06/24/2011 09:19 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'Opa!' The Cathartic Value of Greek Dance

In one of the most memorable and meaningful scenes from the Academy Award-winning movie, Zorba the Greek, the title character, Alexis Zorba, (played by Anthony Quinn), is asked by his uptight, existentially-challenged boss, Basil (played by Alan Bates) to teach him how to dance after their mining venture literally collapses at their feet. With a look of surprise, the spirited Zorba responds with the words, "Dance? Did you say, 'Dance?!'" The movie famously ends with both men dancing enthusiastically on the beach. See it for yourself!

The film's music, especially the main song, "Zorba's Dance," is well-known in popular culture. Among other things, this song has been used at various athletic events for years to incite crowds to root for the home team -- for example, the New York Yankees use it regularly. Indeed, just thinking about this inspirational song makes some people want to dance like Zorba! If you don't believe us, we recommend you watch the award-winning, short animated film, "Mariza," produced by our dear friend and colleague, Constantine Krystallis. We promise that "Mariza" will not only get you in the mood and spirit of Zorba but also will show you, in a very creative and entertaining way, something about the deeper meaning of music and dance in Greek culture, including its role as a way to manage stress and build resilience. Take a minute to watch "Mariza."

The image of the dancing Zorba mythically captures a spirit of life that is uniquely and "typically Greek." Indeed, there is no question that dance is vitally important in Greek culture. Communal dancing appears on ancient Greek vases and in Byzantine frescoes. Greek dance is believed to have begun in the Minoan culture on the island of Crete, which remains one of the most dance-happy places in Greece. Before long, there were dancers all over Greece. Spartans danced before battles, women danced to honor the goddesses and all sorts of dances were performed at ceremonies, like weddings. For centuries, infectious Greek songs have lured listeners to dance -- to celebrate happy occasions, bond together in wartime and even express loneliness.

Another one of our colleagues, social anthropologist Patricia Riak, underscores that one of the reasons why dance is so important is that it provides a level of engagement and expression that is more powerful than listening to music alone. According to Dr. Riak, Greek dance, in particular, is an important correlate and determinant of kefi (κέφι). Centering on a social activity that engages the relationship between self and collectivity, kefi translates into a cathartic expression of the human spirit.

Put differently, kefi expresses the emotional and moral center of a person, which is best represented by the heart. Importantly, the natural predisposition of the human heart is realized most profoundly within the collectivity -- that is, when a person is in relationship to others (the "O" in OPA!). Only when a heart achieves its natural state of kefi is a person truly able to extend beyond the self and create an emotional bond with others. In this connection, authentic friendship, or filia (φιλία) in Greek, can be viewed as the social manifestation of kefi! Besides being a physical and emotional outlet, dance, in other words, represents the unleashing of one's spirit -- one's "inner Zorba the Greek" -- along with the integration of mind, body and spirit at the same time.

During dance, the social bonds among men and women, along with the heightened emotions creating and sustaining kefi, are authentic and transparent. The dancers share cultural expressions in an environment where the whole truly becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The social value of dance, in this context, is priceless as each person becomes an accepted and connected member of the collective. Physical expressions of the act of "giving a gift" in appreciation of the social and symbolic value attached to Greek dance, as well as to the associated experience of kefi, are commonplace. We're sure that most readers are familiar with plate-breaking and throwing money on the floor as expressions of appreciation and pleasure for dancers experiencing kefi (at least on film)! Both for dancers and observers alike, this kind of gifting can definitely be described as a heightened sense and experience of what Greeks commonly call "Opa!"

Now, what about you? What kind of "dance" are you practicing in your life? In your work? How does the "dance" help you discover the seeds of meaning and engage with the deeper purpose (the "P" in OPA!) that represent your life?

"Dance? Did you say, 'Dance?!'"

Dr. Alex Pattakos and his partner, Dr. Elaine Dundon, are the co-founders of The OPA! Way® lifestyle of "Living Your Inner Greece!" which means living all of life to the fullest with enthusiasm and meaning. You can find out more about Dr. Pattakos, author of the international best-selling book "Prisoners of Our Thoughts," and Dr. Dundon, author of the international best-selling book, "The Seeds of Innovation," in their full bio.

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