Dancing With Gender Roles: A Review Of ‘Dance And The Body Politic In Northern Greece’

Jane K. Cowan

Folk dancing is not something we may usually look at with great interest. It may seem outdated by today’s standards and little more than a simple cultural expression. But Jane K. Cowan, in her ethnography ‘Dance and the body politic in Northern Greece’ is an intriguing reminder of why dance customs are worth our attention. Cowan’s belief is that the ‘particularities of place’ as she calls them, can be seen through dance, and she goes to great length to prove that dance events can tell us about ethnic, political and gender divisions in a society. It provides a holistic view of a society through folk dancing.

The book focuses on the village of Sohos, a small town in Macedonia, in Northern Greece. Cowan’s study is the dance events that happen in the village and how they reflect (and at times, unconsciously enforce) the divisions and roles in a traditional Greek society. The ethnography puts a great emphasis on the gender roles and how they play a part in dancing, something that Cowan does a great job at analysing that. She looks, for example, at how men express their magkia (μαγκιά, a word that entails masculinity and virility) when dancing zeimbekiko, a famous Greek dance. She also juxtaposes this with feminine dances, which require composure. She also includes one case where a female social worker who lived in Salonica before coming to the small town, Aphrodite. Aphrodite was a victim of gossip about her behaviour during a dance, which was seen as ‘lascivious’. These juxtapositions are seen throughout the book, and are a great insight on how dance is a reflection of gender roles in society.

The book doesn’t just look at gender however. Here lies what I think is the greatest aspect of the book. Despite its emphasis on gender, the book uses the same methodology to shed light on every other aspect of the society of Sohos. The political divisions can be seen through dance events as different political parties attempt to make their own formal dances. It is fascinating to read how left wing Sohoians might look at a right wing formal dance event with contempt, even going so far as to call its participants as ‘capitalists’. Cowan is great at catching the little details that give critical information for the entire Sohoian society. We can see how people treat external influences in how they behave in formal balls, seen in Sohos as ‘European’ and ‘high culture’. This is an excellent example of intercultural interaction, and we can see it being relevant today. We see how people treat each other and how important sociability for this society. Even the way people treat the ethnographer, how they categorise her as an individual within the Sohoian social context is seen in this fascinating ethnography. All these aspects of life are seen through the social context of dance events, without changing its focus. This is the mark of a good ethnography. To show an entire society, its habits, its ideals and how they are enforced by looking at the details of life. It’s amazing how much we can learn about a culture through observing festive events. Despite existing as special moments and not part of routine, they can give us valuable information. This book pulls this off spectacularly.

This particular ethnography is a great example of ethnography done right. It may focus on one event, but it doesn’t stick to it exclusively. It allows for great insight in every aspect of a culture in a small town in Greece. It is a most extensive piece of work. And it deserves attention.