Imagine this: It’s Ancient Greece and you’re at a festival. Two figures come out of the crowd, and the crowd forms a circle around them. The two men draw knives and begin to circle each other, blades clashing as they dance and spar with one another. Suddenly, you see one of the figures stab at the other, and he falls to the ground, blood pouring out of his wound. You gasp in shock, as you see the other fighter dance around his fallen enemy’s body. The other fighter looks down, and as if realizing what he’s done, all the joy drains out of the man’s face. He drops to his knees and holds the dagger above his chest, about to plunge it in. You are pushed forward along with the rest of the crowd, as they try to get to the man, hoping to prevent him from killing himself. As you are shoved closer and closer to the center of the circle, the laughing and the shouts begin to ring out. “It’s fake! It was just a show!” You didn’t realize it at the time, but you just witnessed a pyrrhichios.
A pyrrhichios is a Greek war dance. It’s thought to have originated from the days of the Trojan War when Achilles first saw the body of his dead friend Patroclus. Achilles expressed his grief through this intense dance. There’s also the belief that the dance could have come from Pyrrhus, Achilles’s son, who danced it around the funeral pyre of his enemy Eurypylus. The pyrrhichios were popular with the Spartans who taught this dance to their children at a very young age as light war training. My story of the dance is based on a description from Xenophon, a Greek historian, who tells of a pyrrhichios in his work Anabasis.
The pyrrhichios is still danced today. It has taken on a new significance with the Pontic genocide as this was the dance the Greek warriors performed before they headed into battle and a most certain death. As such the dance becomes as much a celebration or pangyric of life in the face of death. The Cretan pentozali, the high-spirited, high-kicking, dance is descended from this most ancient war dance.