Stanford scholar studies ancient Greek dance performances from the viewers' perspective

Stanford classics Professor Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi discovers how dance challenged both the imagination and the intelligence of ancient audiences.

Wikimedia Dancing maenad on ancient Greek vase

Through examination of classical sources, including cultural artifacts, classics Professor Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi investigates how dance performances affected ancient Greek audiences.

Stanford classics Professor Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi calls herself "an enthralled dance spectator."

A scholar of ancient aesthetics, Peponi's passion for dance fuels her current research, which investigates how dance performances impacted ancient Greek audiences.

"There is something absolutely enthralling about well-structured and harmonious bodily movement," Peponi said. "My own fascination as a spectator of dance prompted questions such as: Is there any way to explore what a viewer actually thinks while contemplating a dance performance? What exactly is dance as a visual experience? How do different cultures tackle these questions?"

Through an in-depth examination of classical sources such as archaic epic and lyric poetry, philosophical texts and visual artifacts, Peponi found that ancient Greek dance spectators developed cognitive faculties for watching, assessing and interacting with dance. The performances they saw were not just performed in the context of dramatic theater pieces, but integrated into religious rituals, athletic competitions, banquets and other kinds of venues.

According to Peponi, ancient dance performances demanded that audiences engage with the beauty of the performance on both intellectual and visceral levels.

In Western societies, dance and intellectual engagement have shared a troubled relationship. Yet Peponi's research reveals that the pleasure derived from watching dance generates intellectual contemplation via the imagination.

Peponi, who investigates these topics in her latest works, Performance and Culture in Plato's Laws and Frontiers of Pleasure: Models of Aesthetic Response in Archaic and Classical Greek Thought, said, "When it comes to dance, what is very particular is the way movement becomes aesthetically interesting and pleasant when it prompts us to imagine it in many different ways."

Peponi points to Homer's Iliad and Odyssey as examples.

In one passage from the Odyssey, Odysseus observes a spectacle of skilled dancers who gladden his heart: "He was looking at the sparkling of the dancers' feet and marveled."

In another passage from the Iliad, Peponi said, the epic poet was concerned not only with the technical prowess of dancers but more so with the transformative effects the dancing body exerts on the spectator's imagination.

Ancient audiences' response to rhythmic movement differs from that of the judges on the contemporary TV show Dancing with the Stars, where the experts focus almost exclusively on the technical execution of steps.

Unlike most dance entertainment in today's popular culture, in antiquity the most important aspect of dance is the audience's visualization of it, said Peponi: "The dance movement is the stimulus for the audience's creative visualization.

"By vision, I mean what is actually seen, and by visualization I refer to what is visually imagined. The Greek visual experience of dance is constantly enriched and deepened by various and usually complementary modes of visualization, of visual analogy. This movement, step, posture, gesture, dancer, costume, impression is like that that being some other movement, impression, posture, gesture."

Modern dance, ancient aesthetics

While trying to understand how visual perception worked in Greek and Greco-Roman cultures, Peponi found inspiration in the works of modern thinkers such as perceptual psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman and art historian Michael Baxandall. Peponi's study of dance and visual experience in antiquity has much to offer about questions that have been raised by these thinkers.

Beyond antiquity, Peponi has identified key modern dancers whose choreography elicits a comparable viewer response.

Two of the most celebrated pioneers of dance modernism, Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, are known for turning to Greek mythology and culture for inspiration. Yet Peponi finds more interesting associations between the ancient and modern in the work of a lesser-known but equally innovative choreographer, Loïe Fuller.

In Peponi's analysis, Fuller, an American modern dancer who performed in Paris cabarets and concert halls at the turn of the 20th century, revolutionized the visualization of dance for her audience.

Through Fuller's use of light, shadow and costume, her choreographic enterprises exploited the possibilities of perception. For both Fuller and the Greeks, Peponi said, dance was an art of metamorphosis, both visual and physical. "This [aesthetic] concern which we have in Fuller's experiments is absolutely relevant to the concerns of Greek and Greco-Roman antiquity," she said.

The kinetic malleability of Fuller's performances presents infinite possibilities to stimulate viewers' imaginary. Peponi has identified a similar shape-shifting aesthetic in the Greek poetry and prose of Pindar, Plato and Lucian.

"In Greek thought," Peponi said, "the dancer is protean par excellence, able to shape himself and change himself into anything – the liquidity of water, the sharpness of fire, the fierceness of a lion, the rage of a leopard, the quivering of a tree." Dance is always in flux and viewers respond to these shifting appearances, she said.

Fuller emphasized the dancer's ability to create lasting visual impressions more than pure mastery of technique, Peponi said, concluding that, in doing so, Fuller was closer to key Greek aesthetic concerns than other modern dancers of her era.

The power of beauty

Peponi's spectatorial approach to dance initiates a larger dialogue on responses to beauty in ancient and modern societies.

To illustrate the visceral charge of aesthetic experience, Peponi points to 1960s rock 'n' roll, where modern listeners bubbled over with excessive pleasure. The Beatles, for example, unleashed ecstatic responses in their audiences that recall Dionysian eruptions of raw, inner impulses.

In antiquity, one need only consider an inebriated cluster of maenads, the female followers of the cult of Dionysius. Bubbling over with enthusiasm at the presence of their god, the maenads erupted in ecstatic revelations and frenzied dancing.

Ancient Greek philosophers realized the explosive power of beauty, Peponi said: "To paraphrase Plato, beauty plunges into the innermost soul and seizes it most vehemently – our encounter with it can stir up and inflame our entire body and soul. … We are at the same time dazzled and soothed, intensely reflective while bursting with impulse. This is why I call aesthetic experience unsettling."

However, she added, "Philosophy after the 18th century, especially with Kant, tends to insulate the aesthetic and make it a restricted aspect of human experience."

But for Peponi, it is crucial to think about aesthetics in a non-restrictive way. "Aesthetic experience is not just intellectual," she said. "It involves our entire sensual apparatus, and so we have to be more inclusive when we talk about the aesthetic."

Moreover, Peponi suggests that Greek aesthetics enables us to better understand modernist perspectives on beauty. For example, in Marcel Proust's novel, The Search for Lost Time, the protagonist's erotic desire for his lover becomes entangled with his aesthetic contemplation of art and music. "Proust's understanding of the aesthetic is very inclusive … clearly he questions the insulation of the aesthetic," she said.

Across the ages, the concern about beauty harkens back to its overwhelming power. "Beauty is one of the most contested and unsettling areas of human experience," Peponi said.

Kathryn Dickason is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,