Classics Classics and Dance
Fiona Macintosh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0261


The impact of ancient Greek and Roman dance on modern dance has been perceptible since at least the 15th century. While classical reception in dance is now recognized as a sub-category within dance studies and a serious dimension to classical performance reception, previously this interrelationship, if acknowledged at all, was generally discussed in terms of modern dance’s regular dependence on Greco-Roman myth for its subject matter rather than with reference to any systematic formal links. However, with the recent interest in ancient pantomime scholarly attention has been given to the ancient origins of modern ballet, ballet d’action, which in the first decades of the 18th century took its cues from Roman pantomime. In the first decade of the 18th century, the synthesis of the arts began to unravel and dance was no longer allied to opera or spoken theatrical entertainment. It now had to find its own genealogy and Aristotle’s idea of dance as mimetic action, combined with treatises on Roman pantomime (itself a direct descendent of Greek tragedy), provided the theoretical underpinning for the 18th-century ballets d’action. Dance was to follow the ancients in having something important to say; and Greek tragic drama was realized in 18th-century danced drama without the aid of either speech or (unlike ancient pantomime) song. By the last quarter of the 18th century, ballet had acquired sufficient status to become a high cultural art form sui generis; and it had done so with the ancient example as both guide and legitimizing authority. Ballet, like other performance arts, depends very much on its genealogy: not least because its major stars very often belong to dancing dynasties. Ballet continued to look back to antiquity, but with the decline in the status of the dancer in the 19th century the links with antiquity were often deliberately suppressed. However, by the end of the century, and especially following Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872), where the singing/dancing chorus was restored to discussions on tragedy, Greek dance finally began to attract attention among scholars and artists alike. The aim of this bibliography is to trace this perceived, occasionally actual and tactical, but very often suppressed, debt to ancient dance in the modern world from the 15th century down to the present day, focusing on the individual dancer, dancing collectivities, and their relationship to scholarship.

Greco-Roman Exempla

Research in recent years on the performance tradition of late antiquity, and especially mime and pantomime that had hitherto been designated both the cause and symptom of so-called cultural decadence, has made it possible to chart a continuous tradition of performance from the 5th century BCE into the modern world. Easterling 1997 argued that ancient pantomime (end of the 1st century BCE to the end of the 6th century CE) was central to the ancient reception of Greek tragedy; and Naerebout 1997 assembled the scattered evidence about ancient dance in general (there are names for approximately two hundred different dance types, including the more familiar pyrrhic (war dance), kordax (in comedy), sikinnis (satyr play), emmeleia (tragedy)). Lada-Richards 2007, Garelli 2007, and the essays in Hall and Wyles 2008 and Webb 2008, all drew further attention to the previously neglected treatises on dance, notably Lucian, On Dancing (mid-2nd century CE) and Libanius’s oration (no. 64), Reply to Aristides on Behalf of the Dancers (c. 361 CE) The only detailed survey of Roman dance sources is Alonso Fernández 2011.

  • Alonso Fernández, Zoa. 2011. La danza en época romana: una aprozimación filológica y lingüística. PhD diss., Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

    A pioneering thesis that collates and examines the disparate sources on Roman dance and its relationship to the Greek models.

  • Easterling, Pat. 1997. From repertoire to canon. In The Cambridge companion to Greek tragedy. Edited by Pat Easterling, 211–227. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521412455.009

    Easterling argues that the survival of Greek tragedy was due to no small degree to ancient pantomime, which performed scenes––with a solo (usually masked) dancer, a musician and a singing chorus––from the Greek plays throughout the Roman Empire.

  • Garelli, Marie-Hélène. 2007. Danser le mythe: la pantomime et sa réception dans la culture critique. Louvain, Belgium: Peeters.

    The first study of ancient pantomime in French. It is divided into three sections: genre; the pantomime dancer; and the role of pantomime within the wider culture of the Roman Empire.

  • Hall, Edith, and Rosie Wyles, eds. 2008. New directions in ancient pantomime. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This important collection of essays explores the art of ancient pantomime from a wide range of perspectives––its relation to and influence on literary and artistic media, in formal terms, as well as drawing attention to its legacy in the modern world in Hall’s concluding chapter.

  • Lada-Richards, Ismene. 2007. Silent eloquence: Lucian and Pantomime dancing. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

    An illuminating reading of Lucian’s On Dancing as the first serious account of the corporeal and mental skills demanded of a performer. The Postscript includes discussion of the afterlife of ancient pantomime and Lucian’s treatise.

  • Naerebout, Frederick. 1997. Attractive performances: Ancient Greek dance: Three preliminary studies. Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben.

    This groundbreaking and compendious study demonstrates the importance of a systematic investigation of ancient information about the theater in anecdotes and treatises (in addition to the dramatic texts) and how these sources exerted influence on the founders of Western performance traditions.

  • Webb, Ruth. 2008. Demons and dancers: Performance in Late Antiquity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    This wide-ranging and rich study provides careful scrutiny of pantomime and ancient (Old and New) comedy’s descendent in the mime. By reading the ancient (frequently prejudicial) sources about the performers “against the grain,” Webb is able to focus on the performers’ practical skills, which the literary sources (in marked contrast to the epitaphs and inscriptions) choose to omit.

  • Zarifi, Yana. 2007. Chorus and dance in the ancient world. In The Cambridge companion to Greek and Roman theatre. Edited by Marianne McDonald and J. Michael Walton, 227–246. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521834568.013

    This chapter provides a much-needed overview of the role of chorus and dance in the ancient world, which shows how comparative material can cast light on the ancient sources.

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