Part 1: Are They Really Belly Dancing?
by Andrea Deagon Ph.D.
posted October 19, 2009
One of the most popular illustrations of ancient Egyptian dance in any medium is a painted fresco from the tomb of Nebamun, a nobleman who died sometime around 1400 BCE. The scene is a banquet in which Nebamun, his family and friends are entertained with endless cups of drink amidst tables piled high with food, enjoying good companionship, and, of course, music and dance. In its position on his tomb’s wall, this scene of pleasure and celebration was what we might think of as a “magical” representation.
It invoked the interconnected powers of prosperity, abundance, sensuality, and life force that ensured the rebirth of Nebamun and his family into eternal comfort and pleasure.
In the register below the banquet itself, four musicians, all women, play for Nebamun and his family. One plays an aulos, a double-reed instrument that would have sounded something like an oboe with a drone. One appears to sing, while the other two clap for rhythmic accompaniment – Egyptian hand-clapping was a musical form in itself and was capable of providing complex rhythms. To their right, before a table of offerings, there are two dancing figures. Superimposed on one another and facing in opposite directions, seemingly lost in their own movement, these lovely young women both lean slightly forward as they dance. One has her hands raised over her head, her fingers entwined in the two-handed finger snap illustrated in the art of several ancient cultures and still common throughout the Middle East today. The other’s hands reach evocatively forward.
Musicians and dancers from the tomb of Nebamun
Like the girls who serve the banqueters in the upper register, both dancers are nude except for their jewelry: a wide necklace, bracelets, a headband worn over an ornamental beaded wig, and a hip belt.
This same “bejeweled nakedness” is seen in other dancers in Egyptian art of the same period, but jewelry of this sort was worn over clothing by elite women. In various elite tombs (and now on display in many of the world’s major museums), archeologists have unearthed wide, beaded collars, bracelets originally worn several at a time, and beaded hip belts that would have rustled gently as the wearer walked (or danced) along.
Who were these dancers? Since they and the serving girls are dressed alike, could they be household servants, one of whose duties is dancing? Or are they professional entertainers? Are they prostitutes? Or, given their youth – daughters? And what is the significance of their dance at this otherworldly banquet?
Dancers from the tomb of Nebamun
The Nebamun dancers are probably already familiar to most belly dancers who spend any time online, because they are used to illustrate the “ancient history” segment of any number of belly dance web sites. They also feature prominently a s illustrations in more general discussions of ancient Egyptian dance. Though these dancing figures are unusual in Egyptian art in many ways, they are the iconic representation of ancient “belly dance” for the modern world. These two nearly-naked dancers subtly shape our ideas about the nature of ancient Egyptian dance, and by projection, modern belly dance.
So what impressions do the Nebamun dancers create of our (as it is often described) “ancient art”?
On one hand, a voyeuristic reading of the Nebamun dancers as “belly dancers” contributes to the idea of belly dancing as only or essentially sexy seduction, done for the pleasure of the elite at their banquets, and done in the nude, no less.
On the other hand, the nudity of the Nebamun dancers can be understood as expressing an honest sexuality that is different from the kind of sensuality exuded by the odalisques and harems that so often feature in orientalizing visions of historical belly dance. This honesty can serve as an exemplar to the modern belly dancer, who must often struggle through layers of self-repression to find her own sensual self.
But these are just impressions. The more important question is what is the reality behind the image of sensual, even sexual belly dance the Nebamun dancers seem to display? Given that they are used so freely to illustrate ancient belly dance, what can the Nebamun dancers actually tell us about the history of belly dance?
Two very significant questions about them remain:
- Are they really belly dancing?
- And are they really naked?
Are They Really Belly Dancing?
The real first question is, “What is belly dance?” Many elements of the modern practice of belly dance emerged in the 20th century.
Our emphasis on the female soloist, the structure of the typical show in both the East and the West, the style of music we dance to, our costuming, our specific styles of relationship with the audience, and so on, are modern developments.
Obviously they are still evolving, or we wouldn’t be rushing off to workshops in Egypt or to Tribal festivals or wherever else we go for our favored brand of the modern phenomenon. We can’t assume that the ideals that define modern belly dance existed in antiquity. The past is not the place to look (for example) for the personification of dela’a to music or the snaky archetypes of the Tribe.
For the purpose of ancient history, you have to look for a much broader phenomenon. Its central elements are:
- location in the Middle East and North Africa,
- solo-improvisation (dances improvised to music by the individual dancer), and
- a focus on hip articulation and hand and arm movement.
This style of dancing has its roots in social dances done throughout the Middle East by both men and women. Although it has many specific forms in different periods, its recent forms reflect aesthetics common in the Middle East:
- attention to detail,
- emotional or expressive content,
- serial structure,
- circular energy,
- the dancer’s ability to “play” around a theme until she is ready to move on, and so on.
We tend to associate these ideas with Islamic culture, but they predate Islam, as the visual art of Middle Eastern cultures reveals. So it is possible that these aethetics also appeared in pre-Islamic dance as well. The dance is non-narrative – that is, it doesn’t primarily tell a story (though in some manifestations it might).  When I speak of “belly dance” in history, as in ancient Egypt here, this broader phenomenon is what I mean.
Since dance leaves nothing physical behind, it’s very difficult to prove anything about any dance form in the ancient world, and when you can, it’s only in a broad and general way. This is certainly true of ancient Egypt. In contrast to other cultures of the ancient Middle East and North Africa, there are many, many illustrations of dance in ancient Egypt in situations that range from banquets to family celebrations to festivals to religious and funerary rituals.
Egyptian art is very stylized, however, and definitely not oriented toward depicting a straightforward reality.
The convention of portraying the human figure with feet, legs, and face in profile, but chest and eye straight-on, that Egyptian artists are not good “witnesses” for the details of the dances of their time. In addition, Egyptian art was conservative, in that many of its conventions persisted for millennia virtually unchanged. This might obscure actual changes in dance (and other practices).
Given these limitations in the art, we might despair of ever finding anything that could be considered evidence of belly dance in ancient Egypt.
And there’s more. Most of the dancing illustrated in Egypt seems to be either acrobatic, or oriented toward leg movement. The most common hieroglyph for “dance” includes a pictogram of a foot. A quick scan of Egyptian art for something like belly dance could come up dry.
On the other hand, while Egyptian art might not give us much unequivocal evidence of belly dance, one piece of Roman art does: a relief sculpture of the 2nd century CE found in Italy, now in the Terme Museum, and illustrated in Fritz Weege’s Der Tanz in der Antike and in other later sources. It represents the popular Egyptian festival of the Apis bull. Many elements are meant to make it obvious to Roman viewers that the scene is set in Egypt, from the statues in the Egyptian style that stand at its borders, to its use of baboons and ibis (both associated with the Egyptian god Thoth) as decorative elements. In the center section, a group of women dance while men lean forward, clapping in rhythm. The Roman artists are showing a form of music and dance that is typically Egyptian. Presumably Romans were aware of Egyptian rhythmic clapping as a musical form, and it is carefully illustrated here. Also, the artists have taken great care to illustrate the women’s hips as protruding, and their hands in unusual positions.
In other words, they are clearly indicating a form of dance in which the hips, hands and arms are used in ways that were foreign to Rome. The dancers are all in different positions, suggesting solo-improvisation.
This relief sculpture confirms the evidence for belly dance we find in Roman literature of the time. Several Roman authors of the first century CE describe the hip articulations, shimmies, languid arm movements, and zil-playing of female dancers from Syria and other points east as well as the Syrian settlement of Gades in Spain. Other literary clues suggest that the average Roman was quite aware of this different style of dancing.  As in 19th century accounts of belly dance, the most detailed descriptions come from outsiders who comment on its difference from their own styles of dance.
So we have strong evidence that “belly dance” was recognized as typical of Egyptian celebrations (and other Eastern practices) by the Romans by the 2nd century CE. It is likely that belly dance was a widespread folk dance form in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East before then as well. There’s every reason to believe that ancient Egyptians belly danced – why wouldn’t they? Just as we wouldn’t expect my Celtic ancestors to belly dance, based on their later dances, we don’t have any reason to think the ancient Egyptians didn’t, based on what we know of their dances from the second century CE to the present day.
Then where is belly dance in Egyptian art?
The techniques of belly dance, which involve hip articulation and hand movements, are not as easy to portray as acrobatics or leaping in a conservative medium like Egyptian art. The Roman frieze portrays them deliberately by highlighting their strange (to the Romans) action. if Egyptian artists were to incorporate belly dance into appropriate scenes, they wouldn’t necessarily try to replicate its physical appearance. Instead, they would rely on iconographical elements that their audiences would recognize.
“Iconography” simply means a traditional way of depicting something or someone in art. It is a way of conveying complex meanings through visual images to “readers” within the culture.
For example, in the Western world, if you see a woman wrapped in a blue cloak holding a baby in her arms, both with halos, you can be completely sure that you have the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus, with all the complex meanings about motherhood and salvation and so on that the story evokes. On another level, if you see an image of a man in a suit striding down a city street, clutching a briefcase and talking into his cell phone, then you probably have a businessmen on his way to an important meeting. A simple image can carry a great deal of meaning – if you are a cultural insider who knows instinctively what halos, briefcases and cell phones imply.
I suggest that the ancient Egyptian iconography of belly dance (at least in the New Kingdom) is very subtle, but can be found in many scenes of female musical troupes. Kheners are usually understood to be “troupes of musicians and dancers” – that is, the expectation is that their entertainment will involve both music and dance.  Obviously, musicianship is implied by the playing of instruments, or by the hands held in a clapping position.
Dance – and I believe, belly dance – is shown iconographically when one or more of the women has the heel of her back foot raised from the ground, especially if her arms are raised, or she is looking over her shoulder.
The “heel up” iconography is very common in groups of women musicians. It could simply mean that the women are moving around as they play, but usually, when walking motion is implied in Egyptian art, it’s conveyed by the legs apart in a stride. I suggest that the “heel up” iconography shows that dancing is (or at least appropriately would be) in the scene – and that most likely it represents a form of dance, like belly dance, that does not involve obvious (and easily depicted) leg movement. I don’t think it always means that the heel-up figure herself is dancing – for example, in instances where a lute-player has her heel up, I suggest the implication is that dancing is going on, not that that one figure is dancing while playing her lute.
If this reading of Egyptian dance iconography is correct, then belly dance shows up in a number of different situations. It appears in household celebrations welcoming a triumphant head of household back home. It appears in banquets. It appears as the recreation of elite women as they relax at home. It occurs among professional musicians at many festive occasions. It appears at festivals, performed by groups of women who also play frame drums. It appears in scenes of musicians and dancers that decorate the altars of “middle class” households, symbolizing the protection, joy and wealth (material, spiritual, and emotional) that the deities Hathor and Bes bring to the home.
In fact, it appears in many of the contexts where we would expect to find belly dance in the modern or recent Middle East.
So, while there is no proof that there was belly dance in ancient Egypt, there is every reason to think that there was, and that in some aspects, at least, it played roles similar to those it plays today.
So back to the Nebamun dancers. Are they belly dancing? Maybe, and maybe not. There are no other scenes in which the dancers are positioned exactly like the Nebamun dancers. They don’t fit the iconography I propose for belly dance. They don’t fit the standard for any other kind of dance or movement. There’s nothing exactly like them. Why not?
Perhaps because the artist of the Nebamun paintings, whose work has been identified in other tombs of the same time period, was that rarity in Egyptian tradition: an innovator.
This can be seen, for example, in how he portrays some of the musicians in full face rather than in profile. So if the Nebamun artist wanted to depict belly dance, he might not have followed the conventional iconography anyway.
But there are other factors to consider, however. These dancers are not just performing at any old party. “The event,” says Egyptologist Gay Robins, “may refer to a meal eaten at the tomb at the time of burial, but it also represents the meal shared by family members at the tomb once a year during the Beautiful Festival of the Valley … it has been suggested that these scenes encode references to sexuality and rebirth.” Now, the dead enjoy the same sorts of things the living do, so belly dancing may be appropriate at parties in their honor, but we can’t assume that this banquet is one more in the procession of homecoming and festival scenes offered in which a khener included belly dance in its celebratory offerings – assuming that of the iconography is correct and that is what they were doing in the first place.
The elite context also has to be taken into account. It’s possible that the average Egyptian man or woman, partying at the local Hathor festival or celebrating the birth of a child or just relaxing at the end of the day might have done something we would recognize as “belly dance” (defined broadly), and that the professionals they could have afforded to employ would have danced in much the same style.
But for many elite women, musical training was a significant element of their education, and there were professional acrobatic dancers, employed by temples and performing for the general public who reached a high level of technical expertise and clearly must have rehearsed to dance in close unison. In other dance styles, a very high standard had been set among elite audiences at least.
Perhaps the positions of the Nebamun dancers do suggest solo improvisation and torso-oriented movement, the foundation of “belly dance.” Yet it is also possible that the dances performed for the elite classes, even those that were based traditions of solo improvisation and hip and arm movement, had evolved into something quite different from the social dancing based on the same techniques. After all, modern Egyptian raqs sharqi has distinguished itself from the folk dances that are still practiced alongside it by adopting modern elements that differ in many ways from traditional practice. So while the dance of the performers at elite ancient Egyptian banquets and raqs sharqi might have similar origins, they might have evolved in very different directions as they developed to meet the aesthetic expectations of the elite audiences they served in their own times and places.
So if the Nebamun dancers were “real girls” – and of course, if they invested in some rather less revealing costumes and ditched their wigs, which would strike us as just bizarre – would they be hired on as belly dancers in any nightclub from Cairo to Istanbul to San Francisco, even including Tribal coffee houses, dancing as they did? Probably not. At the same time, the roots of their movement style and dance aesthetics may well have come from the dance traditions of solo-improvisation and hip, torso and arm movement that arose in the milieu of the ancient Middle East.
So, the answer to the question, “Are they belly dancing,” really depends on how you define the term. Define “belly dancing” broadly enough – and that may mean, really, really broadly – and you’re probably entitled to answer “Yes.”
Part 2 of this article- "Are They Really Naked?" Coming soon!
Al-Faruqi, Louis Ibsen. "Dance as an Expression of Islamic Culture," Dance Resource Journal, 1987, 10(2): 6-17.
Asher-Greve, Julia, and Deborah Sweeney. 2006. On Nakedness, Nudity, and Gender in Egyptian and Mesopotamian Art In: Schroer, Silvia, ed. Images and Gender: Contributions to the Hermeneutics of Reading Ancient Art Fribourg: Academic: 125–76.
Assante, Julia. 2006. Undressing the Nude: Problems in Analyzing Nudity in Ancient Art, with an Old Babylonian Case Study. In: Schroer, Silvia, ed. Images and Gender: Contributions to the Hermeneutics of Reading Ancient Art Fribourg: Academic: 177–208
Boyle, Alan. Sex and Booze Figured in Egyptian Rites. msnbc Technology & Science. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15475319/ Accessed Sept. 12, 2009.
Der Tanz im Alten Ägypten nach Bildlichen und Inschriftlichen Zeugnissen. Glückstadt: Verlag J. J. Augustin.
Davies, N. de G. 1908. The Rock Tombs of El Amarna Part VI: Tombs of Parennefer, Tutu, and Ay. London: Offices of the Egypt Exploration Fund.
The Tomb of Nefer-Hotep at Thebes. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Egyptian Expedition.
Fear, A. T. The Dancing Girls of Cadiz. Greece and Rome, Second Series. 38.1 (April 1991) 75-9.
Goelet, Ogden. Nudity in Ancient Egypt. Source: Notes in the History of Art. 12.2 (Winter 1993): 20-31.
Kemp, J. 1979. Wall Paintings from the Workmen’s Village at el-Amarna. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 65: 47-53.
Lexova, Irena. 2000 1935). Ancient Egyptian Dances. Trans. K. Haltmar. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc.
Manniche, Lisa. 1992. Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt. London: Dover.
1981. The term hnr: “harem” or “musical performers”? In: William Kelly Simpson and Whitney M. Davis, eds. Studies in Ancient Egypt, the Aegean, an the Sudan: Essays in Honor of Dows Dunham. Boston, Mass: Museum of Fine Arts: 137-145.
Robins, Gay. 1996. Dress, Undress, and the Representation of Fertility and Potency in New Kingdom Egyptian Art. In: Natalie Boymel Kampen, Ed. Sexuality in Ancient Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Shay, Anthony. 1999. Choreophobia. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishing Co.
Simpson, William Kelly. 1976. The Mastbas of Qar and Idu. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts.
Spencer, Patricia. 2003. Dance in Ancient Egypt. Near Eastern Archaeology 66.3: 111-121.
Teeter, Emily. 1993. Female Musicians in Pharaonic Egypt. In Kimberly Marshall, Ed. Rediscovering the Muses: Women’s Musical Traditions. Boston, Mass.: Northeastern University Press: 68-91.
Der Tanz in der Antike. Dornach: W. Keller.
Williams, Craig A. 1999. Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press
On aesthetics of dance in Islam: Al-Faruqi 1976. Anthony Shay describes this phenomenon and its aesthetics, with special reference to Persian dancing, and introduces the term “solo-improvised dance” to describe it: Shay 1999: 16-55.
On the limitations of style in depicting dance and recording change, see Manniche 1992: 9, 40-55, Spencer 2003: 112-114.
On the hieroglyphic terms: Brunner-Traut 76-82. This leads to assumptions like Irina Lexova’s, that belly dance could not be an element of the dance traditions of the noble ancient Egyptians: Lexova 1935 : 71-2
Weege 1926: Pl. 19.
Authors include Juvenal, Martial, “Virgil,” and the Greek author Automedon; for a complete discussion, see Fear 1991. On the possibility of Eastern male belly dancing as part of the “cultural literacy” of the average Roman, see Williams 1999: 175-81.
See Teeter 1993, Nord 1981.
For example: welcoming celebrations: The tomb of Nefer-Hotep, Davies 1933, pl. 17, 18. Recreation of elite women: the dancing women at the court of Akhenaton depictedin the tomb of Ay, Davies 1908, pl. 28, pp. 20-21 . Professional musicians: the three dancers at the tomb of Nakht. Festivals: At a drinking festival in honor of Hathor/Sekhmet: Boyle; at an unnamed festival, the Saqqara frieze. In middle-class households at El Amarna : Kemp 47-53, fig 2. All examples are New Kingdom.
Robins 2002: 31.
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