancing was naturally split into two subjugated arts: one was the dance of gestures, preserved to assist in the transmission of human thought, and the other was danced mainly with the feet and mostly for pleasure and was used to express specific mental conditions, especially joy or euphoria if the opportunity arose.

     Condillac goes on to say that there are different types of dancing, ranging from the most simple to the most complex, and he concludes that all types are good provided they express something- the more varied and broadened the expression, the more perfect the dance.  He decides that the best dance is that which portrays nobility and consists of a kind of dialogue or meeting between either individuals or peoples, as each community shaped their dancing in different ways according to their living conditions, needs and ethics.

     I believe that Condillac’s words sum up all that has been said over time by researchers about dancing, its sacredness, its expressive and communicative dimensions, the particular features presented by the phenomenon of dance and its direct relationship with the social system in which it is created.  It follows that any research of this phenomenon must take place in relation to social reality.  This essay approaches and suggests methods for its research; methods which will connect and study the specific (dance phenomenon) and the general (society) at the same time.


The expression of dance

Artistic expression, which seeks communication and the transfer of meanings through different channels from those of verbal language, can provide us with much information about the society which gave birth to it.  R. Williams[2] believes that ‘art’ is the key word if we are to understand the internal relationships between culture and society, and Adorno - Horkheimer stress that art is an historical element of societies which must be decoded with critical analysis as a non-conscious historiography[3]. 

     The beginnings and first forms of art were born of sacred ritual and the attempt to communicate with the divine: the drawings etched into the corners of caves were part of a mystical ritual, an effort to influence the animal’s spirit so that it could be captured; the epic comes from the ecstatic song of the Shaman; newer art from idolatry icons; modern music from the development of hymns of worship.  And dance, which is what concerns us here, as movement divergent from ordinary walking, was used mainly for contact with divine forces.  Dancing was used to mimic the different kind of movement these forces -above and beyond human knowledge and measure- were believed to have, in an attempt to approach and communicate with them.  And so, for example, the mystical dance of the masked Shaman plotted a relationship with the sacred, a mimesis, an internal experienced equality of man and nature, a lifting of discriminations between nature and culture; the cavities of the mask served as ‘homes’ for the spirits they were reaching out to.[4] 

     This unity of art and social reality also appears in the folk creations of traditional societies, since the arts in these societies are not separated into superior and inferior, ‘major’ and ‘minor’.  Works of art are, for the most part, anonymous and the creator is simply a good technician, not believed to be creating a work of art, but a useful object to which he gives an aesthetic appearance.[5]   Also anonymous is folk literature (myths, fairy tales, traditions, folk songs etc.) which echo the ideology, views of the world, beliefs and common feeling that govern men’s lives.

     Art was weaned from daily life, of which it had been a part, during the Enlightenment and the rise of the bourgeoisie when concepts of aesthetic  and artist appear.  Nonetheless, and without exception, art is directly or indirectly related to the conditions in which it was created and no knowledge of the world is complete without an understanding of the works of artistic expression and creation, which formed an important part of it, since an artist expresses himself within a specific social whole from which he draws his material.  Marcuse[6] had stated that aesthetic form, autonomy and truth are interdependent and the truth of art lies with its power to break the monopoly of established reality, and to define what is real.

     The impact of the former unity between art and social reality is still apparent today in the study and analysis of dance,[7] especially traditional dancing.  By the term traditional dancing we mean dance that was formed within a traditional culture, one based on the spoken word, direct communication and exchange between individuals of the community.  We are of course referring to times when writing was already in use but where the living voice was the main way of creating social bonds, and where traditions persevered.  Subsequently, with the urbanization, men came to the city but for the most part their attitudes and activities did not become urbanized: they brought the mentality, linguistic habits, stereotypes, attitudes and prototypes for living (internalized for life) with them to a new location.  Thus we come across remnants of traditional folk culture in the city, where peasant and urban elements come together in a cultural blend and survive.[8] 

     Traditional dancing is a typical cultural survival which continues to live on in the country at festivals and celebrations, in the city, and even at the clubs and centers frequented by the young today.[9]  In Greece, at these centers, and towards the end of the musical programs when the young regulars are in high spirits, traditional, regional and island dancing dominates and is enjoyed by all.

     The survival of traditional dancing in rural areas, despite the invasion of modernity, and the survival or revival of folklore in urban areas, are social phenomena which deserve to be examined closely.


Dance as a language 

Dancing, as already mentioned, is man’s primitive expression; it is older than verbal language and is born within a specific social environment.  Much has been written about the relationship of language, views of the world and culture.  Romantics such as Herder[10] and Humboldt[11] emphatically pointed out the social dimension of language; for them language expresses a group’s inter - subjective meanings and views of the world, constitutes the structure of social reality itself; language is not just an instrument but a treasury and form of thought. This opinion has been proved timeless, despite varying methods of approach by social scientists.  The content of communication points and messages is not arbitrary, as the experience of past generations contains objective knowledge of the world without which man would not be able to act in a way adapted to his environment.  He does not discover things from the beginning, but understands them through discourses, institutions, activities, social representations and narratives which organize experience, compose reality and define the identity and context of life.[12]

     E. Sioran characteristically said “We do not reside in a country. We reside in a language”, and by ‘language’ we do not just mean the system of verbal points, but rather every symbolic system of communication through inter -subjective meanings used by individuals.  Just as with verbal language, so too the activity of dancing, its form and rhythm, is part of our identity, formed in a specific social environment.  Dancing, as an art and as an expression, is composed of a system of points which must be decoded by the researcher.

     Accordingly then, any research attempt to interpret dance cannot be carried out separately from the culture in which it was born and the social reality in which it lives.  The simple man dances, expresses himself and improvises, always constrained by the rules of the dance.  He does not stop to consider the meaning of his movements.  It is the researcher who must interpret this phenomenon, (without removing it from its social context and studying it in isolation), in order to answer questions raised by this form of art and the representative codes used.  In other words, close inspection and review of the social conditions which gave birth to the dance phenomenon and those with which it continues to have a mutual interaction, are necessary in order for a scientist to be in a position to formulate an opinion. Semiotics of dancing is perceptible within context and this common space of the signified is the space of ideology, which can but be unique for any given society and history. Thus, semiotics is complete meanings, since the bonds between expression and content develop and take on significant within a society.  The bonds are of a collective nature and their study provides important data on ideas, rules, practices, codes, knowledge and culture of a society.[13]  We should not forget –for example- that what is real for a Tibetan monk, a spinning Dervish or a Shaman is probably not real for a folk dancer.  Reality and knowledge correspond to specific social dancing and the relationship between the two must be included in any analysis.[14]


Method of approach for the phenomenon of dance

It is apparent then that the researcher of the phenomenon of dance must study it as a social phenomenon which appears in a specific social whole, at a specific time and place (or timelessly).  The subsequent question concerns the way in which it can be researched, and the answer defines the method, the system of rules with which the researcher will approach and examine his subject. The term method does not simply mean the systematic rules and, consequently, the techniques and tools used by the researcher to collect the data necessary to depict and study social reality, and the way in which it is analyzed.  It also implies the relationship between the researcher and the object of his research, since this relationship determines and outlines the way to approach, record and interpret phenomena.  In human sciences quantitative and qualitative methods (together with their relevant techniques and tools) are generally used, but the choice of either one or the other reveals both the relationship of the researcher with the object of his study, and also his position on the question of knowledge.[15]

     A researcher might consider it possible to analyze and study the dance phenomenon and social groups in general objectively, using methods of positive sciences, or, in contrast, he might believe men and human groups require another sort of approach, of a more critical nature, with the aim of interpreting and understanding phenomena which may have a different meaning for his subjects than they do for him.[16]

     Positivistic approaches[17] (structuralism, formalism, functionalism, theory of conflicts) are arbitrary and propose a typical way of approaching social phenomena.  But in this way deeper relationships and frameworks in which facts and figures acquire meaning were neglected. Both structuralism and formalism came under criticism for their ‘mathematical’ treatment of data, focus of interest on points, codes, and functions of form, and on structures which tended to obliterate anything that undermined the process of homogeneity.  Post structuralism studied the production of the signified by the signifier and stressed that before the act of significance there is not the signified. Identity is provided within word, without ever being decisive or conclusive as the word does not have boundaries and predetermines the way in which individuals will define themselves and are linked to other subjects or objects.[18]  However, as Seidman[19] notes, post modernism does not appear to have a radical rift with today’s Western modernism.



     Positivists depart from theoretical assumptions and approach the object of their study with the aim of setting down general laws and deductions in keeping with the prototype of positive sciences which, at least until the middle of 20th century, were considered indisputably dominant as they were based on both observation and experimentation, and consequently on the proof of theoretical assumptions.  They focus on the structural study and use mainly quantitative methods with questionnaires and statistical analysis in order to portray social reality in an ‘objective way’, without however being able to grasp the deeper meanings which escape the notice of answers and quantities.  Furthermore the researcher, in choosing a standardized, stable research strategy, predetermines to a great extent how the phenomenon will be studied and indirectly influences the conditions of its Knowledge.

The positivistic perception of research, using such methods, interprets things as if they were imperishable and eternal.  But answers to the way in which things exist are never definitive, since objects do not exist but in relation to and in mutual interaction with the subject that creates the meaning.

     From the 1960’s onwards we very often observe the position of positivistic approach replaced by the interpretative. Epistemological behaviorism, that is the obligation for every judgment concerning truth and knowledge to be supported by criteria shared by today’s scientists, is challenged.  The pro-Kuhn age during which being a scientist meant being a rationalist has evidently passed and the aim is not the discovery of ‘objective truth’, but the continuation of dialogue.[20]   

     Researchers realize that deeper signs and meanings that govern men’s lives do not emerge through quantitative methods.  The object of human sciences is a subject that creates its own meanings and reality – most probably different from the one ‘objective reality’.  Thus researchers strive to see things critically from the point of view of the acting subjects and the way in which the latter employ and interpret them.[21]  In other words interpretation, derived from the Romantic 19th century, is revived in a manner of speaking, and this indicates the dead-end caused in subsequent years by the profusion of positivistic approaches.  Words such as “objectivity”, “excess” and “generalization” are typical of ethnocentric values and interests and are not innocent, but contain social and political meanings. Their substitution with words like “subjectivity”, “consciousness”, “dialogue” and “interpretation” means we desire and seek to hear and understand those who have different ideas from us.  The certainty of the Cartesian method and positivism gives its place to uncertainty, contemplative and critical dialogue.



Non-positivistic approaches of social phenomena avoid starting from a specific, programmed form of approach of the facts.  Weight is given to the awareness of the researcher and flexibility of the method, precisely because of the special nature of the subject of human sciences.  Dancing, more specifically, is a human expression which often ‘escapes’ conventions and rules to state deeper, unspoken emotions which require interpretation and understanding.  Consequently, theory should arise from the dialogue of ideas and facts collected through qualitative methods, the incorporation of the researcher into the field of research, participative observation, non structured interviews, life stories, “frequent descriptions” etc.

 [22]  The chief aim, in other words, is not simply to portray or ‘present’ reality, but to understand it and to discover obscure conceptions and relationships which govern human expression and social phenomena within each specific culture.[23] 


     The non-demonstrative nature of interpretive approach incites criticism from analytical, rational methodology for arbitrary interpretation which flows from the personal evaluations of the researcher and for facts that do not stem from chance sampling.  However, it is unfeasible to demand an understanding without preconditions and prejudices, a theory free of the restrictions of a particular standpoint or viewpoint.  H.G. Gadamer’s[24]  ruth and Method does not in fact present any method for the acquisition of knowledge (despite its title), but instead refers mainly to the human capability to understand. Gadamer does not believe there is knowledge without preconditions and is aware of the historical nature of interpretation.  Tradition and the past comprise the dynamic field of movement, and interpretation and understanding are truths from the moment they are not entirely subjective, but emerge from inter-subjective meanings.



In brief, we could say that firstly the study of the dance phenomenon should take place within the social framework in which it is presented, using mainly qualitative methods and interpretive approaches.  In this way theory takes shape within interconnecting mental dialogue with the facts, without conceptualities taking the place of interpretation.  The main use of qualitative methods does not mean the abolition of quantitative; on the contrary, the combination of methods and techniques helps to clear up conflicting issues and can lead to safer conclusions with regard to the social reality being studied.[25]  Also, the study of the framework and works of other researchers lead to a type of triangulation,[26] and the dialectical relationship between the emic level (the researchee ’s way of thinking) and the etic (the researcher’s general, analytical categories) reduces the danger of arbitrary interpretation. This does not mean that the subjective element is erased from our conclusions.  We need to recognize that personal views, subjective intuition and sensitivity are always present in any research, quantitative or qualitative, even if it is not confessed, as happens with “authentic” scientific word which draws its validity from generalization, definitive certainties and grand theories.  However the subjective dimension in the research process is not necessarily negative. The possibility of multiple decipherments and the recognition of continuous evolution, meditation and reflection, together with convincing interpretation, provide trustworthy validity.

     The phenomenon of dance, like any other social event, requires a pluralistic approach.  We should therefore study and take into account the entrenched structures of the system, and at the same time the way in which these are employed and interpreted by the acting social subjects themselves.  A simple description of the dancing would not bring to light the special forms and ineffable symbolic messages expressed on a conscious and subconscious level.   












[1]E. Bono de Condillac, Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humain. Transl. in Greek by E. Spetsieris, A. Lydaki, ed., Dokimio peri tis katagogis ton anthropinon gnoseon, Kastaniotis, Athens 2001, pp. 136-143.


[2] R.Williams, Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society, Oxford University Press, New York 1976.

[3] T. Adorno & M. Horkheimer, “Sociology of art and music”, in T. Adorno & M. Horkeimer, Sociology: introductory essay. Transl. in Greek by D. Gravaris, Koinoniologia. Isagogika dokimia,  Kritiki, Athens 1987, pp. 127-143.

[4] F. Terzakis, Tracks of Aesthetics. The historical establishment of aesthetic philosophy and its anthropological horizon, Greek text, Trohies tou esthitikou. I istoriki sistasi mias esthitikis philosophias ke o anthropologikos tis orizontas, Futura, Athens 2007, pp. 17-46.  R. Layton, Anthropology of art. Transl. in Greek by F. Terzakis, I anthropologia tis tehnis, Eikostou Protou Publications, Athens 2003. M.G. Meraklis Greek Folklore, Greek text, Elliniki laografia, Odysseas, Athens 2004, pp. 371-372.


[5] Cl. Geertz, Art as a cultural system, in Cl. Geertz, local knowledge, Basic Books, New York 1983, pp. 94-120.  M.G. Meraklis, Greek folklore, Greek text Elliniki laografia, as above, pp. 285-301.   R. Layton, Anthropology of art (as above).


[6] C. Marcuse, The aesthetic dimension. Transl. in Greek by V. Tomanas, I esthitiki diastasi, Nisides, Athens 1998/1978, pp. 20-30.


[7] See, among others, M. Zographou, Dance in Greek tradition. Greek text, O horos stin elliniki paradosi, Art Work, Athens 2003.  A. Synnott, The body social. Symbolism, self and society, Routledge, London 1997.  J. Cowan, Dance and the body politic in Northern Greece, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey 1990.  M. Desmond, Meaning in motion. New cultural studies of dance, Duke University Press, London 1997.


[8] A. Lydaki, Shadows and moonstruck beings. Folklore and cultural meanings. Greek text, Iskioi ki alafroiskioti. Laikos logos ke politismikes simasies, Ellinika Grammata, Athens 2003, pp. 42-47.

[9] See also A. Lydaki, “Romanticism of neo Hellenic modernization”. Greek text, “O romantismos tou neoellinikou eksichronismou, in Thitia. Timitiko afieroma ston kathigiti M.G. Meraklis, Athens 2002, pp. 371-384.


[10]G.J. Herder, Selected early works, 1764-1767. Addresses, essays, and drafts: Fragments on recent German literature, (transl. by E.A. Menze & K. Menges. E.A. Menze & M. Palma, eds.), The Pennsylvania State Press, USA 1992.

[11] W. Von Humbodtd, «The nature and confirmation of language» and «On the task of the historian», in K. Mueller - Vollmer (ed.), The hermeneutics reader, Basil Blackwell, Great Britain 1986, pp. 98-108.

[12]See, D. Davidson, «On the very idea of a conceptual scheme» (1974), in D. Davidson, Inquiries into truth and interpretation, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1984, pp. 183-198· A. Schaff, language and knowledge. Transl. in Greek Glossa ke gnosi, Zaharopoulos, Athens, pp. 211-227· J. Piaget, The language and thought of the child (transl. by M. Warden, R. Garbain), Routledge and Kegan Paul, London and Humanities Press, New York 1959· J. S. Bruner & J. M. Anglin, Beyond the information given: Studies in the psychology of knowing, Norton, New York 1973· J. Bruner, Acts of meaning. Transl. in Greek by I. Rokou & G. Kalomiris, Ellinika Grammata, Athens 1997· L. Vigotski, Thought and language. Transl. in Greek by A. Rodi, Skepsi ke glossa, Gnosi, Athens 1993.

[13] R. Barthes, Image – music – text. Transl. in Greek by G. Spanos, prol. G. Veltsos, Ikona – mousiki – keimeno, Plethron, Athens 1988, pp. 56, 96-97· S. Barley, “Semiotics and the study of occupational and organizational cultures”, Administrative Sciences Quarterly, 28, 1983, óĺë. 393-413. A. Lydaki, Shadows and moonstruck beings. Folklore and cultural meanings, as above pp. 26-37.

[14] P. Berger & Th. Luckman, The social construction of reality, Anchor Books, Double Day, New York 1966.

[15] See N. Kyriazi, Sociological research. Critical review of methods and techniques. Greek Text, I kinoniologiki erevna. Kritiki episkopisi ton methodon ke ton technikon, Ellinika Grammata, Athens 2000. A. Lydaki, Qualitative methods of social research, Greek text, Piotikes methodi tis kinonikis erevnas, Kastaniotis, Athens 2001, pp. 17-23.

[16] See M. Horkheimer, Traditional and critic theory. Transl. in Greek by Th. Georgiou & M. Markidis, Paradosiaki ke kritiki theoria, Erasmos, Athens 1983.

[17]See about structuralism Cl. Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, Basic Books, Yew York 1963· R. Jacobson, «Closing statement» in T.Seboek (ed.), The uses of language, MIT Press, Cambridge 1960, óĺë. 330-377. A.J. Greimas, Semantique structurale, PUF, Paris 1995· Th. Parsons, The structure of social action, Mc Graw-Hill, New York 1937· G. Ritzer, Modern sociological theory, Mc Graw-Hill, New York 1996· P.K. Manning & B. Cullum-Swan, «Narrative, content, and semiotic Analysis» in N.K.Denzin & Y.S. Lincoln, «Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials, Sage, USA 1998, pp. 246-273.

[18] M. Foucault, Les mots et les choses. Transl. In Greek by K. Papagiorgis, I lexis ke ta pragmata, Gnosi, Athens 1986.

[19] S. Seidman, “Postmodern anxiety: The politics of epistemology”, Sociological Theory, 9:2, Fall 1991, pp. 180-190.

[20] R. Rorty, Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Transl. in Greek by P. Bourlakis & G. Fourtounis, F. Peonidis, ed., I filosophia ke o kathreftis tis fisis, Kritiki, Athens 2001, pp. 223-287, 429-436· R. Rorty, «Solidarity or objectivity?», «Pragmatism without method», «Inquiry as recontextualization: An anti-dualist account of interpretation», in R. Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, Philosophical Papers, V1, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1991, pp. 21-34, 63-77, 93-110.

[21] See, P. Pigiaki, Ethnography. Greek text, Ethnografia, Grigoris, Athens 1988.

[22] Cl. Geertz, The interpretation of cultures, Fontana Books, New York 1993.

[23]P. Sanko, «Voice, discourse, and space: Competing / Combining methodologies in cultural studies», in N. Denzin (ed.), Cultural studies: A research volume, Volume 3, Jai Press Inc., Stanford and London 1998, pp. 75-96. H. Hodge & G. Kress, Social semiotics, Polity Press, Cambridge 1988.

[24] H.-G. Gadamer, Verite et methode. Les grandes lignes d’ une hermeneutique philosophique, Editions du Seuil, Paris 1976. 

[25] G. Kallas, “The combination of ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’ methods”, Paper in congress Methods of research in social sciences, Greek text, “I siglisi tis posotikis ke tis piotikis methodologies”, Isigisi sto synedrio  Methodologia tis erevnas stis kinonikes epistimes, Rethimno 2007.

[26] R.Jr. Singleton, B.C. Straits, M.M. Straits & R.J. McAllister, Approaches to social research, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York 1988, pp. 360-376· A. Michael Huberman & M.B. Miles, «Data Management and Analysis Methods» in N. K. Denzin & Y.S. Lincoln (eds.), Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials, Sage, as above, pp. 179-210.  

*The partial or entire republication of articles and texts is prohibited without the written approval of "Greek Dance Archives".