It is not known exactly what type of dance the Ancient Egyptians practised, but one thing seems sure: it was a common part of their celebrations and rituals.
Evidence from the Old Kingdom period (around 2,500 BCE) up to Graeco-Roman times (around 400 CE) shows women that look like they may be dancing, performing at religious ceremonies and festivals.
According to Andrea Deagona, a dancer and professor at the University of North Carolina: “Judging by what few written records there are, and going on the conservatism of dance traditions, my best guess would be that men and women have danced ‘solo-improvised dance based on torso articulation’ for several millennia in the Middle East, North Africa, and around the Mediterranean.”
There is no way of knowing for sure if the dancers depicted on manuscripts and monuments were professional performers or simply citizens. What is clear is that there were specialised dancers who performed for ritualistic purposes at celebrations and religious dates.
In addition, from the drawings and manuscripts, temples and tombs, part of the offering to the gods at the sanctuaries likely included music and dance, with figures drawn with their arms raised above their heads in a dance-like pose, starting from the Old Kingdom. Other evidence suggesting acrobatic dance, includes female figures in upside down postures was found, for instance, on the Karnak temple walls and on shards of pottery.
Flutes, cymbals and drums have been found preserved since ancient times. Reed-flutes similar to those used in Egypt today and reed mouthpieces were kept among the offerings in tombs. Researchers believe, based on these instruments, that the music of ancient Egypt may have been similar to some contemporary folkloric Egyptian music.
Percussion seems to be a key element in the dances presented. The closest contemporary music resembling ancient Egyptian in rhythm and sound is likely the Nubian music. Many scenes depict women playing lute-like instruments (similar to the modern ‘Oud’) and lyres.
Were these professional musicians or simply skilled amateurs? Did all levels of society participate, from aristocratic to average citizens? More research is needed to answer these questions.
Some specialists have suggested that dancers were associated with the mysteries of the goddess Hathor, and that devotees practised sacred dances at her temples; while other records show requests for hiring dancers for special festivities, suggesting that there were also “professionals” who practised this art form and that it was highly appreciated.
According to Deagona, the “hnr” were groups of musicians and performers that were apparently hired for celebrations. There are records of these entertainers starting from the Old Kingdom. There is also evidence that dwarfs were involved in such performances, as in this excerpt from a letter by Pharaoh Pepi II to Harkhuf:
“Come northward to the court immediately; […] thou shalt bring this dwarf with thee, which thou bringest living, prosperous and healthy from the land of spirits, for the dances of the god, to rejoice and [gladden] the heart of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neferkare, who lives forever.”
(James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, p. 353)
Most of what is known about Ancient Egyptian dance is based on work done at the turn of the 20th century. As with most ancient records, there may be more we can find out: how common was dancing? Was it more like belly dancing? Some of the costumes emphasize the hips, which suggests it was “torso articulated”, i.e., akin to belly dancing or oriental dancing in general (versus emphasis on the steps, like flamenco dancing and regional folkloric dances of Spain and France, for instance.
Patricia Spencer, a dancer who studied Ancient Egyptian records, thinks that the majority of women would probably only have danced in family situations and not in public. In her article “Female dancers in Ancient Egypt” she points out that “The dances depicted in Egyptian scenes appear, to our eyes, stiff and stylised since Ancient Egyptian artistic conventions were very rigid, with strict rules about how a human figure had to be depicted and a ‘canon of proportions’ to which all Egyptian artists had to adhere. Consequently, it was very hard for an Egyptian artist or sculptor to show any individuality and spontaneity in his depictions of dance and entertainment.”
University of North Carolina Wilmington, Bill Heidrick and Academia websites