Nikos Politis - "The Zeibekiko dance" - Istanbul Musical Seminars - October 2005



Return to Home Page






The Zeibekiko dance: a unique example of a Greek folk dance of the 20th century, originating from Turkish Zeybek dance patterns


by Nikos Politis [Athens]


I think there is no person in Turkey that would not have heard of the Zeybek Dances. There is certainly also no person in Greece that would not have heard of the Zeibekiko Dance. In this presentation I will try to point out the relation between the two dances and the peculiarities of the Greek version. For reasons of better understanding, I will be using the term Zeybek dance (or dances) for the Turkish original and the term Zeibekiko for the Greek dance that has been associated with the rebetiko songs genre.


As we know, the Turkish Zeybek dance is a family of dances rather than a single dance. It is said to be at home with the Zeybek tribes that are native (or probably immigrated there) of the western part of Turkey, especially in the mountain regions of the Aydin area, but it had spread out and became popular among the populations of the broader area, down to Izmir and beyond. Today of course, one can find the dance practically everywhere in Turkey as one of the most well known and popular national dances of the country.


I shall not enter into details but just for the purpose of our orientation I shall highlight some aspects. The characteristic original rhythmic pattern of the dance belongs to the nine beats to the bar rhythms, that can be divided 2 2 2 3 , 2 2 3 2 , 2 3 2 2 , 3 2 2 2 or in a more complicated pattern of 8 8 2. The dance can be performed by one dancer (solo) or one or more pairs of dancers, dancing in a circle. In Turkey 8 beats to the bar metres can sporadically also be found. For the purposes of this paper only the traditional Zeybek dances are examined, not the more or less choreographed versions that may be performed today by folk dance ensembles, involving a large number of men and in some cases women dancing together.


Contrary to the Turkish approach, the Greek Zeibekiko dance is not considered a folk dance, although it is probably more wide spread than many local folk dances of Greece. The reason is that we only consider “folk” dances belonging to the folkloric circle, dances that have been traditional in the country for hundreds of years or more. The Zeibekiko was born in the twentieth century and, what is more, it is an urban dance, not originally known in the rural regions where the “genuine” folk dances are expected to be at home.


Looking back into the Greek folklore we will find that the Zeybek dances were (and are) totally unknown in mainland Greece as well as in the majority of the islands. Only exceptions are few islands very close to the Turkish coastline, from Thassos in the north to Rhodes in the south, going of course further down to Cyprus but also up north to Thrace. The explanation is obvious: before the military and political events of the beginning of the 20th century, that dramatically changed the ethnic map of the area as well as the relations of our two countries, contacts between islands and the neighbouring Turkish coast were very common and cultural influences natural. But the Zeibekiko dance of today is very popular all over Greece, from Corfu to the Dodecanese. How can this be explained?


As already indicated the Zeibekiko dance, together with Hassapiko, the other well known dance of today’s Greece, is typical of the Rebetiko era, that has indelibly stamped our musical history from the moment it started, beginning of the 1930s, until the late 1950s where its creative period stops, with the dances living on until today. A very brief introduction into this important musical evolution is necessary at this point.


Before the military and political happenings already mentioned, a big city of the eastern Aegean Sea had developed and maintained a remarkably flourishing musical life. Izmir of course, where the Greek speaking orthodox community had managed to create an interesting mix of oriental and western cultural elements that made up what is known today as “The Smyrna school” music. After the war events, millions of people populating not only Izmir but the broader coastal region of Asia Minor were forced to immigrate into Greece, including of course the full potential of the Izmir based musicians, the ones that survived, that is. So the Smyrna School continued its activity in Athens now, with a success rate never encountered before. This music certainly had an oriental flavour, mixed with some western elements as already mentioned. It is perhaps helpful to listen to an example typical of this era.


The typical orchestra of the time featured instruments like violin, kanun or santour, oud, lute etc. At the beginning of the 1930s the vast majority of the production of the Greek record industry was created by precisely these musicians and interpreters; everything else followed at a distance.


These “Smyrna School” songs included rhythms and dances typical in Smyrna and in the classical oriental music of Istanbul, Tsiftetelli, Karsilama, zeybek rhythms in different versions etc. But the relatively small time bracket of less than two decades when this music flourished, is not enough to explain the popularity of Zeibekiko as encountered today.


It is about then, when a small group of non-Smyrna originating young musicians formed a band and started performing in public and recording musical records. The leader was the legendary Markos Vamvakaris from the island of Syros, central Aegean, and three more musicians, all from the broader Aegean region. They all were based in Piraeus, the port of Athens, and all played string instruments with plectrum: Markos on the bouzouki, an instrument long established in mainland Greece, accompanied by baglamas, the smaller brother of bouzouki, and by a guitar.


Markos, who also composed the songs, had managed to merge two styles: the Asia minor influence which he knew very well, living very close to the newly created low level neighbourhoods for the tens of thousands of refugees in the Piraeus outskirts and – the bouzouki style created by him and the group. Very soon they became the stars of the record industry and the old Smyrna style rapidly gave place to the songs we know today as rebetiko.


And now we come to the point of interest for our paper: from all the rhythms and dances typical of the Smyrna school (cifte telli, kassapiko, carsilama, abtal zeybek etc.) Markos concentrated on two dances: Hassapiko and Zeibekiko. The latter however was his favourite. How come?


In his autobiography Markos remembers:


“During Carnival on Syros, we had the ‘Zeybek’ happenings. Turkish dances from Polis (Istanbul), Asia Minor, Thrace. Zeibekiko, Hassapiko, Serviko, Arapiko. Up to fourty people gathered together to prepare. Two months before, the dancing school would open and those not already familiar learned how to dance. They would also make suitable expensive costumes, pure silk shirts and heavy tissues. They would all pay twenty, thirty drachmas for the preparations: dance lessons, costume and the Laterna that would play for us to dance. Then, on Carnival days, we would go out performing. With heavy overcoats, heavy leather belts carrying all kinds of swords, knifes etc. that would be used when dancing. Nice things, I can tell you. And I had become an expert in Zeibekiko, which we were dancing as solo performance. We then danced two or three together on the Hassapiko, more on Serviko and our two Araps on Tsifteteli. But most of all I liked the Zeibekiko, even as a very joung boy I would dance it. Falling on the knees, the swords cross over on the ground, swivelling around, I would dance”.


It is clear that here we have a typical Carnival performance, a happening also

confirmed by an independent, purely scientific publication of the beginning of the century, where the “Zeybek” Carnival activities of Syros are described in exactly the manner Markos narrates of. We do not know exactly how and when the Zeybek and Hassapiko happenings arrived on Syros but we know that in the 19th Century the come and go from the Aegean islands to Smyrna was very frequent. However, the fact that all this happened during Carnival festivities is very important. It confirms that these dances (Hassapiko, Zeibekiko etc.) were not familiar within the Syros community but represented the “strange” and “exotic” element necessary for the Carnival performances, where one tries to imitate something he is not, something extraordinary and not an everyday activity. We also note that they were dancing to tunes from the Laterna, a sort of automatic piano, imported from Istanbul, since apparently the local musicians, who would otherwise be only too happy to play for people to dance, were not familiar with the tunes necessary for the performance.


By the time, several years later, that Markos encounters the newcomers from Asia Minor with their music and dances, he recognises the patterns of Zeibekiko and Hassapiko and realises that, not only does he like them but he is still a good dancer, too. So it appears as the most natural thing for him to take advantage of this and present a large repertoire of Zeibekiko pieces to the public.


We must stress here that Markos literally led the way, he established the new song genre and not without reason he has been named the “Patriarch” of Rebetiko. All the big names of Rebetiko that followed, have hang on him to develop the genre further. So his favourite dance, the Zeibekiko, has become (together with Hassapiko) the dominant rhythms of the rebetiko.


In the beginning, Markos has predominantly used the form which he himself calls the “abtaliko Zeibekiko”, that is the 2 2 2 3 pattern in all its variants. He also uses the 18 / 16 pattern sporadically, but in a rather quick tempo.





A small sample from an early Markos recording of a Zeibekiko in 2 2 2 3 pattern (Alaniaris, by Markos Vamvakaris, recorded 1934).





And a further one in 8 8 2 (or 18 / 16) pattern (Karadouzeni, by Markos Vamvakaris, recorded 1932).


The audience, in the beginning mainly Asia Minor refugees, recognise these patterns and dance their favourite steps, be it the Karsilama pattern or the classical zeybek patterns that they knew from their homelands in the western Turkish coast. Gradually, local Greeks from the mainland, not aware of the specific step patterns, try to imitate and a new dance is born: the Zeibekiko. A dance performed solo, by one dancer at a time, usually the one who has “ordered” the piece and will pay the musicians, a dance which is at home not in the central market place of the village but in the taverns of the city. The dancer will not bother if he knows little about the steps: he improvises, and new dance patterns start to form. The older 2 2 2 3 pattern gradually gives way to the 8 8 2 pattern, which becomes more and more popular. The dance tempo decreases with time, so that in the postwar era we have very slow and heavy Zeibekiko pieces, typical of the final form of rebetiko songs. We now have the urban Zeibekiko of the cities, starting of course with Piraeus and Athens, and it also has a name: Peiraiotikos Zeibekikos.





An example from the year of 1951 (Oso varia ein’ ta sidhera, by Georgos Mitsakis, recorded 1951).


All this started in the early 1930s, as already indicated. It continued in taverns and cafes in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Then, as already mentioned, the Rebetiko style gradually starts changing, as society changes too, and the experts place the end of the rebetiko era around the end of the ‘50s. But Zeibekiko goes on, with songs continuing being written even today. Of course, critics would say that today’s Zeibekiko is different than what it was perhaps fifty years before, but the important thing is that it is still there.


Thus, an originally ritual traditional dance from the mountains, belonging to the Zeybek family of dances, native in western Turkey and associated with war making techniques, gives birth to Zeibekiko, a Greek urban folk dance developed and cultivated in the big cities of Greece in the 20th century, centred around the personal expression of the dancer rather than the society, in a totally free choreographic environment. A dance born, developed and standardised in a time span probably less than half a century, but still much loved and performed in Greece and abroad, wherever Greeks get together, nowadays emancipated from the rebetiko song genre to stand on its own feet. And, most important: an evolution that has been left to develop entirely on its own, without any scholar or commercial intervention. A social and choreographical example of which I do not know a similar case anywhere in the world.

CV: Born in
Athens, 1942.  Worked as an Electronic Engineer until recently. Hobbyist musician on strings (Bouzouki, Lute).  Followed extensive lessons on Byzantine Music at the Simon Karras School, Athens. Researcher on traditional music of Greece in collaboration with the Dora Stratou Dance Theatre and the Institute of Rebetology (London).

Istanbul Musical Seminars

1 October 2005







Free Web Hosting