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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Misirlou (Μισιρλού): Folklore or Fakelore?


By Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin





Many people wonder how the Greeks of the diaspora have been able to maintain their cultural heritage and not forget where they come from. The answer is simple: through Greek Orthodox churches, community organizations and clubs, and other efforts to preserve culture.

Among these organizations, there have been weekly night courses in Greek language, history, and dance for the Greek Orthodox children of immigrants. I can proudly speak from experience, as I have grown up with all these factors as a first generation Greek Anatolian American and third generation folklore artist born to native Greek parents who immigrated to the United States.

While young Greek children are forced to attend dance classes by their parents, we see a remarkable phenomenon outside our community. There is actually tremendous interest for Greek folk arts among non-native Greeks. From Ancient Greek history, to Mount Olympus, to the Iliad, to the Olympic games, people around the world are obsessed, intrigued and mesmerized about Hellenic culture.

You can read as many books and travel to the country as much as you want. But, if you have never lost yourself in a Zeibekiko, done the Zorba dance, joined in earthy Anatolian Pondian dances, swayed your hips to exotic Tsifteteli beats or joined a Kalamatiano line… then you haven’t experienced the Greek spirit of Kefi. If you haven’t yelled OPA! during a moment of pure sweaty dance joy, then you don’t know what you are missing. Those that have danced like a Terpsichorean and experienced the ecstatic joys knew they couldn't keep this to themselves.

In North America, there are countless folk dance organizations that cater to non-ethnic Greeks and are not affiliated with Greek Orthodox churches. People of various ages and experience gather to learn not only Greek dances but also dances from the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Turkey, and other regions. Today these organizations invite natives with extensive experience to teach their regional dances. I had the pleasure of teaching to such groups, which was a breath of fresh air!

This was not always the case. When experienced natives were not available, folk dance groups did the best they could with the limited resources they could find. This brings us to a look at the history of the mysterious song "Misirlou" and the alleged "Greek folk dance" that Americans do to it and sometimes call Syrtos Haniotikos. But, is it Greek? Is it a syrtos dance style? Is it really Hanatikos or Kritikos (from Crete)?

But, is this dance to the song "Misirlou" (written in Greek as "Μισιρλού", sometimes written in English as "Miserlou") really a Greek folk dance? Or is it made-in-America fakelore?





My Story

During one of my ever-so-fascinating conversations with Shira, I learned for the first time in my life there is a famous “Greek” folk dance that is performed to the world-renowned song “Misirlou”, and that this dance is sometimes called “Syrtos Haniotikos”. Later, several other artists, including some Greek-Americans, confirmed to me that yes, in fact, this is true and it has been taught to Greek-American children as well.

For a moment, I questioned my own credibility. How is it that I, a third generation Greek Anatolian folk dancer (with ongoing training, study and research), born in the United States, don't know about this? I could not understand how I could miss that part of history. So, I did what any curious person would do: I began investigating.

I felt responsible for learning more about this dance, asking questions and seeking accuracy. I wanted to separate folklore from fakelore.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin (the author and lyrics translator of this page) poses in a traditional Macedonian folk costume.

The Story that People Tell about the "Misirlou" Dance

Many folk dance clubs, and sadly also some Greek-run organizations, teach a dance to the song "Misirlou". Often they describe it as being Greek. The dance is often used by these clubs to "represent" Greece in performances and audience participation environments. It would have been more appropriate to use a tsifteteli choreography for this song, because that is the rhythm. (Tsifteteli is the Greek version of Oriental Dance.)

This is the story that is usually told about the origins of the circle or line dance that many folk dance clubs throughout North American do to the song "Misirlou":

A folk dance group in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the United States created a line dance to the song "Misirlou" in 1945. According to this story, Professor Brunhilde Corsch at Duquesne University, a private Catholic institution, approached Mercine Nesotas to teach some Greek dances to this group. Nesotas wanted to teach the dance she called Syrtos Haniotikos (some sources say she called it Haniotikos Horos), but lacked appropriate music to use with it. This dance has also been referred to by some as Kritikos (Cretan).

American folk dance historians say that, because Pittsburgh's Greek-American community did not have musicians who could play Cretan music, a music student named Pat Mandros Kazalas suggested using the song "Misirlou". A few years later, Monte Mayo, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, taught this same dance to the song "Misirlou" in 1948 at the Oglebay Folk Dance Camp in Wheeling, West Virginia and it spread from there.

However, there are some errors in the above story.

  • There is no dance from Greece that uses that music together with those steps.
  • It's not from Crete.
  • The dance steps used are not a syrtos dance style.

The accurate part of this story is that in the 1940's people in North America borrowed steps from a traditional Greek island dance that had originally been done to other music, and adapted those steps to fit the song "Misirlou".

Read on for more details.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows the Duquesne University campus in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.




Crete? No, Rhodes!

For years, U.S. folk dancers have been incorrectly teaching that the dance comes from Crete. The word "Haniotikos" used by Mercine Nesotas to identify the dance steps she taught means "from the city of Chania in Crete", and the word "horos" means "dance". Another name that some folk dancers use to identify this line dance is "Kritikos", which means "Cretan." The use of the words in the origin story above incorrectly suggest that the step combinations used to create this dance come from Crete.

However, those steps are not actually Cretan. They come from the Greek island of Rhodes.

This video clip shows the original dance from the island of Rhodes whose step combination was borrowed and modified to create the North American "Misirlou" dance:

Another thing to consider: an authentic Cretan dance would use not use the song "Misirlou". Traditional Cretan folk music is quite different from this song. As soon as a dance is set to different musical rhythms and style from that which it originally used, the dance becomes something else.

The original Greek folk dance from which these steps were borrowed is known as Pidihtos Roditikos, which translates to "jumpiness from the island of Rhodes". Rhodes is part of the Dodecanese Islands, which means "12 islands".

In the original Greek dance from Rhodes, these steps have a much more bouncy, light and airy feel than the way North American folk dancers have modified them to use for dancing to "Misirlou". The Roditikos steps mimic the behavior of the ocean waves!




The Similar Dance Called "Never on Sunday"

Later, variations on "the Misirlou step" were used to create a second "folk dance" which North American folk dancers called "Never on Sunday." This dance used the song "Ta Pedia Tou Pirea" from the 1960 motion picture Never on Sunday.

However, the steps from the Pidihtos Roditikos dance are not appropriate for this song. The song from Never on Sunday is written with the rhythm that is used in the hasapiko folk dance, and therefore hasapiko steps would be the correct ones to use when dancing to it.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The woman in the photo is Melina Merkouri, the original artist to perform the song "Ta Pedia Tou Pirea" and award-winning star of Never on Sunday.

Melina Merkour



Summary of the Errors

A made-up dance created in the United States in the 1940's is now believed by many people to be a real Greek folk dance, even though it isn't. Here is a summary of the errors in what Americans think they "know" today about the folk dance they call "Misirlou":



Some refer to it as "Kritikos" or "Haniotikos", both of which imply the dance step comes from Crete. The dance step comes from Rhodes. Rhodes is an entirely different island from Crete, with entirely different dance and musical traditions.
Some people refer to the dance step as a syrtos variation.

The word syrtos means "to drag the line". This dance is not a syrtos because it has a section traveling to the left. A true syrtos step drags the line always toward the line of direction, to the right.

The music to which the dance is done is the song "Misirlou". Or, sometimes "Ta Pedia Tou Pirea" (from Never on Sunday).

The music used in Rhodes with this dance step is entirely different from the song "Misirlou". The rhythm is different, and the mood is different.

The song "Ta Pedia Tou Pirea" is also incorrect for this dance step. The correct dance to do with "Ta Pedia Tou Pirea" is hasapiko.

Greek folk dance researchers refer to the original Rhodes dance step as "pidihtos", which means "jumpiness". Neither song, "Misirlou" nor "Ta Pedia Tou Pirea", conveys a mood of jumpiness.



Why did This Happen, and Now What?

Why did this cascade of errors become widespread, and how can we do better in the future? Here are some things to consider:

  1. Access to accurate information in the 1940's was very limited compared to the resources available today. Travel was limited then, television did not yet exist, and the Internet did not yet exist.
  2. Just because an error was made in the past, we don't have to keep repeating the error today. We can:
    1. Teach our folk dance clubs to do tsifteteli to "Misirlou" instead of the modified pidihtos step.
    2. Teach our folk dance clubs to do hasapiko to the song from Never on Sunday.
    3. Quit telling people the pidihtos step is a syrtos variation.
  3. Remember that a person who is an expert in one area is not necessarily an expert in others. Academic credentials show that a person possesses depth of knowledge in one field, but their knowledge may be superficial in another. For example, a person with academic credentials in European symphonic music won't necessarily know enough about Greek culture or dance to make an informed decision about which music is appropriate for a certain folk dance style.
  4. Before re-teaching something you have learned at a workshop or dance camp, double check the accuracy. Double-check your notes, and look for credible written material on the subject. Look at second and third sources. Do some research. Ensure that what you teach is as accurate as possible. If you can't be certain of your accuracy, it may be better to not teach it until you can be.
  5. If you really like the song "Misirlou" and these dance steps, it's okay to keep doing this dance recreationally. However, please provide accurate information to the people dancing with you about where the dance comes from.
Question marks



A Word to my Fellow Greeks

Sometimes folk dance clubs are invited to teach and perform in the community. You might stumble on a group doing a fakelore dance at an international festival, a children's school, a nursing home, or elsewhere. The group might try to "educate" people by teaching them to do a fakelore dance, and repeating the incorrect "history" about it. You might be dismayed, amused, angry, or irritated at seeing your culture misrepresented by people who don't know any better.

Please don't laugh at these people or shame them. Remind yourself they have done the best they could with the information that was available to them at the time. In the 1940's, television did not yet exist, nor did the Internet, nor did home video. Resources were difficult to obtain, especially in communities that did not have an ethnic population. Folk dance clubs transmitted information through workshops and festivals, and qualified instructors weren't always easy to find.

Try to determine who is leading the group. Take that person and other group members aside, and gently explain that there are some errors with what their group is presenting. Point them to this article, or to video clips. Encourage them to come to dance or culture classes within the local Greek community. Try to invite them in. Appreciate their passion and love for your culture, while at the same time encouraging them to use that passion to overturn the incorrect things they were taught in the past.

It is disappointing that Greek folklorists have not engaged in large numbers with non-Greek folk dance groups to connect them more closely with actual Greek culture. Greek folklorists have been aware of the problems with these inaccuracies for many decades, but have not made a meaningful effort to establish rapport and guide people to more accurate information.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin models a traditional costume representing the folk culture of the island of Mitilini (also known as Lesvos). She is holding a ceramic handmade drum known as a toubi, which is indigenous to this island.



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About the Author

This page was contributed by Panayiota Bakis, who is happy to share her culture and music she grew up with! Here's how Panayiota describes her background:

I always love engaging with intelligent like-minded people, especially artists. I love sharing anything and everything about my Hellenic culture and upbringing, especially music and dance. A conversation with me will bring you back to America's favorite Greek-American movie by Nia Vardalos called My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

I love investigating Greek culture, history, music, and dance. Speaking of investigating, I think I missed my calling, I probably should have been an investigator. Instead, I use those skills to dig and dig and dig tirelessly, often times falling asleep on my laptop... just to find the truth. But, most importantly, accurate truth. For me personally, and other respectable folklorists, my culture and accuracy are very important. Each generation of ethnic born artists has a duty to do the best it can to pass down our traditions as was taught to us. We have been given this artistic gift to be the gatekeepers of our heritage and culture.




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