Dancing and Music

Entertainment in the ancient Greek symposium took many forms, but one of the most common amusements for guests was music and dancing.  Entertainers or slaves were often hired or purchased and would perform for guests throughout the evening. These entertainers were not confined to a single gender, and they often had a wide skill set including many dances and a large variety of instruments.

Some of the most notable sympotic instruments included the lyre, flute, aulos and krotala. While only the lyre and flute are relatively well known in the modern day, the aulos and krotala were equally important to the Greek experience.

The aulos was a double-reeded flute that required more skill than the single flute, and its sound more resembled a clarinet or oboe than a modern flute.

The krotala, were a pair of clappers resembling castanets that could be made out of a variety of materials from wood to bronze.  Performers often used them in them alongside their dancing. 

Performers, of course, did not always play music, but could entertain by dancing alone before symposiasts.

There was a significant fluidity in the roles of people in the symposium.  Often specific entertainers were hired for an evening, but additionally hetairai would perform as well, providing their clients with entertainment other than sex.

Nor did symposiasts just listen and watch this entertainment, music and dancing were also a participator activities.

In the kylix above, for instance, the symposiast is clearly holding an aulos as the dancer performs nearby and is presumably using it to participate in his own entertainment. Another symposium member on the kantharos clearly takes part in the music with his lyre and accompanies the flutist on the side of the cup.

However, despite the clear examples of audience participation, there was a conflicted relationship between symposists and performance in Greek thought.  Aristotle notes that playing music and dancing is an activity reserved for the servile classes, and can be considered "an unmanly activity" (Ford 2002; 28).  It is also associated with excessive and shameful drunkeness.  Herodotus' Histories for instance presents a scene in which a young man called Hippocleides looses a very advantageous marriage becasue of his propensity for drunken dancing.

This is not to say that audience participation in music and dancing did not occur; quite the contrary, as there is plentiful archaelogical and literary evidence that it did, but it was not seen as the most respectable activity.

Instead respectable participation fell more along the lines of contributing poetic verses, song composition, or thoughtful conversing.

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Dancing and Music