Dance and Dancers in Ancient Egypt
By Marie Parsons
Music was a lucrative career open to both men and women in ancient Egypt. Musicians and dancers could work freelance or be permanently attached to an estate or temple. Leisure hours were filled with singing and dancing, as farmers danced to give thanks for good harvests, and all-female song and dance troupes were standard entertainment after dinner.
A suitably gifted woman could choose an honorable career as a dancer. In the Old Kingdom period the female performing duo of Hekenu and Iti, were commemorated in the tomb of Nikaure, who was an accountant. Although secular dancers appear on the walls tombs at this period, and these two dancers may have delighted Nikaure during his lifetime, this celebration of specific dancers was unheard of. But it does indicate the popular standing in which dancing was held.
Dancing was an accepted part of life, a part of religious ritual even before it became secular. The Dancer of the Muu was enacted at funerals by male dancers wearing tall head-dresses made of reeds. The Sed-festival, the Opet Festival, Processions of the Sacred Barques, and other festivals, were all accompanied by dancers. A chant from the Temple of Hathor at Dendera even goes: "The King comes to dance, he comes to sing. Sovereign lady, see how he dances, Wife of Horus, see how he leaps."
Women who danced (and even women who did not) wore diaphanous robes, or simply belt girdles, often made of beads or cowrie shells, so that their bodies could move about freely. Though today their appearance may be interpreted as erotic and even sensual, the ancient Egyptians did not view the naked body or its parts with the same fascination that we do today, with our sense of possibly more repressed morality.
The movements of the ancient Egyptian dancers, particularly the women, are called by scholars such as J. Gardner Wilkinson in his 1837 essay, and by Eugen Strouhal in his book Life in Ancient Egypt, "elegant, graceful, even acrobatic." A classic painting shows a lithe female doing a splendid backbend with apparent ease.
Nothing is known of the kind or extent of the training that professional male and female dancers received, though training probably began in early childhood. Reliefs on tombs and temples show dancers running, leaping, pirouetting, sinuously bending, with weighted hair-plaits swinging side to side, using tambourines.
One scholar classifies ancient Egyptian dance into several categories.
1. The purely movemental dance. A dance which was little more than an outburst of energy, where the dancer and audience alike simply enjoyed the movement and its rhythm.
2. The gymnastic dance. Some dancers excelled at more strenuous and difficult movements, which required training and great physical dexterity and flexibility. These dancers also refined their movements so as to move delicately.
3. The imitative dance. These appeared to be emulative of the movements of animals, only obliquely referred to in Egyptian texts while not actually being represented in art.
4. The pair dance. Pairs in ancient Egypt were formed by two men or by two women dancing together, not by men dancing with women. The movements of these dancers were executed in perfect symmetry, indicating, at least to the author of this treatise, that the Egyptians were deeply conscious and serious about this dance as something more than just movement.
5. The group dance. These fell into two sub-types, one taking place took place with perhaps at least four, sometimes as many as eight, dancers, each performing different movements, independent of each other, but in matching rhythms. The other sub-type was the ritual funeral dance, performed by ranks of dancers executing identical movements.
6. The war dance. These were apparently recreations for resting mercenary troops of Libyans, Sherdans, Pedtiu (peoples who formed parts of the so-called Sea Peoples) and other groups.
7. The dramatic dance. From the examples used herein, the author is considering a depicted familiar posture of several girls as being performed to commemorate a historical tableau: a kneeling girl represents a defeated enemy king, a standing girl the Egyptian king, holding the enemy with one hand by the hair and with the other a club.
8. The lyrical dance. The description of this dance indicates it told its own story, much as a ballet we may see today. A man a girl dancer using wooden clappers which gave their steps rhythm danced in harmonious movement, separately or together, sometimes pirouetting, parting, and approaching, the girl fleeing from the man, who tenderly pursued her.
10. The funeral dance. These formed three sub-types. One was the ritual dance, forming part of the actual funeral rite. Then there were the expressions of grief, where the performers placed their hands on their heads or made the ka gesture, both arms upraised. The third sub-type was a dance to entertain the ka of the deceased.
No notation has yet been found, if any in fact existed, to provide information as to how the dances actually were performed. Perhaps as more texts, reliefs and paintings are uncovered, more information will be found.
- Women in Ancient Egypt by Barbara Watterson
- Daughters of Isis by Joyce Tyldesley
- Ancient Egyptian Dances by Irena Lexova