Solo Dance in Archaic and Classical Greek Literature

Sarah Olsen, Solo Dance in Archaic and Classical Greek Literature: Representing the Unruly Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021). 9781108485036.

Reviewed by Jennifer Starkey, Unaffiliated,

Though dance has long been on the scholarly agenda, the focus is nearly always on choruses of various kinds. Olsen builds on this essential groundwork to explore the rare solo dancer, especially in Greek drama, though there are also chapters on Homer, Herodotus, and Xenophon. These “solo” dancers may perform truly alone, to the side of a chorus, or in pairs that are still marked out as separate from a larger group.

Olsen does not attempt to reconstruct any specific dance. Instead, she views dance as “a cultural practice and a literary motif” (3): that is, ancient authors drew on traditions of Greek dance for the sake of metaphor or to experiment with genre and explore different modes of communication. In her readings, solo dancers turn out to be isolated from their communities (willingly or unwillingly), vulnerable, eccentric, licentious, or even mad.

Overall, this book exemplifies sound and insightful philology. Its chapters strike me as quite traditional in their approach to the literature (which I take to be a strength) in beginning with a specific problem in a specific passage, analyzing its impact on an ancient reader or spectator, and expanding the discussion to other relevant themes of the text.

The Introduction discusses choreia, which will be used throughout the book as a benchmark for determining the possible meanings of solo dance. Brief examples from Iliad 18 and the pseudo-Hesiodic Shield of Heracles illustrate the interpretative potential of this approach. Though Olsen suggests that ekphrasis (literary descriptions of art) could point the way toward a methodology for studying literary descriptions of dance, she unfortunately drops this promising avenue without further consideration.

Olsen’s attempt in the Introduction to wrap some theory around the interpretations presented in the chapters is not entirely profitable. Most notable is her reliance on the word “unruly,” which is used frequently and insistently throughout the book. She borrows this term from scholarly work on corporeality, observing in a footnote “the remarkably wide range of academic and creative work that picks up the term ‘unruly body’ to refer to forms of corporeality and motion that cross boundaries, generate discomfort, or otherwise exceed the parameters of text and/or context” (2, n. 5). She seems to adopt this broad definition, using “unruly” to encompass anything that is somehow out of the ordinary. Solo dances are unruly by virtue of being solo in a context that prefers group dances; literary dances are unruly if they underscore the author’s creativity.

My objection to this use of the word stems from the fact that philological work regularly proceeds by investigating what “doesn’t fit” with the implicit assumption that the author has chosen to do something unusual in order to explore generic possibilities, unsettle the reader, and so forth. If that is all that is meant by “unruly,” then the term adds little to the conversation. In fact, it is confusing, since in any other context it carries a fairly precise sense: “difficult or impossible to discipline, control, or rule” (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed.). This works well for a solo dancer who is socially unruly in his refusal to participate in choral dancing or other communal activities (one of Olsen’s main interests), and it might be appropriate for a style of dance that appears uncontrolled, though in this case we have to bear in mind that the dancer himself is probably very much in control of his body. If the body itself is somehow fundamentally “unruly,” dance seems to be the medium that tames and harnesses it. Olsen’s redefinition of the word causes her to overlook issues like these and apply “unruly” equally to dance, the body, and even the process of describing dance in words—which quickly becomes bewildering for a reader who has the primary meaning of the word in mind.

There is also a sustained effort to set written or spoken language at odds with dance. This stems in part, I think, from the common scholarly dichotomy of text versus performance (the one set and enduring, the other particular and transitory) and in part from the indisputable fact that certain aesthetic experiences cannot be replicated in a verbal description. These are both worthy observations, but neither is the point that really needs to be made. Ultimately what Olsen means to do is explore dance as a literary motif, presented and characterized in different ways by different authors. If there is a methodological problem here, it is that a literary dance poses two layers of interpretation: the words that describe the dance (what do they mean? what movements do they indicate? how do they resonate with the language of other passages?) and the dance itself (what does a specific step or movement signify? what is its aesthetic impact?). As Olsen repeatedly acknowledges, the dance is beyond our reach, forcing us to rely instead on the words and how they guide our understanding of the passage in question. While they may not always align precisely, speech and movement are not opponents but simply different “languages” with their own strengths and weaknesses. Though Olsen’s readings show an awareness of this, the Introduction presents a starker view.

The first chapter, which was previously published in Classical Antiquity, is one of the best. It analyzes the dance of the Phaeacian princes Halius and Laodamas in Odyssey 8, a dance which features both men as joint soloists (μουνάξ) within a larger performance that includes a chorus and Demodocus’s famous song about Ares and Aphrodite. Olsen is particularly interested in the internal viewers’ reactions to the soloists and how this episode intersects with the tensions between Odysseus and his hosts throughout the Phaeacian episode. There is a good discussion of thauma (awe), which is the product of a sense of “doubleness” arising, for example, from a dance that also evokes something else. Olsen notes that the duet of Halius and Laodamas, while detailed and vivid, does not induce thauma as the choral dance does. I wonder if the performance ought to be credited with some other virtue (perhaps enargeia); regardless, I was disappointed that the question of doubleness never led Olsen to address the dance’s relation to the song of Demodocus.

Odysseus’s willingness to compliment the performers as a whole while virtually ignoring the soloists is read as part of a subtle political contest between him and Alcinous. Olsen puts this scene in contact with Odysseus’s arrival on the shore and his participation in the athletic competition to show that the Phaeacians, who delight in swift movement and leaping high in the air, are “frozen” and “flattened” by Odysseus’s visit.

Chapters 2 and 3 deal with tragedy, first the Io scene in Prometheus Bound, then the two actors’ monodies in Ion. Io is differentiated from the chorus of Oceanids in every way: wandering at the margins of the world, banished by her father, denied a complete passage into adulthood. The Oceanids, by contrast, appear in their father’s territory as a cohesive group of anonymous parthenoi. Io may seem at first to be a potential leader of this chorus, but she makes no attempt to assume that role, and the Oceanids observe a certain distance from her. Their partheneia is something that Io should have had and underscores her isolation and loss. The chapter then moves away from dance to movement on the broadest level, arguing that Io’s wanderings represent mortals’ ability to “make their way” even in a world ruled by divine caprice. For Io, corporeality equates with freedom, expressive capability, and even procreation, as she eventually submits to the “touch” of Zeus in Egypt. It seems to me that there is also a victory for her in the fact that her initial, violent rejection of Zeus yields gentler treatment from him later.

The monodies of Ion and Creusa are both taken as strategies to prepare for the play’s resolution. Ion’s scene is simultaneously banausic and Apolline as he dances through his chores while singing a paean that “blend(s) his past and his future into a single performance” (85). Olsen’s eye for significant detail remains keen: the song directs the audience’s attention from low to high, and the broom is described in metaphors that apply well to Ion himself. Creusa, like Io, experienced a sort of failed partheneia when she was taken alone by a violent god instead of leaving her agemates to join a husband in a proper ritual. Olsen argues that her song is an attempt to recreate that moment for herself with the chorus standing in for the one that she did not have many years before. For Olsen, this is Creusa’s way of coming to terms with Apollo and helps make sense of her sudden volte-face at the end of the play, which has troubled many readers. For my part, Creusa’s monody, like Io’s, highlights what Apollo took away from her: a formal rite of passage that cannot be redone.

Chapter 4 pivots to komos and the final scene of Aristophanes’ Wasps, while Chapter 5 contains shorter readings of three plays (Bacchae, Lysistrata, and Trojan Women). In the first of these chapters, some space is devoted to defining the relationship between komos and choreia. Both are communal activities, though komos allows for greater individuality within the group, and they diverge in their respective degrees of order and structure. While Olsen concludes that komos is a subset of choreia, the important thing for her discussion of Wasps is simply that Philocleon performs an outlandish solo dance that lays claim inappropriately to communal types of dance (both sympotic komos and tragic choros). Philocleon imagines that his performance is elegant, while Xanthias sees it as madness; the conflicting viewpoints underscore both the richness and the indeterminacy of dance as a means of communication. Olsen also suggests that this scene shows what happens when mimetic dance fails with its spectators. I don’t disagree, but I do wonder why Aristophanes would make a fairly obvious point about the risks of performative failure. Is he making fun of other poets who have had this experience? Is he pointing out one of comedy’s great strengths—the ability to “fail” and still be entertaining? The chapter closes with the intriguing observation that the chorus’s final lines raise the question of what might become of dramatic meaning and interpretative guidance if the chorus should be absolutely replaced by dancing actors.

Chapter 5 segues to maenadic dance, which naturally looks similar to komos. The main theme of the chapter, however, is madness. In Euripides’ Bacchae, Agave leads a chorus that is equally capable of good order and madness, but Dionysiac madness is meant to disrupt human society on a temporary basis only, while Agave causes permanent damage by murdering Pentheus. I do find it difficult to accept Olsen’s argument that the killing is “distanced” from a proper Dionysiac experience by the messenger’s narration. After all, the mad Agave still appears onstage with her son’s head, and we have seen Dionysus himself orchestrate Pentheus’s downfall. In fact, the god’s explicitly binary nature (“most terrible and most gentle”) suggests that such destruction belongs squarely within his purview.

In Lysistrata, the Magistrate’s description of one woman’s celebration of the Adonia characterizes female ritual activity as solo madness. While the audience would have known better, the women’s collective action over the course of the play serves as a corrective to this view, and when Lysistrata drops out of sight at the end, it is again in priority to communal activity and anonymous female choreia.

Finally, the frenzied performance of Cassandra in Trojan Women is her attempt at a hymenaeos, but the confused onlookers (Hecuba and the chorus) refigure her as a maenad, which they see as a “more contextually appropriate model of female performance” (144). In my opinion, this scene is marked by the incongruity of Cassandra’s hymenaeos amid the devastation of Troy more than any mismatch of language and movement, which Olsen also tries to apply here. More engaging is the wider discussion of movement and suffering in the play: Cassandra rushes around while everyone and everything else is static; Cassandra, a prophetess doomed never to be believed, “gains the space to speak” (146) by dancing—but still no one heeds her; as a type of self-expression, her dance becomes both trauma-induced madness and prophecy.

The final part of the book turns to prose literature, with Chapter 6 focusing on Xenophon’s Symposium (plus a short section on Theopompus) and Chapter 7 on Herodotus and the Anabasis. Since these texts were not accompanied by actual dancers, as drama was, the discussion moves away from the relationship between dance and words and concentrates more on questions of the narrator’s control over his subject. While I find this approach fruitful with drama (where multiple people were involved in the creation of a play) and epic (where the narrator may identify or share the spotlight with a hero like Odysseus), I confess to some discomfort with how it is deployed here. Olsen begins with the overlap between dancers and prostitutes, both of which exist along the same social spectrum, and moves from the objectification of the dancer for the entertainment of a male audience to the prose author’s exercise of control over the dancer’s body in his text. The problem, of course, is that the author controls everything in his text, so it is hard for me to see how a dancing girl stands out in this respect.

Xenophon’s Symposium (unlike Plato’s) interweaves philosophical discussion with dance, using the latter to prompt the former and suggesting a philosophical benefit from dancing, provided it is done with the correct frame of mind; Socrates and Philip offer opposing examples. A dancing girl’s performance while reading and writing collapses the division maintained up to this point between the dancers’ activity and the philosophers’ conversation. I am unconvinced that Socrates disapproves of the dance because he feels threatened by vocal and creative female participation in his philosophizing. Indeed, Socrates seems very much the kind of person to want to hear what wisdom a dancing girl might possess. But Olsen duly notes that his objection is based on the pleasure (or lack thereof) offered by this particular combination of dance and philosophy, which ironically reflects Xenophon’s own narrative style in the Symposium.

Theopompus recounts a dancing girl’s death at the hands of maddened seers after she was given a crown that had previously been plundered from Delphi. Olsen connects this anecdote with scholarship concerning objects that take action against their possessors. The girl herself is seen as such an object as well as a victim—both exercising power over the seers and the man who gives her the crown, and succumbing to the power of the crown.

In my view, Chapter 7 is the weakest, perhaps because it seems to have such potential. The first half deals with Herodotus’s account of the Spartan king Cleisthenes and his attempt to find an appropriate match for his daughter. Suitors are brought from all over Greece and kept in Sparta for a year until, on the eve of the king’s decision, one of the leading contenders, Hippocleides, performs a gauche dance and loses his opportunity for a royal marriage. Olsen explains well the flaws in Hippocleides’ dancing, including its inversion of more acceptable types, its mixture of styles, and its social ramifications.

The discussion started to lose me when it turned to political aspects of the story. Olsen compares the passage with a fable of Aesop, which does not apply quite as neatly as she thinks (and has textual problems that are insufficiently addressed). Following other critics, Olsen proposes that Hippocleides could be the real hero of Herodotus’s story insofar as he is able to defy a tyrant who has spent the past year “choreographing” his suitors; Hippocleides decides to pursue his own pleasure instead. This is an appealing suggestion but requires fuller support: Hippocleides makes no overt political point and is easily removed from the group for his insubordination. The observation that Hippocleides fits into Herodotus’s larger theme of the great becoming small and vice versa does not really clarify the historian’s attitude toward him. One feels, especially after the preceding chapters, that Olsen could have dug much deeper into the language and objectives of the Histories.

Finally, a series of dances in the Anabasis (group, pairs, and solo) emerges as a rhetorical strategy to persuade Paphlagonian ambassadors of the martial skill of the Greek mercenaries and intimidate them into making peace. My unease with this section again derives from the assumption that the author’s control over his text somehow matters more here than elsewhere. In this case, the dances come shortly after an episode in which Xenophon has been accused of mistreating his men. Though he successfully defends himself, the description of the dances, especially the last one, which is performed by a solo girl and marked off from the others in the passage, is supposed to reaffirm Xenophon’s authority. But military and textual authority are not the same, and some sort of cue is needed to guide the reader toward this interpretation of authorial control.

The Conclusion is a discourse on Lucian, both as a nod to later forms of dance like pantomime that are not treated in detail in this book, and as a convenient way of dwelling appreciatively on the strengths and interpretative potential of dance.

Though much of this review has highlighted my divergences from Olsen’s conclusions and occasional discomfort with her methods, the book is full of perceptive analysis and thought-provoking suggestions, which are what one really looks for in this kind of work. The text is marred by only the barest handful of typographical errors.

Table of Contents

Introduction (1–22)
1. The Fantastic Phaeacians (23–51)
2. Io’s Dance (52–72)
3. Dance at Work (73–99)
4. Dance and Dissonance (100–128)
5. Staging Madwomen (129–49)
6. Agency, Narrative, and the Dancing Girl (150–77)
7. Dance History (178–99)
Conclusion (200–209)


1. Could you discuss further what you mean by “unruly”? Is it simply a catch-all for activity (dancing, writing…) that isn’t quite “standard”? What does it mean for a body, a dance, or a description of a dance to be unruly?

For me, “unruly” has a couple of valuable and specific connotations. It implies disobedience, a transgression of social, cultural, generic, and/or aesthetic norms. I think it’s a useful word for how many of the solo dancers I discuss are depicted as deliberately rejecting and refiguring the expectations that govern dance performance in archaic and classical Greek thought. Hippocleides, Cassandra, Philocleon, even Io fall fairly clearly into this category. But in the sense that an “unruly body” is one that breaks “the rules,” I find it to be a productive phrase for describing how even less obviously transgressive figures (e.g., Ion, Halius, and Laodamas) are also testing and expanding the boundaries of form, genre, and normative Greek dance. I also want to acknowledge that I only cite a very small sample of the contemporary artistic and theoretical work that deploys the notion of an “unruly body”—it’s a term used in important ways within feminist and disability studies, for example. In that sense, I use the phrase to mark how the dancers I discuss are often socially marginalized (especially by gender and class; cf. Chapter 6), although as characters in ancient literary texts (not real, present-day people), the force of that marginalization is obviously distinct.

2. How would you interpret the song of Demodocus in Odyssey 8 in the context of its accompanying dances? Does the song contribute to the meaning of the dances? Or should we read the dances and the song sequentially and separately—the way they are presented in the text?

As many have observed, Demodocus’s song advances a set of themes central to the Odyssey itself: marital (in)fidelity, the surveillance of the gods, and the eventual triumph of the trickster. We might see the song, especially if it is combined with the choral dance (a contested but possible reading), as a further act of reconciliation after the rather disastrous athletic contests. But if the song, like the choral dance, ameliorates the conflict by comforting or flattering Odysseus, the dance of Halius and Laodamas still stands out (perhaps all the more) as a way of reasserting a set of qualities particular to the Phaeacians. In short, yes, I think all of these performances inform one another, and we should also expand our view to consider images of performance that occur slightly beyond them (Nausicaa as dancer, Demodocus’s singing elsewhere).

3. Why do you think Aristophanes draws attention to the possibility that mimetic performance might fail? Does that tie in with other themes of the play, or does he have some other agenda here?

I’m inclined to see Aristophanes’ exploration of mimetic failure in Wasps as part of a broader interest in theatricality and the bounds of drama. We are, perhaps, more used to considering these questions in relation to explicitly metatheatrical plays like Women at the Thesmophoria, but I think there has been increasing attention to Aristophanes’ aesthetics and staging of failure, and I hope that my reading of the end of Wasps can add to that conversation. I didn’t push this angle much in the book, but it could also be productive to reflect further on how the possibility of mimetic failure might inform or intensify the play’s fundamental critique of jury service and judicial theatricality.

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