For those of us who have been raised with an intimate knowledge of our Indigenous culture, we know that dancing is an important part o our and many cultures throughout the world. For myself, hearing the sound of drums and the sound of bells and jingle dresses and the singing along the powwow trail begins at the first sign of spring and continues on well into the fall. We dance, because we can. We dance and sing and beat drums and it serves as an affirmation of life; our own heartbeat and the heartbeat of everything and everyone around us. People gather to dance and to sing and to celebrate the rhythm that permeates every aspect of our existence.
Dancing and music figure prominently in our religious and ritual practices as well. Dance is a meditation, it can send us into a trance and be a way for us to express emotion, ecstasy and connect us to the Divine. The truth of the matter is that dance has been a part of human history or prehistory around the world since probably before Homo Sapiens became fully bipedal.
The first great culture to really infuse its entire society with the magic of music and dance was that of Ancient Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians enjoyed life to its fullest and no celebration in Ancient Egypt would have been complete without music and dancing. At parties, singers and dancers performed to the music of harps, lutes, drums, flutes, cymbals, clappers and tambourines. During festivals, crowds chanted and clapped, carried along by the vibrant rhythm of Egyptian orchestras, while dancers performed amazing feats, leaping twirling and bending their bodies in time with the music. It was so important a feature of everyday life that musical instruments – frame drums, harps, clappers, sistra, and other instruments found their way into the tomb of those who passed to the Beautiful West and their entertainment in the afterlife.
Most of Egyptian secular and religious life was marked by the performance of music and dance. This important aspect of daily life of the Egyptians is depicted as early as the Pre-Dynastic periods. Ceremonial palettes and stone vessels indicate the importance that music had even in the earliest of periods. The importance of music in daily life in Ancient Egypt is underscored by the large number of musical instruments found in museum collections around the world. Of the several terms used in ancient Egyptian to describe dance is ib3.
In many banqueting scenes found within the tombs of the Ancient Egyptians, the banquets appear to be more secular. Shown in these scenes are an idealized rather than any actual event. The basic components of these scenes changed very little throughout Egypt’s history, until the New Kingdom. Around the 18th Dynasty, there is a marked change of character, in the song, dance and the overall “feel” of these scenes. At this time we see a marked sense of erotic significance. Lotus flowers, mandrakes, wigs and unguent cones, as well as men and women clothed in semi-transparent garments and the gestures of the banquet participants. Music, love and sensuality go hand in hand in most civilizations, ancient as well as modern, and in different spheres. Overall music is a major component of life, an important piece of both secular and religious life.
Dance was far more than just an enjoyable pastime in Ancient Egypt.During the Pre-Dynastic period were found depictions of female figures, perhaps of Goddesses or Priestesses, dancing with their arms raised above their heads. The act of dancing was undoubtedly an important component of ritual and celebration in Ancient Egypt. The Neolithic figurine of a goddess or priestess that currently resides in the Brooklyn Museum is commonly referred to as “the Nile Goddess” or “Nile Dancer”. The figure has arms that are raised above her faceless head like some sort of pre-historic ballerina. Her body is slender with ample breasts and broad hips. Some have speculated that her graceful limbs lifted above her head are to emulate the horns of the Goddess Hathor, who was the personification of the joys of music dancing, love and life itself. This particular piece of very early ancient Egyptian art has been an inspiration for many modern sculptures and art lovers just in its beautiful simplicity.
People from every social class were exposed to music and dancing. Manual laborers worked in rhythmic motion to the sounds of songs and percussion, and street dancers entertained passers by. In normal, daily life musicians and dancers were an important and integral part of banquets and celebrations. Dance troupes were available for hire to perform at dinner parties, banquets, lodging houses, and even religious temples. Some women the harems of the wealthy were trained in music and dance. Unlike today, however, no well-born Egyptian would consider dancing in public. The Nobility would employ servants or slaves to entertain at their banquets to a offer pleasant diversion to themselves and their guests.
Elizabeth ‘Artemis’ Mourat, professional dancer and dance-scholar categorized the dances of Ancient Egypt into six different types: religious dances, non-religious festival dances, banquet dances, harem dances, combat dances, and street dances.
There were certain ritual dances that were crucial to the successful outcome of religious and funerary rites. This is particularly true of the Muu-Dancers. These dancers wore kilts and reed crowns and performed alongside funeral processions. Funeral rites often employed or were based off of the Songs of Aset and NebetHet (Isis and Nephthys in Greek) and the retelling of how Aset searched for the body of Wasir (Osiris in Greek) and reassembled his dismembered form for burial and restored to eternal life through Her prowess and skill in magic. This period of singing, dancing, drumming and lamentation was said to last over a period of five days. It was through these rites that it is believed Roman mystery cults arose.
With the emergence of the cult of Wasir dance was a crucial element in the festivals held for both He and Aset, His sister-wife. These festivals occurred throughout the year. Dance also figured prominently in the festivals dedicated to Apis. Another deity that has been linked to dancing, is the Dwarf-God, Bes. He has been depicted in both reliefs and in statuary playing a tambourine and dancing, denoting the idea of using dance in order to drive away evil spirits. Images and amulets of Bes were often found in and around the birthing chamber for women who were giving birth. In these images, Bes is quite often shown playing a tambourine or a drum.
The act of dancing was inseparable from music, and so the depictions of dance in Pharaonic tombs and temples invariably show the dancers either being accompanied by groups of musicians or themselves playing castanets or clappers to keep the rhythm. Little distinction seems to have been made between dancing and what would be considered today as acrobatics. Many dancers depicted in the temple and tomb paintings and reliefs show dancers in athletic poses such as cartwheels, handstands and backbends.
Detailed study of the depiction of dancers has revealed that the artists were often depicting a series of different steps in particular dances, some of which have been reconstructed in the modern era. Movements of Egyptian dances were named after the motion they imitated. For instance, there were “the leading along of an animal,” “the taking of gold,” and “the successful capture of the boat.”
Men and women as a general rule and in the more conservative society that was Ancient Egypt were never shown dancing together. The most common scenes depict groups of female dancers often performing in pairs and more rarely, men dancing in groups. Dance was done in private chambers as well as public festivals and gatherings, in the streets as well as Temple rituals. The importance of dance has not lessened over the years, it has maintained and is carried on even today. Professional dancers, musicians and other performers, though they are often admired for the work that they do, are not often given a high status within society. Because they wander the country side often with men to whom they are not related, especially if they are women, this sort of behaviour is still rather looked down upon – especially within village societies.
There was a notion within early Egyptology that noblewomen or women of a certain class or caste would never engage in dancing except in private. The only exception to this idea were the dancers, singers and musicians that were dedicated to the service of a deity, for example. The dancers that are depicted within the ancient tombs are often described or depicted as being a part of the tomb owner’s immediate family. As a direct relation to the deceased then any taboos were lessened. Today, women may dance within the privacy of their own homes, or that of a family member, but never in public. It is a good idea that depictions in tombs were never intended to be viewed again by the living once they were sealed, and as such served as a private residence for the deceased.
Modern day bellydancing has a little resemblance to the graceful and acrobatic gestures that were a part of dance in antiquity. Because of so many external influences – the Greeks, Romans, and influx of other cultures over the centuries, not to mention that dance in Egypt as also influenced by the influx of Islam into the region. In spite of all of this, however, we can still see within Egyptian culture the idea of dancing just for the sheer love of it.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Most of this piece is a reworking of a section of my website, ‘The Ancient Egyptian Virtual Temple’, 1995 -2016, Copyright Christina Paul &Ma’at Publishing.
Manniche, Lise, Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt British Museum Press, 1991. Print.
Redmond, Layne, When the Drummers Were Women: A Spiritual History of Rhythm Three Rivers Press, 1997. Print.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995. Print.
Spencer, Patricia, “Dance in Ancient Egypt”, Near Eastern Archeaeology, 2003, p 111 – 121