Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, and is located the furthest south of mainland Greece. Crete has a long history of human occupation. The Minoan civilization centered on the island was one of the earliest complex societies of the area. In more recent history, the island has been controlled by the Byzantine Empire, Venetians, and the Ottoman Turks. This location at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Sea ensured that Crete played host to many different religious and ethnic groups at various times in history, and Cretes music and dance traditions remain highly distinct and instantly recognizable as a result of the islands unique history. In particular, Cretans today are known for the high value they place on masculinity, honor, and heroism. Pride, morality, and individualism are themes that run through Cretan music and dance, and have left a deep impression on the ways Cretans approach their dancing. Good dancers dance in ways that variously emphasize their manly strength and ability to improvise (for men) or their demure grace and self-control (in the case of women).
Cretan music is famous for the use of the 3-stringed Cretan lyra, usually in combination with one or two stringed lutes (laouto) that are strummed to keep the rhythm during dance songs. However, as in other parts of Greece, Cretan music and dance are much more diverse than is widely recognized. Other instruments were also used in specific regions of Crete. The askomandoura (a drone-less bagpipe) is often heard in mountainous areas, particularly in the central and eastern parts of the island. Various types of plucked string instruments, like the boulgari and other types of tamboura, were used to accompany other instruments or even played solo. Various types of drums, from large daouli- type instruments to smaller handheld drums, were also often used to keep rhythm in place of laouta. In the western portion of the island (specifically in the prefecture of Hania), the violi (violin) is the preferred instrument- many Haniotes argue that they refused to give up a superior 4 stringed instrument in favor of the 3-stringed lyra commonly used throughout the rest of the island. All of these instruments are variously used to accompany song melodies and dance tunes.
There are more than 20 documented Cretan dances. However, four dances are the most commonly performed and recognized outside of Crete- the syrto, Maleviziotiko, Sousta, and Pentozali. Most of the remaining dances are associated with specific regions of the island, and therefore not as widely known. Despite different combinations of step patterns, most dances are characterized by the unique styling common to all dances from Crete. Most of the time, dances are executed almost entirely on the ball of the foot with the weight further forward on the toes than back toward the heel. Precise movements are the norm, and good dancers hold the body upright with the arms raised wide and high when appropriate. Men may make longer, larger steps and raise their feet much higher off the ground than women usually do- among females, beautiful dancing usually means making it appear that ones feet and body merely glide across the ground (as when dancing syrtos). For faster dances, sharp, syncopated bouncing is carried out on ones toes, and both men and women are expected to fully express the nervous, vibrant energy that such fast-paced dances evoke (as in the Maleviziotikos).
In addition, both men and women frequently perform spontaneous improvisations on the basic step of the dance; both sexes may move to the front of the dancing line to carry out their improvisations for a short period, or else they may move out individually into the middle of the dance circle to do so. Womens improvisations are often demure and contained (much like the female dance style in general) and often comprise rapid shuffling of the feet, small hops, and turning or spinning. Mens improvisations are more energetic, covering more space and often consisting of sharp leaps, squats, stomps, and striking of the heels or ankles. Talimia are often combinations of such squats and jumps, usually also incorporating kicks in midair that end with the left foot (or both feet) connecting with the outstretched right hand of the dancer. Much like the basic step of Cretan dances, however, all such improvisations are usually executed with the feet and limbs roughly underneath the dancer (and never extending far out from the dancers center of gravity).
Common dances of Kriti include: Various syrtos dances (the most famous of which is Haniotikos Protos Syrtos, from the region of Hania), Maleviziotikos (Irakleion), Sousta, Siganos, Pentozali, Anogeianos Pidihtos, Priniano (Priniotis), Angaliastos, Ethianos Pidihtos, Rodo, Trizalis, Panomeritis (Provatinistikos), Roumatiani Sousta, Katsibadianos (Koutsistos), Zervodexos, Mikromikraki, Laziotikos, Pidihtos Lasithiou, Xenobasaris
Syrto: This dance originated in the city of Hania in western Crete and is thus known on Crete as Haniotikos. The steps of the original version may be done either left-to-right or in-and-out of the circle. The rhythm is a faster and the opposite of most other syrtos. The leading male dancer will leap in the air, hitting his thigh and boots, supported only by a handkerchief held by the second dancer. As the lead dancer tires, another man replaces him, who seems intent on leaping higher and more often then the previous! The base of the music for Cretan Syrto is the Cretan lyra.
Sousta: is a dance of love and passion. The male dances opposite his female adversary, and tries to entice her with steps full of longing, with promises, lively gestures, and quick, burning glances. The woman dances with small, delicate steps, and graceful and gentle movements of her hands and her head. She gives him quick, passionate glances that one moment repel him and the next moment give him hope. In Greek, Sousta means spring, and this dance took its name from the springing movements in the dancers' steps.
Pentozali: literally means, five dazed steps, and was done by armed warriors during ancient times. A Cretan lyre provides the rhythm, and the dancers holding hands begin to dance slowly. As the music quickens, so do the steps and the dance reaches a frenzy speed, ending suddenly when the lyra does.
Maleviziotiko: from the city of Iraklio, Crete. Other regions of Crete have their own variations. The dancers cut into the circle with eight large steps and then come straight back out with eight smaller steps, the same pattern in reverse.