It is difficult to dance the zeibekiko, mainly because it has no set steps, no particular rhythm. It requires an inner intensity, because it is an improvised dance that expresses the feelings of the individual who gets up to dance.
And they are mainly feelings of defeat, of sadness, life’s despair and unfulfilled dreams, the bad luck you see coming, the dark at the end of the tunnel. After all its origin is in Asia Minor, the place of displaced Greeks, a homeland long lost, along with lives and fortunes. So, it is almost a religious experience not to be taken lightly.
As in all religious experiences through time, a little help is needed, mainly from alcohol. The dancer is usually at least slightly intoxicated which explains how those inner feelings show in the dance.
Originally, Zeibekiko was strictly a man’s dance. A real man is not embarrassed to manifest his pain or weaknesses. He ignores social conventions and shallow condescension. He will pick the song and the lyric that expresses his personal situation or state of mind. So, he is the one to pick the song and take the floor to dance, in a small place, humbly and with dignity.
A real man will dance the zeibekiko only once, he will not monopolize the floor in front of the band. The song he chose expresses his deep hurt and this is the one he will dance to, by himself and with his demons. Like a man who faces the abyss.
It is important for the real zeibekiko ritual that the man is alone on the floor. He doesn’t need women or friends to clap along as he dances. It may take two to tango, but only one to dance the zeibekiko. It is not a social dance, no one will dance it during a celebration or a feast. It is a personal moment, like the time of prayer, and his friends and significant other must know and respect that. And, of course, no stranger is allowed to come close. It is an insult to interrupt a man who dances the zeibekiko. People have been killed or knifed for interrupting a zeibekiko dancer.
Zeibekiko is a seasoned man’s dance, but dancing the zeibekiko does not make you a seasoned man. You have to be a tough guy, a “mangas”, to dance it. And getting up to dance the zeibekiko does not make a man a mangas. You have to have faced the hardships of life to dance a real zeibekiko. It is not a dance for the rich, or youngsters who live on their dad’s allowance.
The dance takes its name from the Zeybeks, a militia living in the Aegean Region of the Ottoman Empire from late 17th to early 20th centuries. It was first seen at the end of the 17th century in cities such as Constantinople and Smyrni. Originally it was like a war dance: two armed men facing one another. It later developed into an improvised dance for a single male.
In recent years in Greece, the zeibekiko has lost its true meaning and sheen. It is mainly a public show for men who want to prove they are real men. It is often that politicians, actors or other public persons who will get up and dance the zeibekiko in front of the cameras, but this is as far away from the real thing as a rich politician is from a homeless man.