Opa! The Origins of the Sirtaki

When most people think of Greek dancing, the first thing that comes to mind is the infamous sirtaki from Zorba the Greek, the 1964 film based upon the novel by Nikos Kazantakis. But did you know that the sirtaki is not a traditional dance? It was in fact created for the film by legendary Greek choreographer Giorgos Provias.

Directed by Greek-Cypriot Michael Cacoyannis and starring Anthony Quinn, the movie tells the tale of Basil (played by Alan Bates), a young Briton of half-Greek descent who travels to Crete to open a mining concession for his father.

While waiting at a port for his ferry to Crete, the uptight Basil meets the older Zorba, a rough-and-tumble peasant and musician who claims knowledge of the mining industry and who attaches himself to the young man as a guide and confederate. As the two try to get the mining operation going, the inevitable clash between industry and rural poverty ensues, and Zorba dances his way through romance and intrigue.

By end of the film, Basil has loosened up and is starting to embrace his Greek heritage. Before he returns to England, he asks Zorba to teach him how to dance and the film closes with the two men joyfully dancing the sirtaki on the beach, accompanied by the celebrated bouzouki melody of Zorba’s Dance, written by legendary Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis.

The sirtaki combines slow and fast versions of the hasapiko, a dance that dates back to medieval Constantinople.  Hasapiko means butcher’s dance, and was originally performed as a battle mime by members of the Butchers’ Guild. The two variants of the traditional dance are independent and known as hasapikos baris (heavy) and hasapikos grigoros (fast). If you follow the movements closely, you can see how they mime the thrust and parry of swordplay.

Provias’ sirtaki starts the slower beat of the hasapiko baris, speeds up to the grigoros, then slows down again, giving the dance a dramatic three-act structure that echoes the beginning, middle and end of traditional storytelling.

Not surprisingly, the Guinness World Record for longest sirtaki chain was set in Crete in 2007 and consisted of 268 dancers.