Ancient Roman Dance:

Reagan Noelle Kowert

The Colosseum: The Flavian Theater built 70 to 80 A.D.

Ancient audiences' reactions to dance were so profound and powerful, that laws were enacted several times to prevent the aristocracy form performing.  In fact, the biggest riots of the period were caused not by gladiator fights, but over immensely popular pantomime competitions.

Pantomime Ruled:  Original Greek performances were primitive but as the Romans adopted their conquests art form, pantomime was transformed to a lavish spectacle.  Pantomime eventually resembled today's high opera and was wildly popular, ruling the stage for six hundred years.  These dance performances suited for the enormous Roman theaters and their multi-lingual audiences.  the visual language of pantomime translated to eery corner of the Roman Empire and helped spread Greek mythology.

Masks Roman aristocracy avoided the laws and society's moral disdain, by performing anonymously in masks.  In a pantomime, mute dancers perform in masks to a chorus' libretto and flute or orchestra.

In ancient Rome, huge investments of time and none were made in the theater.

Dance Dance Dance

Performers had many opportunities to dance on stage, as there were over two hundred holidays each year, and most performances were during holiday celebrations.

Frequently, pantomimes danced at elaborate parties on floating party barges.

The Pantomime.

The dancers relied on gesture and odd movement to delineate a story, usually a Greek mythology.  Performances were long, with grand costume and mask changes.  Jumps, leaps, freezes, and gymnastics were exact, athletic, and formally choreographed.  Performers' hand movements were extremely important, and this "talking with the hands" was called "cheironomy".

Mum's the Word.

It is a sad irony that today none of the silent dramas survive from ancient Roman tines, but many of the theaters do.  Perhaps the silence of the performers art form and the dancers' class and literacy did not create a climate for the preservation.  More, there was no real means to recored the pantomimes' complicated movements.  Even in modern times with video, the intricacies of famous choreographies are still passed from dancer to choreographer to dancer.

In creating the masks, I first researched what the ancient Roman masks looked like and how they were constructed (Slater). The few surviving masks are in museums, and most are clay sculptures. I chose an inexpensive plastic mask to use as a base. I chose a paper clay product, because I hoped when the masks dried they would be sturdy and light enough to wear for the performance. For each mask, I picked an ancient mask to use as a model. I placed a thin layer of clay on the plastic mask building up heavier amounts for the nose, mouth and brow. Eventually, I shaped the face of each mask with my fingers. To refine each visage, I used sculpting tools. I used a paintbrush and water for most refining. Each mask had to be dried overnight. I used acrylic paint, because it has pigment, dries quickly, and can be thinned with water. Of course, thinning the paint with water softened the clay. So, I had to be careful not to ruin the sculpted masks, and I had to let it dry thoroughly. Once dry, I had to augur holes and thread ribbons and the masks temples. The ribbons had to be sewed well, because I did not want the masks to drop and break while the performers danced. I worked daily on the masks, and it took at least three hours to sculpt, paint and assemble each mask.

In choreographing and performing a short pantomime with my dance company, I came to understand why the performers were silent. The masks are stifling, and they limit a performer’s ability to be heard. Also, aristocrats seeking anonymity did not give their identities away with their voices. Additionally, it was difficult to dance athletically in the masks. If my group were performing this as a troupe repeatedly, I would make newer, lighter masks, or we would practice to become adept with the current masks. My pantomime troupe includes Ashley Norwood, Alexis Stanley, Sydney James and me, Reagan Kowert. It took approximately two hours to choreograph and perform this dance with my troupe. My masks have the intense expressions of emotion and smaller eye holes as the earlier pantomime masks of ancient Rome, when the dancing was less athletic. The later pantomimes used lighter masks, larger eye holes for air, and more athletic dancing

Pantomime is the historical precursor of modern ballet. In today’s dance, too, performers do not sing or talk. Performers leap and pirouette to music, expressing emotions through movement just as the ancient Romans did. And, although the exact dances of the ancient pantomimes were not passed to this generation, particular dance movements, mute story-telling, stagecraft and audiences were.


Beacham, Richard. The Roman Theatre and its Audience. Harvard, 1992. 116-153. Print.

Coldiron, Margaret. “The Body and the Mask in Ancient Theatre Space: Perceptions, Coincidences and Diversions.” Didaskalia, vol. 6:4 (Winter 2007). Print and Online.

Hall, Edith and Wyles, Rosie, New Directions in Ancient Pantomime. Oxford, Oxford Scholarship, 2008. Print.

Hartmut Leppin, Histrionen. Bonn, 1992. Print.

Slater, Walter J. Pantomime Riots. New York: Penguin, 1987. Print.

Slater, Walter J. “Pantomimes: Beyond Spoken Drama. Didaskalia, Volume 10:3 (Winter 2012). Print.

Starks, John H. “Pantomime Actresses in Latin Inscriptions.” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Apr., 1994): 120-144. Print.

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