References to dancing in Cyprus are primarily found in descriptions of marriages, feasts, paniyria (celebrations of religious feasts), and other religious occasions. Travellers were always seeking out such occasions which would emanate the flavour of the place, present local traditions, and paint the picture with vivid and exotic colours. Both in Greek and Turkish villages, the travellers would attach themselves to the locals in the hope that they would be invited to the venue of the occasion. And they usually were. One must admit more so by the Greeks than by the Turks of Cyprus. This was not due to hospitality standards but rather to social norms which kept the one group more open to receiving foreigners than the other.
It appears that there were no rigid rules as to the dancing that was taking place. Although special dances were assigned to special occasions, spontaneity and even improvisation were in general permitted, especially during celebrations of great feasts.
However, there were rules governing participation. With only a few exceptions, Greeks danced with Greeks and Turks with Turks. Greek women danced separately from men and Turkish women were hardly ever seen dancing in public. When the occasion arose in Turkish feasts, the role of female dancing was taken up by foreign dancers, usually gipsies hired specifically for this purpose. Very rarely did the local population participate in dances of the British colonial regime and when certain members of the local Greek elite did so, it was in British or European dancing and usually not without consequences. Here are some examples from the early 20th century when, by that time, the British were well settled on the island and the Cypriots Westernised enough!
Sir Ronald Storrs, Governor of Cyprus 1926-1932, wrote in his Orientations that in 1931 at the Ball in Government House, the daughter of a Greek Member of the Legislative Council danced in a reel with English partners. The action caused many eyebrows to be raised. Dancing with the oppressors-conquerors, was certainly not approved, even if the young lady’s parents were present; this is a straightforward example of how politics affected even the simplest social expressions of entertainment such as dancing.
Gladys Peto, the wife of a British civil servant, in Cyprus 1926-1929, spent some days in the summer resort of Platres, a small village in the Troodos mountains, which she described as the “St. Moritz of the Eastern Mediterranean”. The place was often frequented by visitors from Egypt, the Lebanon but also Cypriots from seaport towns and Nicosia. The local hotel ballroom hosted many dances during summer and people travelled many miles to be present at these dances. Young men were known to drive forty miles on motor bicycles from Limassol. Peto observed that the Greeks were addicted to tango in which very few English people excelled.
You also find a row of whispering peasants- both men and girls- peering through the upper windows of the ballroom. They appear to be enormously intrigued with everything. You may even see a donkey there and I have been told that a camel has been known to take a peep at the party. Certainly, you will see Marikou there, all complete with lamb. It cannot surely, be good for the lamb to keep such late hours. The balcony at the end of the room is also often occupied by onlookers from the country. Turkish women sit there and peer above the cloak which is pulled across each face.
The ‘Did You Know’ series is made possible with the support of OPAP (Cyprus) and the Active Citizens Fund.