It's getting late--really late--at a tavern somewhere in the Greek summer. The wine is flowing as freely as the ouzo and what you thought of as an overabundance of appetizers turned out to be the main course of an endless meal. Some time after midnight, just past the crescendo of noise and activity, a man approaches the band, slips the bandleader--often the man with the bouzouki--a banknote and whispers something. The musician nods and the man steps away.
A few minutes later there is a noticeable quietening of the crowd as the familiar notes of a song demand your attention. You recognise the song as the cue for a spectacle not seen far outside the Eastern Mediterranean. The man with the money is going to dance. And he is going to dance for himself.
The zeibekiko is a Greek dance originating on the east coast of the Aegean. Many Greek dances include a designation of origin in their name. This one's suggests that it originated among the Zeybeks, a tribe of Asia Minor that was known for its services as mercenaries. It was probably equally common among the Greek population of Asia Minor, particularly the area around Smyrna, which is near Zeybek territory. The dance was introduced to Greece proper by refugees from that area in the 1920s. Before its adoption by the Greeks, it was the Zeybeks' war dance so its ultimate origin is likely to be the steppes of central Asia. In its war dance form, it was danced outdoors and the dancers simulated the flight of hawks. The contemporary zeibekiko is usually danced indoors.
The Greek zeibekiko is a highly expressive, emotional dance performed by a solo male dancer, less often by women. Should a woman dance it, she is expected to dance it like a man would. The dance is closely related to the Turkish Zeybeği, which is a formal and scripted group dance that resembles the Turkic original. A similar group dance exists in Cyprus, where it is also performed by women.
The zeibekiko as a solo dance is entirely free-form, spontaneous, and given to displays of skill as much as that is possible for a dance that tends to involve a fair amount of alcohol. It usually begins with slow, circular movements resembling the hawk figure of the ancestral dance. This motion may be interpolated between figures for the entire duration of the act. Depending on the dancer's ability, it evolves into more elaborate figures and sometimes even acrobatics that involve objects such as glasses and chairs. Steps may be improvised or borrowed from any number of other dances.
A man will generally not dance this until late into the party and just as he begins to come down from an alcohol induced high. Such is the state of mind that suits this dance. Seeing this dance before midnight is rare, before sunset unthinkable. This does not mean that you can't see guys with no sense of style try to dance it at a public gathering in mid-afternoon. The accompanying music is usually heavy with a slow tempo and typically uses a meter of 9/8. Sometimes a semi-circle of men and women will kneel around the dancer and clap their hands to the rhythm. The dancer's gaze is fixed on the floor and his expression is intense. What sets apart the Greek zeibekiko from its Cypriot and Turkish counterparts is not just its group versus solo aspect. Most of all it's an extreme Dionysian abandon that contrasts strongly with the regimented war dance. The Zeybeği is danced by all before the battle; the zeibekiko is the soldier's personal tale of pain and glory, of triumph or defeat.
A zeibekiko dancer does not dance to impress, nor to consciously make a point. He dances purely for himself, in the strange mixture of deep introspection and flamboyant display that people in the eastern Mediterranean are capable of. The same goes for the lyrics to the songs which are often rembetika with themes of displacement, solitude or persecution. The music itself is remarkably compelling to dance to but only the best and bravest can actually pull it off, much like only certain individuals can take the lead in some ritual dances. Because it's not just about mood but also about timing, the context of the moment can differ from one song to the next. One dancer may be undergoing and expressing an ecstatic affirmation of life. Another may be asserting himself as a man to be reckoned with, in the skilled warrior aspect of the dance. Yet another may be communicating his passion, not necessarily directly to the object of his desire but more often in an abstract, shamanic sense. This does not mean the dance must be asexual--on the contrary, it can be as enticing as a peacock's tail. The zeibekiko is as free in its mode of expression as it is in its form.
There is a protocol to the zeibekiko. Adherence to it varies depending on the mood, as do the consequences for breaking it. While a brawl is a possibility, most sanctions involve Losing Face, which is generally a bad thing. The frowns from the audience should tip you off. Rule number one for a serious dance is that He Dances Alone. Taking the floor while another dancer is up is Very Bad Form. Close friends or the object of the dancer's affection may accompany him on a pass across the floor. Kids at jovial family gatherings are exempt. Rule number two is that you Do Not Interrupt. This is Rude. Rule three is that You Dance Once. If you didn't get it out of your system with the first song, you didn't do it right and you don't get a retry, at least not until you've waited your turn. Rule four is that the audience does not interact with the dancer except to clap the rhythm or offer a drink. The dancer may freely engage the spectators.
No applause is expected at the end and often it's not even appropriate. Sometimes, even in a crowd, it suffices that three or four people paid attention and shared the dancer's emotion.
The internationally best known zeibekiko is probably the instrumental known from the 1971 film Evdokia, known simply as "Evdokia's Zeibekiko" (To zeibekiko tis Evdokias), written by Manos Loizos. While, of course, staged for the film, the film itself is very naturalistic and the dance is only slightly stylised and presented in a tense, provocative setting to match the storyline. See it here. In another film (watch this in 240p) the dancer (an excellent dramatic actor) is mourning a close friend.