Kalymnos, like many of the Aegean islands, looks to the sea more than to the land. The two most popular dances, Sousta and Issos, reflect this maritime orientation – the dancers bob up and down like boats tied up in the harbor, moving their feet like the tides as the line of dance goes in and out, gently, but inexorably. These two dances, often the first running into the second, are standard on the Dodecanese islands, with each island giving them its own stylization. On Cheesefare Sunday (Κυριακἠ της Τυρινἠς) in the village of Chorio (Xωριό) in the courtyard of the church of Panagia Kecharitomeni, the women in their “kavadia” can be seen dancing an Issos called the Forgiveness Dance or Sygchorio (Συγχώριο). This traditionally follows the vesper service, and is led by the priest.
The Thymariotikos dance, which is traditionally done by men, represents the shepherds of Kalymnos. Named for the wild thyme that grows all over the island, the dance requires the men to grip each other’s shoulder and step rhythmically, but not heavily, as if they were stepping on air.
There is no dance more symbolic of Kalymnos than the dance known as Michanikos. Theophilos Klonaris choreographed this dance in 1952 to honor the oldest and most important profession on the island – the sponge diver. For millennia, the men of Kalymnos have plunged to the ocean floor to harvest the sponges that live there. The brave men developed techniques for deep diving that modern free divers still use today, including hyperventilation, meditation, and work-up dives.
During the 19th century, the dive-suit, known as the “skaphandro,” was introduced to the Dodecanese, which allowed the men to dive deeper and stay underwater longer and to harvest more and more sponges. But the advancement brought tragedy as well as profit. Because the men were accustomed to the techniques of free diving, they did not know about the dangers of diving too deeply, staying underwater too long, and coming up to the surface too quickly.
Many sponge divers became paralyzed, or died, because of illnesses related to unsafe techniques. Even when proper safety techniques were introduced, men still pushed themselves too far in order to satisfy the demand for sponges.
In the Michanikos, the lead dancer uses his body to tell the story of an old and disabled sponge diver. As he dances, he shows the ravages of the depths on his body by shuffling, leaning on a cane, and even collapsing entirely. But every time the dancer falls down, he leaps back up again, in memory of his youth and the joy of the dance.
The Kalymnians refer to the Michanikos as the representative dance of their island. Even though it has not been handed down through the passage of time as a traditional dance, it nevertheless allows them to remember and respect the focal life of the island, the honored profession of their fathers and forefathers. On the one hand it reenacts the pathos, the suffering of mind and body, the sorrow the islanders feel due to the loss of health, and even life, bound to continuing their lifework; the days, nights, months and distances at sea, with loved ones at home not knowing their fates. On the other hand, it reenacts the exuberance of the life that fate has given them as they dance as islanders and Greeks!
Ntirlanta is the traditional ‘working’ song of Kalymnos. This song was a favorite of the sponge divers, who used it to encourage each other during their hard and dangerous work. The up-beat rhythm and playful – even bawdy – lyrics probably aided people during all types of work, whether they were spinning wool, pressing olive oil, or even rowing boats. The song is begun by a leader, who gives us a verse, and then the rest of the group sings the chorus ‘ntarla ntirlantanta.’ The dance is very simple – we dance in couples, skipping in time to the music.