The Greek tavern scene

American movies have an archetypal ‘tavern’ scene that originates in westerns.  A usually armed protagonist walks into a tavern, sizes up the customers, and then at some point a conflict arises, usually involving guns.  After the gun smoke clears, the protagonist is the only one left standing, tough and invincible.

Greeks have an archetypal tavern scene as well, but it goes something like this.  A protagonist (possibly wearing a blazer, often over only one or both shoulders, but often not actually ‘on’ in the proper sense) goes into a tavern where there is a small band made up of musicians who sit (never stand!) at small stage at the front, or at a table.  The protagonist, looking depressed and melancholy, sits down in the corner and is given a short glass half-filled with hard liquor or white wine.

The band begins to play a song (perhaps one specifically requested by the protagonist) in 9/4 time. Then at some point, the protagonist is compelled to dance, and so he does, all by himself in the middle of the tavern floor with his arms outstretched. At the end of the dance, the protagonist may lay his head on the table, yell, slump back in his chair, smash something, or all four in no particular order.

Below are some examples from film and TV

Example 1. Here Yiorgos Xidaris (a well known musician) plays the archetype perfectly, though his dancing leaves something to be desired.

Example 2. The dancer here has already shed his coat.  Note that while he has an audience, the dance is not a performance, but a private affair between dancer and the music.

Example 3.  The band is electrified, which makes the sound less authentic.  Maybe that’s why a fight breaks out?

Example 4. This dancer has a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

Example 5.  An example from a well known Greek film, but without the band.

Example 6. A woman is doing the dancing as the protagonist agonizes.  The singer in the video is Grigoris Bithikotsis, a very well known performer.  The music for this song was composed by Mikis Theodorakis (who also wrote the music to Zorba the Greek).

Example 7. Finally, here is a funny commercial that perfectly captures a tourist’s attempt at the tradition.

The protagonist in these films and television shows is often a bit of a bad boy, loosely modelled on the manges (pronounced ‘muhn-guess’) found in rembetika music.  The manges is a stylish rebel: tough, usually armed, in trouble with the law and living life to the fullest. The dance is the zeimbekiko, which is derived from the Turkish zybek dance, though the Greek version is less formal and more improvised than the Turkish version.

Were they ever to fight, the cowboy from American tavern scene would probably win.  For all his toughness, the manges is motivated more by his passions of love and loss than the revenge or desire to keep order that motivates American movie protagonists.  The manges gets drunk, dances and falls asleep, his knife sheathed, his pistol unshot.

But have you ever seen a cowboy dance?