Cretan dances

The Cretan dances are part of  the rich cultural history of the island and have always been a way of expression for the Cretans. Along with the Cretan music, the numerous Cretan dances are used to show their inner feelings and emotions, their joy or sadness and of course love.

Many of these dances are deeply affected by the ancient Minoan dances and especially the ancient pyrrhic dance. Throughout the rich Cretan history there have been many different dances with many variations depending on the area of the island that we are studying or the events that have created or inspired them. Nowadays, we have four main dances that are being danced all around Crete which are SyrtosMaleviziotisPentozali and Sousta.


This dance is linked to the worshipping Minoan dance of the ceremonial services. This can also explain the fact that the dancers hold each other´s hands in a circle and keep a certain distance. There is a great number of  melodies (musical tunes) for syrtos that are particularly interesting. The “first Chaniotikos” and the “second Chaniotikos” or “Kissamitikos” (from Kissamos)  are known all over Crete. These melodies are the  basis for the modern Cretan “syrtos”, known better as “chaniotikos syrtos” (from Chania). It is a ceremonial and revolutionary dance, modest and dynamic at the same time, which is part of the Cretan life and is being performed all over Crete. The first dancer makes improvisations but his turns, the bend of the waist and the “talimia” (a move where you lift one foot to the side and tap it with your hand) are few, modest and controlled comparing to other. Whensyrtos is performed only by men, certain rules must be followed: the first dancer gives a handkerchief to the second one and they start dancing with their hands being at the height of their shoulders while the rest, holding each other´s hands down, walk after the first two. In the second turn the “first dancer” performs some improvised movements and in the third turn he does a number of figures while the second one holds him for support as he jumps in the air to perform the “talimia”. Then he leaves from the front and goes at the end of the dancers. The second becomes first, the third becomes second and so on until everyone becomes first. This whole process symbolises the captain who along with the second-in-command  they “drag” the fighters to the battle. In the same way that a chief gives orders and the second-in-command follows and learns while the rest follow the orders. In case of injury or loss, the second-in-command becomes first and has a new deputy.

It is very common for the Cretan woman to dance first in this dance. Her dance has modesty and grandeur, is gracefull and harmonical as she varies her steps and does “tsakismata” (bends of the waist) and turns but she avoids exaggerating or making jumps and “talimia” as men do. Contrary to what a man would do, she puts emphasis on her dancing expression and that is the reason why she uses a few figures. When “syrtos” is danced only by women, they break the circle quite often, come in front and make turns around themselves with their hands free and then return back to their position. The traditional Cretan uniforms that women usually wear at festivals or other celebrations are unique in style and may vary from area to area.

Maleviziotis or Kastrinos Pidichtos

Maleviziotis, which is also called “kastrinos pidichtos”, is considered a war dance and is known and danced all over Crete. Its roots can be traced back to the ancient Cretan dance “Orsitis”. The term “orses” or “ortses” describe the jumps and the twisting movements of the first dancer as he comes up in front to perform them.
This dance is called “Maleviziotis” as it first appeared in the region of “Maleviziou” within the Heraklion prefecture. Nowadays it is also known as “kastrinos pidichtos” as it was danced in Heraklion also known as the “Kastro” (=castle) from the fortress at Heraklion port.

It is considered a dance of central Crete that  was spread both to the west and the east during the 1920s while in Chania it was also called “kastrini sousta”. It can be danced by both men and women, who are holding each other´s hands at the height of their shoulders with their arms bended. They start dancing in a circle and then in a straight line. The basic steps of the dance are sixteen (eight forward and eight backwards). The accompanying music, is mainly performed by a lyra or a violin accompanied by a lute or mandolin or some times by more rare instruments like a bulgari (looks like a “long” lute) or ascombandoura (an instrument similar to the Scotch gaida which is made from leather). Any dancer can “lead” the dance by leaving the circle and going to the front.

The dance structure of Maleviziotis allows the first dancer to perform a number of improvisations and show his skill and his creativity. A really good performer will vary his step with skillful jumps and sittings down, with talimia and stampings of the feet on the ground, with pauses, spins and even spins in the air (orses) etc


With the rise to power of  Catherine the Great as the empress of Russia after the assasination of Peter, heir to the throne, with the help of her lover the general Gregory Orloff, high hopes were born in Greece. The brothers of Gregory Orloff, Theodore and Alexei, who were both in the army, have made promises that the Russians were planning  to liberate Greece and so they misled the Greeks to an unsuccessful insurrection in 1770 which is known as “Orloffika”.

One of the Greeks that was misled by these promises was Ioannis Vlahos or Daskalogiannis, a merchant and ship owner from Anopolis, in Sfakia.  He was wealthy and was considered as a leader with his way of thinking and his actions and he was particularly eloquent and smart. He was educated and could speak foreign languages, and so he was knows as “daskalos” (teacher). “Daskalos” became “Daskalogiannis” and he instigated an insurrection  in Crete in 1770 which started from Sfakia and was known as the “Daskalogiannis revolution”. As he was expecting Russia’s powerful help  he invited in the autumn of 1769 all the elders and  his chief-fighters from the villages nearby to discuss and organise the future insurrection of the Greeks. Even though there were some hesitations, in the end everyone trusted him and agreed to begin the fight against the Turks. There was even a legend that helped to convince everyone: “The time has come for the Greeks to liberate themselves from the Turks with the help of the blonde people” that is the Russians.  The leaders of the revolution were 12 men and Daskalogiannis was their captain. According to tradition, Daskalogiannis and his captains decided to dance a new war dance. This dance, was performed only by men holding each other from the shoulders as a symbol of  their mutual support and the cooperation and trust among them. It was named “pentozali”, “pente” means five in Greek and “zalo” means step in the Cretan dialect, so it was the fifth step, the fifth attempt of the Greeks to liberate themselves from the Turks. Unfortunately the revolution resulted in a bloodshed as the Russian help never arrived. Daskalogiannis and many of his generals were killed but the “pentozali”, the dance of Daskalogiannis´ revolution,  survived and today is the most popular Cretan dance. A piece of pottery  dated to the 13th century BC that was found in  Kamilari Herakleion with a picture of the ancient Cretan dance “yporchima” , where four men dance in a circle holding each other from the shoulders, could be evidence that this dance has ancient roots. Pentozali is a way for the Cretan people to express  their fighting spirit, their undying desire for liberation  and their heroic soul. Through the centuries women started dancing the pentozali as well. According to old musicians and dancers the dance became well known to the rest of Crete in the 1920s. The music in 2/4 time is played either by a violin or lyra accompanied by a lute or mandolin and sometimes ascompadoura.

Traditionally the first dancer in the “pentozali” does not separate from the group and make individual moves but he stays in front following the same movement as the rest. However, what happens often is that the first dancer will create a group of men only, in front of the women, which does not follow the basic steps of the whole group but perrforms the step variations of the dance in a straight line. The main characteristic of these variations is the “paties”, the multiple stabs of the feet on the ground, a really impressive and vigorous dance move. It is said that they stand for the volley of bullets from the Cretan weapons in the battles against the Turks.

The women during this dance do not perform any figures as a group or come to the front to become first dancers. The “pentozali” is a kind of a memorial service to Daskalogiannis, his men and the revolution and for for this reason modesty and respect should be shown.

One thing that should be pointed out is that traditionally “pentozali” does not have a quick and a fast rhythm nor is there a slow and a quick “pentozali”.  The modern distinction into “slow” and “quick pentozali” was created in the 1950s and from then on it is being danced Rethymno, Chania and Herakeion and is known as  “Rethimniotiko sigano” , “Chaniotiko sigano”and  “Herakeiotiko sigano” which have eight, ten and six steps respectively.


The Cretan love dance, which is usually danced by one or more couples,  has many elements from the ancient pyrrhic dance. This can be seen by the way in which it is danced. The men and the women start dancing in a semicircle, holding each other´s hands at the height of their shoulders with their arms bended. After dancing a whole circle they are split in two teams (one of men and one of women), the one facing the other and having a distance of a few meters between them. Then, they approach each other dancing and a kind of a dance dialogue takes place between them. They touch each other, the one passes under the arms of the other, they part, they embrace, they come closer and go away again. All these make a beautiful and theatrical dance.

It is like a “battle” to conquer each other, to fall in love and become a couple. The man with vivid hand gestures and virile steps tries to intrigue her while the woman with cute steps and gentle beautiful moves at one moment she approaches him and gives him hope while  the next one she avoids him. In the end we have a union.

The name “sousta” was given to this dance during  the Venetian sovereignty (1204-1669), susta in Italian means the spring, as the three basic steps of the dance look like little jumps and make the dancers´ bodies look like being pushed by a spring jumping up and down.  The quick rhythm of the music, which can have a lot of variations gives the chance to the couple to have a great freedom of movements. The accompanying music, in 2/4 time is played either by a lyra or a violin, accompanied by a lute or mandolin and sometimes an ascompandoura depending on the area. The couple usually matches appropriately so that they can  perform the traditional dance patterns.

The dance dialogue between the two requires contact and a coordination in their moves that often becomes a small competition of improvisations between separate dancers or even couples.