To Dance in Ancient Egypt

To Dance in Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

A modern belly dancer in Cairo

Party boats are small craft that cruise out on the Nile, usually for thirty minutes or as long as an hour, carrying typical Egyptians for a bit of cheap entertainment. Music blares loudly, and part of the fun is the spontaneous dancing. Women in modern Egypt seem to love to dance and it is said that every Egyptian woman knows how to belly dance. Moments of joy and leisure are evoked by dancing today, as they were in ancient Egypt. Dancing is perhaps the most straightforward expression of joy.

That dancing has a very long history in Egypt is clear from predynastic clay figures with hands raised above their heads and in some scenes with women in this posture accompanied by others shaking rattles on predynastic vessels.

The tomb of Iymery at Giza, showing what appears to be male dancers

Some of the most beautiful tomb scenes are of banquets with young dancing girls, particularly dating to the New Kingdom tombs at Thebes. Other scenes depicted throughout Egyptian history of dancing are all fascinating, particularly given the ancient Egyptian artist's structured approach to depicting their actions. We find countless depictions, within these tombs, of dancing that accompanied celebrations, feasts, religious services and funeral rites. Beyond these, there were also specialized dances of a military, dramatic, lyrical or grotesque character.

For the most part, dance groups consisted of either male or female, but not both. There is actually no known depictions of pair-dancing between a male and female. Within the performance, dancers could execute particular movements solo or in unison with one or more other dancers. However, all dancers were part of the same choreography even though they might execute different movements at the same time, just as in modern dance. There appears to have been no clear borderline between dancing and acrobatics or gymnastic performances.

Unfortunately, body gestures of the ancient Egyptians are not well understood. Undoubtedly, many of the dance movements had specific meaning, but alas, this aspect of Egyptian dance is difficult to ascertain. One must remember that the depictions are but a snapshot of a dance movement.

Surviving scenes of female dancers usually wore brief, open-fronted, or fringed, skirts or at other times, loose tunics (diaphanous in the New Kingdom) with shoulder straps. They were also sometimes simply draped in long shawls, or wore nothing at all except a narrow ribbon across the belly. From the muscular thighs of some dancers it has been inferred that they were professionals and indeed, they are mentioned under the name of khebeyet, particularly in the royal harems.

Detail from a banquet scene in the tomb of Nebamun at Thebes

The etymology of dance in ancient Egypt is rather confusing, and frequently of little assistance to us in understanding dancing during pharaonic times. Actually, the ancient Egyptian language contains no generic word, that we know of, meaning dance, just as there was no single word that exactly corresponds with the overall concept of art. From the very beginning, there were several words for dance, of which the most common was ib3 which might me properly translated as "caper". In writing the word, a game piece was frequently included in its hieroglyphics, suggesting that there might be some resemblance between the movement of the game piece and the dancer. Another common word usually considered to describe an acrobatic dance was hbi. The rwi, which may mean "run away", dance involved performers who frequently bear clappers ending with animal heads. Another dance, the ksks, perhaps meaning "twist", was practiced mostly by non-Egyptians or even animals. During the Old Kingdom, the trf dance was usually only performed by a pair of men. After the New Kingdom, a proliferation of new words appear, which only confuse matters. Though it might seem that each term would apply to a different dance, graphic evidence fails to confirm this view.

Frangment of a scene with dancers from the tomb of Kheruef at Thebes

Interestingly, tombs scenes bring into question the relationship between instrumental music and dance. In most cases, dancers and musicians, other than percussion musicians, are shown in different registers, indicating that their activities may not have been as related as we might think. Even when musicians and dancers are depicted in the same register, there is usually some element that separates the two groups. The only musicians directly associated with the dancers are those clapping their hands, using clappers or playing tambourines, drums, sistrums or other percussion instruments to beat out tempo and rhythm. Only very rarely are wind or stringed instrument players closely associated with dancers in the same scene. However, it must also be noted that typically, whenever musicians are found depicted, dancers are not generally far away.

More of a frangment of a scene with dancers from the tomb of Kheruef at Thebes

It is not surprising that the oldest records of dances in ancient Egypt are related to funerary practices. There could have certainly been many types of dances in the earliest times not related to funerals, but our best source of information from these most ancient of times are tombs. During the Old Kingdom, just after the mummification process was completed, dances were performed by a specialized group of ladies known as "the acacia house". Their function seems to have been the appeasement of the dangerous lion goddess Sekhmet and the rejuvenation of the dead. They were responsible for mourning the dead, but also celebrating the regeneration of the body. The dancers performed what is termed the "offering table" dance, which lured the dead, born to a new life, to his first meal. However, there were variations of this dance that did not always include the ladies of "the acacia house". There are scenes depicting other groups of women and even men, and a range of dances, particularly during the Old Kingdom, that are loosely associated with the dead sitting at an offering table. A group of dance performers known as the hnrt are known to be associated with childbirth ceremonies, but might have also been associated with funerals in helping the deceased enter a new life.

There were also dancers associated with the funerary procession. On the way to the tomb, those carrying funeral equipment and the statues of the dead were followed by dancers. At Beni Hasan, Middle Kingdom tomb scenes depict groups of dancers performing acrobats, looking more like circus performers than dancers. The images at Beni Hasan are particularly striking, though less vivid scenes also occur during the New Kingdom.

Copy of a wall painting with dancers from the tomb of Intefoker at Thebes

Also, a special kind or variant of the funeral dance dating to the Middle and New Kingdom was performed in honor of Hathor. It was characterized by leaping or skipping and was meant to celebrate the coming of that goddess. Hathor could represent the comely aspect of the dangerous Sekhmet, but she was also the goddess who met the dead at the entrance of the underworld. She was responsible for helping the deceased enter the underworld and was the main agent of their rebirth, so an appeal to her was recited or sung, accompanied by the clapping of hands and sticks and the use of other percussion instruments.

An acrobatic female dancer from a limestone fragment found at Deir el-Medina

Another group of funerary dancers were the mww (muu)-dancers, known from the Old Kingdom through the New Kingdom. In the less detailed tomb scenes, they danced once the funeral procession reached the tomb. They are distinguished by their special headdress, consisting of woven papyrus stalks. These identified them as marsh dwellers and, more precisely, as ferrymen. Their role was to symbolically ferry the dead across the waters leading to the netherworld, a route that lead from Memphis to Sais, then to Buto and back. In more sophisticated scenes, the dancers are depicted in a more complex setting that includes lightly built chapels, pools surrounded by trees and religious symbols. Such scenes appear to recreate on a small scale and near the tomb, the sacred precincts of this journey.

Detail of a dance scene from the tomb of Rekmire at Thebes

These dancers should not be confused with the dwarfs who danced "at the entrance of the shaft". Dancing dwarfs were known from the Old Kingdom and were prized for their rarity. The pharaoh, Pepi II, commended his official Horkhuf for bringing back a dwarf for "god's dances" from an one southern expedition. The dances performed by the dwarfs were only mentioned in text from the Middle Kingdom onward. The dances they performed were clearly farewell performances associated with the departure of the sun for its nightly journey into the underworld. Dwarfs were considered a representation of the sun, never growing old, because their size never hardly ever exceeded that of children. Dwarfs also danced at the funerals of the sacred bulls, Apis and Mnevis, who were closely related, respectively, to the rebirth of Osiris and the sun god.

Though most of our representations of dances come from tombs, and there is thus less documentation on non-funerary dances, this does not mean that they did not exist. Even in the tombs, we find depictions dating to the Old and Middle Kingdoms that appear to be set in the context of daily life. Nevertheless, these dances also undoubtedly had some religious significance. Banquet scenes represented in New Kingdom tombs brought together both the ritual and domestic sides of a family feast, where musicians and dancers performed. In these, food was much less important than wine. During these banquets, musicians sang happy songs while guest made toasts to one another for "long life". They drank until drunk, a condition that allowed them to communicate with Hathor, "the lady of drunkenness". These events offerings were frequently made to the gods of the necropolis or to Sekhmet, to satisfy them and keep them at a distance. Such banquets celebrated the present and allowed one to forget how short their lives were. Wise men such as Anii taught that one should celebrate in due time the feast of one's own god by a banquet to which family and other relatives are invited. He went on to say that during the feast, offerings should be made, music and dance should be performed, and one should drink until drunk.

After the New Kingdom, dance scenes in tombs virtually disappeared. This does probably not mean that funerary dances ceased to exist, but rather that the manner of tomb decorations had changed. In fact, mortuary texts of the Late Period confirms that dances continued to be an important aspect of these ceremonies.

Interestingly, dancing scenes in temples were only depicted from the New Kingdom onward. Of course, temples prior to the New Kingdom are very rare so there may very well have been older dancing scenes in some. The dancing in temples appears to concern both royal and divine ceremonies. We know, for example, that there were dancing activities during the jubilee ceremony, known as the sed-festival, for the king. This was a renewal event for the king, and we also know that dances were performed during religious ceremonies related to various turning points in the year which may also be related to renewal. The variations of dances performed on these occasions can mostly be explained by their religious context and by the way they had to conform to or reflect the local mythology of the god to whom they were directed. The common factor in most of the scenes depicting such dancers is the solemn procession of the sacred barks carrying a god.

As an example, during the Valley festival at Thebes, the god Amun left his temple at Karnak to visit the tombs on the West Bank, after crossing the Nile on his bark. Accompanying the priests who carried the bark over land were musicians and dancers. This festival took place on the occurrence of the new moon of the tenth month of the year. It is likely that families were probably awaiting the procession in the courtyards of the tombs, preparing the banquet, and rejoicing when the procession passed by. The procession proceeded to the sanctuary of Hathor, situated at Deir el-Bahri, where the deity was honored as a child-giving goddess and protectress of the dead. A vigil, where dancing almost surely took place, known as "the inebriation feast" was important on this occasion.

Another event was the Opet festival, when the bark of Amun was accompanied by much the same retinue on its way from the Karnak temple to the Luxor temple to meet his wife, the goddess Mut. One of the most characteristic features of these processions were groups of women executing acrobatic dances. In addition, dark and exotic dancers, perhaps Nubians, jumped and weaved to the beat of drums.

During the feast of Min, the god of fertility and regeneration, dancers specifically attached to his cult took part in ceremonies and processions. There were also dancing monkeys pictured, at least during the Late Period, although some scholars believe this imagery was symbolic. Monkeys are depicted executing farewell and greeting dances to the setting and rising sun, and priests of Min are sometimes shown dancing with monkeys. However, it is very likely that much of this activity did not actually take place as represented.

In all of these ceremonies, as in the funeral rites, dances announced or celebrated rebirth in all its possible aspects. This was particularly true of the important new year's feasts. Throughout the land, in most temples during the last five days of the year, music was played and dances performed to appease Sekhmet in order to protect the ancient land from her diseased and deadly demons. The new year was marked by the coming of the Nile flood. At the southern border of Egypt, joyful and noisy feasts were organized to greet the first manifestations of "the new water", as it was called. The coming of the flood brought with it the dangerous Sekhmet, who through music and dancing was transformed into the mild Hathor. All manner of performers were involved in these feasts, including acrobats and foreigners with their exotic dances.

Hence, in ancient Egypt, dance marked time. It evidenced the moment of radical change, when something ends and something else begins. It protected the ancient Egyptians from various dangers as well as celebrated what was to be born anew. However, our understanding of these Egyptians is perhaps biased by the lack of secular documentation. Hence, we See Also:

Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, The Wilkinson, Richard H. 2003 Thames & Hudson, LTD ISBN 0-500-05120-8
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Life of the Ancient Egyptians Strouhal, Eugen 1992 University of Oklahoma Press ISBN 0-8061-2475-x
Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The Redford, Donald B. (Editor) 2001 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 581 4
Valley of the Kings Weeks, Kent R. 2001 Friedman/Fairfax ISBN 1-5866-3295-