Dancing in Ancient Egypt

Like both antique and modern cultures, ancient Egypt was a thriving center of artistic innovation. While it is impossible to witness a dance performance from this society, evidence of dance is found in archeological evidence: paintings on the walls of tombs, notes on papyrus (reeds that were pounded to paper) and decorations on ostraca (shards of pottery).

Dance in ancient Egypt had many religious purposes. Funeral processions and the embalming process required dancers as either mourners or assisters in the passing of the dead into the next life. Within the temples, there were musicians and dancers who performed exclusively for the priests, the pharaoh (who was perceived as divine), and the gods. Religious festivals, such as the “Festival of Opet” and “Festival of the Valley” were for the public population; it was at celebrations such as these that the everyday people were privy to the religious dances.

In a secular environment, dance was home entertainment. Private banquets and parties had professional performers, usually skimpily clad women, who would dance. These are perhaps the most well – known depictions of dance in ancient Egypt. Professional dancers were paid “in kind” by bags of grain or other trade items and later, in money. Dancers were regarded as highly skilled, but did not achieve a high social status. Usually, this was because performers traveled often together; it was improper for that type of intimacy between unrelated males and females.

Costuming for dancers differed very little from the everyday attire: men wore customary short kilts, and women wore a shortened version of their gowns (the higher hem likely was to free the legs). However, there are depictions of dancers being nude or wearing only a scarf or belt on the hips. Men and women dancer wore their hair short; if a woman did opt for longer hair, stone disks were attached to the ends to swing the hair in time with the movements. Flower garlands, piles of jewelry and elaborate eye makeup were also worn by dancers.

            The music that accompanied the dancers were mainly percussive, made of drumming, clapping, and castanets. Harp and lute – like string instruments were used as well. Singers were present during a dance, though as a separate performer.

            Remains depict the context and the details accompanying the dance, but one does not have full understanding of the true movement or physical embodiment of the style. Partly, this is because the artwork showing dance is done in the flat, two dimensional style associated with ancient Egypt. The full shape and spiral of the body is absent in these drawings. Portrayals of Egyptian dance were painted not to be instructional or explanative to an outside viewer, but because dance was an integral part of the daily life. Anyone in their society would have understood that a painted figure was dancing. In this way, ancient Egyptian dance appears to have an insider understanding and privacy akin to that of the flamenco dancers, or the indigenous American tribes.

            Ancient Egypt was a society with a stable culture with little change. However, it is very possible Egyptian dance was influenced by outside travelers; some paintings show Nubians dancing with the Egyptians, suggesting a fusion with early African forms. If Egyptian dance was full of rigid, sharp lines that are shown in the art, that quality is present in modern Egyptian folk dances. The scarves and belts tied about the hips in the ancient portrayals suggest an emphasis of undulation of the lower body, which is present in belly dancing. Ancient Egyptian dance was thus one of the earliest building blocks for later forms.

By: Kat Delorme

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One thought on “Dancing in Ancient Egypt

  1. I love the pictures here Kat. Lillian Lawler would be pleased by your rendition of Egyptian dance. She was a notable scholar of this dance form. She was intrigued by the stories told on vases and walls. Nice job!

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