If you know Misirlou through popular culture, you may recognize it as the theme song of Pulp Fiction:
However, its true beginnings are a lot less violent.
In an article for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on May 15, 1980, Marcia Bennett wrote:
A professor of eurhythmics, the study of music through movement, Mrs. [Brunhilde] Dorsch [of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh] said she developed the misirlou dance with the help of a young pharmacy student who enrolled in her class in the mid-1940s.
The student was of Greek origin and attempted to demonstrate a folk dance called the kritikos without benefit of music.
“She told me there was no music for the original dance so I had to improvise,” Mrs. Dorsch says. The closest she could come to the tempo was an Arabian serenade called misirlou, meaning “love song.” The dance was modified by slowing the tempo and softening the motions, “and it took off,” she says.
The dance became popular with the university’s Tamburitzans who performed it around the world, including Greece. It seemed so at home on the Mediterranean peninsula that it was quickly adopted as the country’s own invention.
During a performance in 1962, guitarist Dick Dale accepted a bet from a young fan that he could not play a song on only one string of his guitar. Dale’s father and uncles were Lebanese-American musicians, and Dale remembered seeing his uncle play Misirlou on one string of the oud, a middle eastern instrument. He arranged Misirlou for one string of the guitar and increased the song’s tempo to turn it into a rock and roll piece. It was Dale’s “surf rock” version that introduced Misirlou to a wider audience in the United States. Misirlou was also recorded by the Beach Boys on the Surfing USA album, released in 1963.
I have a little bit of a connection with this story. My first three semesters of college starting in August 1970 were at Duquesne University. Music majors were required to take two years of eurhythmics to satisfy their physical education requirement. My teacher was Mrs. Dorsch, and folk dancing was part of her eurhythmics program. That was my first exposure to folk dancing.
Mrs. Dorsch was beloved for her annual Christmas party. She would instruct and call dances for us all night.
In addition to teaching at the university level, Mrs. Dorsch also taught Head Start and often commented that her preschool students were much better dancers than we were.
Mrs. Dorsch retired from Duquesne University in 1980 after 42 years of service.