Naked Belly Dance in Ancient Egypt
Part 2: Are They Really Naked?
by Andrea Deagon Ph.D.
posted November 10, 2009
Part 1: Are they Really Belly Dancing?
It may seem ridiculous to ask, “Are the dancers really naked,” because anyone can see that they are. On the other hand, different cultural meanings for nudity and subtle iconographic conventions make this a serious question. It really has two parts:
What does nudity mean in a dance scene like this? And does this nudity reflect an actual practice of naked dancing as banquet entertainment?
While the late 18th dynasty – the time period in which the Nebamun dancers were painted – offers most of the representations of naked dancers and musicians in Egyptian art, dancers from other time periods also appear scantily clad. For example, some early representations of the female dancers of the kheners associated with funerary and other rituals show them wearing a short kilt, short hair, and only crossed bands at the breast. This was apparently appropriate even for elite girls, such as Bendjet, who is portrayed as dancing in this costume at the funeral of her father, the nobleman Idu.(Other representations, though, show the women in funerary kheners in ordinary feminine clothing.)
The female dancers who are performing the athletic or gymnastic dances that characterize grand religious celebrations wear a “loincloth” that looks like a triangular cloth tied in front. Acrobatic dancers, whether in sacred or secular contexts, are so consistently depicted in loincloths and nothing else that we have to assume that is really what they wore.
In any case, the nudity or near-nudity of the dancers in some depictions of rituals and festivals (and male dancers may appear nude or nearly nude) suggests that this level of nudity was not in any way offensive in a sacred context – on the contrary, on certain specific occasions, it was the most appropriate garb for the sacred work these dancers accomplished. (At other times or for other types of celebrant, formal clothing was appropriate.)
Clearly, this view of what is “holy” is wildly different from that of the modern Judeo-Christian or Islamic worlds. We have to wrap our minds around that. On the other hand, the relative undress of dancers in some religious rituals doesn’t mean that “anything goes.” There were specific rules about when and where and to what degree nudity was appropriate in religious practice, in art, and in daily life, even if it is hard to reconstruct them from our distance.
There is also the matter of “practical nudity.” Typical Egyptian clothing (it varied over time, but the basic form was a long caftan-like kalasiris for women, a somewhat shorter one for men) would not have been very practical for the high kicks or back walkovers we see in the acrobatic dancing that was done both at grand festivals and in secular contexts. A loincloth makes better sense. Practical nudity also occurs in Egyptian art (and we assume, in Egyptian culture) in workers whose jobs involve getting muddy or wet for example, the servants who retrieve fowl from swamps in hunting scenes.
Nudity in art is also related to status. Elite men and women are rarely shown nude, whereas nudity can represent poverty or other abject and low status (like a prisoner about to be beaten, or someone who has to slog through a swamp to collect dead birds). Thus, nudity has a symbolic role in Egyptian art, and is not simply documentary.
There are some places where artistic conventions do not represent what really happened in the culture, though. Children, for example, were usually portrayed as nude in art, whereas in life, they wore clothes, some of which have survived in Egypt’s hot, dry climate to be excavated in the 20th century.
Clearly, nudity had meaning for the Egyptians that it does not necessarily for us. For example, no one today would represent the non-elite status of construction workers by depicting them as nude (though come to think of it, that might not be a bad idea). And we tend to recoil in horror from images of naked children as kiddie porn rather than as a conventional way to symbolically represent childhood innocence. And while for the Egyptians nudity or relative undress could represent the particular purified or unworldly states appropriate for some celebrants in sacred occasions, our gods (at least the mainstream ones) appear to want us to keep our clothing on while worshipping them, and represent our purity in other ways.
But this does not mean that nudity was the only or even the ordinary “dance costume.” The great majority of dancers and musicians in Egyptian art are shown fully clothed. For example, in a New Kingdom Frieze depicting women playing frame drums and dancing, the dancers wear ordinary women’s dress. Yet they may look nude at first glance, because their dresses are only outlined, emphasizing the body underneath. (This is typical for the New Kingdom, when women are painted as idealized and sensual regardless of age or status.) There are other depictions of dancers and musicians in which the body is carved in relief but the clothing only painted on, and in some instances the paint has deteriorated, leaving the impression that the women are nude. A series of paintings from several tombs of the Amarna period shows groups of female drummers and dancers wearing ordinary women’s clothing at homecoming celebrations.
In fact, it’s not till near the end of the 18th dynasty, very late in Egyptian history, that the bejeweled nudity of the Nebamun girls begins to appear on servants, musicians and dancers at the banquets on tomb walls. Because these images are so beautiful and sensuous, we use them disproportionately to illustrate ancient Egyptian dance, giving the impression that nudity in banquet entertainers was common in all periods.
In fact, the portrayal of nearly-nude dancers at banquets is a fairly limited artistic phenomenon. It’s just that we enjoy it so much we choose to use those images in our depictions of Egyptian dance.
Even in the New Kingdom tombs that do feature some nearly-naked dancers, most dancers and musicians, as well as other servants in attendance at the banquets, are usually shown clothed in form-fitting, full-length dresses similar to those of the elite women diners. But sometimes clothed musicians and dancers are shown side by side with performers who are nearly nude. A famous example is from the tomb of Nakht – it’s one of the most popular scenes recreated by the papyrus artists who supply the Egyptian tourist market.
It seems obvious to us that these figures are meant to be erotic. That’s reasonable enough. For the ancient Egyptians as well as for us, nudity or semi-nudity had a sensual and erotic element. In one of my favorite passages in Egyptian literature, in the Westcar Papyrus, a virile young pharaoh orders that twenty women from his household come out to entertain him on his boat, dressed in beaded net over-dresses but without their regular dresses underneath. This implies that while elaborate dress was the norm in the king’s household, there might be occasions where the rich and powerful could dispense with it in those meant to entertain them.
Perhaps the banquet dancers’ “costume,” nudity plus a few items of jewelry, is simply a cross-cultural turn-on, reflecting real erotic practices. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that, from time to time, an ancient Egyptian woman might have decided to appear before someone she wanted to impress wearing jewelry and not much else. Could that eroticism have translated into banquet entertainment? Could “bejeweled nakedness” be the standard performing costume for female dancers at elite entertainments? The New Kingdom tombs raise that possibility.
On the other hand, the tomb paintings are not photographs of real events. They express an ideal. And that ideal might be elusive when we try to define it. But one thing is certain: we cannot assume that the ancient Egyptians share all of our attitudes about nudity, or all of our automatic assumptions about what it means.
Now, in the 21st century West, we come from a long artistic tradition in which female nudes, in everything from Renaissance paintings to Playboy magazines, are offered up for the voyeuristic pleasure of the viewer. Nudes have different contexts and different meanings – the Playboy centerfold may cause mild arousal, while the naked women in Manet’s The Picnic (1862) may call into question your assumptions about manners and reality. But they all put us the viewers, into a stance where we are gazing on an objectified woman.
The Egyptians had nothing against voyeuristic appreciation of the female form, but nudity did have other meanings – meanings specific to the function of these banquet scenes painted on tomb walls. Rather than real dance-wear (or lack of it), the occasional nudity in the dancers and servants in New Kingdom tomb paintings might be an artistic convention meant to highlight
the level of pleasure available in the afterlife by creating an intriguingly sensuous atmosphere. In other words, afterlife dancers might be undressed in a way that real dancers weren’t. Asher-Greve and Sweeney comment that very little of the clothing in tomb painting is true to life – there were other factors at work than being “true to life.” 
To resolve the costume questions, we must first consider the fact that these banquets were events that took place in the afterlife, and next, step back for a moment into the realm of interwoven sex, birth, and regeneration that is such a powerful element of Egyptian funerary art.
While in our world the idea of a blessed eternity has been spiritualized and sterilized into a sexless existence in a snow-white heaven, the ancient Egyptians had an earthier idea of the pleasures of eternity. And while we tend to separate sex and motherhood into two separate states with completely different social and spiritual meanings, the Egyptians saw them as part of the same process. Sex led to fertility, to the blessed children that perpetuated the household and pleased the hearts of their parents. Sex, pleasure in the song, dance, food and drink, beloved children, and material prosperity all went hand in hand. The transition of the soul to the afterlife was also part of the process. Transition into the next world is sometimes described in terms of birth. Awakening in the afterlife may be expressed in terms of regaining sexual potency.
At the same time that semi-naked banquet dancers begin to appear in tomb paintings, a closely related motif of naked or semi-naked young girls appears in other contexts in Egyptian art, such as in mirror handles and cosmetics spoons. Egyptologist Gay Robins interprets this beautiful young female image as an New Kingdom manifestation of a kind of figurine that appears again and again in Egyptian culture from pre-dynastic times to the Christian era, embodying these ideas of sex, prosperity, birth and rebirth. 
These long-lasting naked female figurines are often painted with the kinds of jewelry the Nebamun dancers wear. They were called “concubine figurines” by the archeologists of the Victorian era and were thought to be a variation on ushabti figurines. (Ushabti were tiny models of workers that were placed in elite tombs, and they were imagined as coming to life to serve the needs of the deceased for eternity.) The Victorians – possibly impressed by the Islamic idea of numerous virgins awaiting the faithful in heaven – could not imagine any use for these naked yet adorned figurines but that they would sexually serve the deceased in his happy afterlife.
But there were some problems with this identification. First of all, rather than being perfectly proportioned, realistic miniatures, like the ushabti, these “concubine figurines” could take the form of nearly abstract figures whose breasts and pubis were emphasized, but whose arms and legs tapered to nothing. You’d think this absence of fully formed arms and legs in his concubine would be a serious drawback for the deceased. Sometimes the “concubine” figurines were modeled together with small children, not usually the most desirable accoutrement for one’s eternal sex kitten. And one might also wonder about the fact that the “concubines” were found in women’s tombs, in homes, and in shrines.
Now these items are called “fertility figurines,” because that most accurately describes their uses in all the contexts where they have been found. They could be kept in the home, at the small shrine that all ancient Egyptian houses had, to encourage the continuing abundance of the household. They could be given as an offering at shrines to Hathor, the woman’s helper in both sexual and birth-related matters. Scholars speculate that some figurines were offerings meant to ensure conception and safe childbirth. When included in the burial goods of a tomb, they could work to assure the resurrection of the deceased into a prosperous and blessed eternity.
These sensuously decorated but schematic figurines, far from having the purely sexual intent the prurient Victorians ascribed to them, represented the natural (to the Egyptians) integration of prosperity, pleasure, sexuality, childbirth, and eternal life.
So perhaps the ornamented nudity of the dancers in New Kingdom tombs such as Nebamun’s is meant to serve the same function for the deceased and his family as did the fertility figurines of tradition. Their beautiful, bejeweled nudity and their sensuous young bodies invoke the sex/birth/pleasure/resurrection connection that the schematic figurines also invoke. They may be, essentially, fertility figurines in action. Rather than reflecting the actual banquet practices of the living, the naked and bejeweled dancers (as well as the naked and bejeweled serving girls who also appear) are a sign that this banquet is held in the hereafter. The performance of these nude, elaborately adorned, otherworldly is a sensual, physical, and liminal activity that represents and evokes the sexual underpinnings of the metaphysics of rebirth.
Given this network of symbolic ideals, there is a good possibility that the nudity of banquet musicians and dancers in these New Kingdom tombs expresses symbolic afterlife revival, not worldly practice.
Of course, nothing can be proven, and there are other possibilities. Maybe, for example, there were special dances performed at funeral banquets that actually did involve nudity, and the Nebamun paintings and others accurately represent that event. But even if this is the case, it is still a different thing from the average domestic banquet being entertained by nearly-naked performers.
Given the balance of other depictions of dance in Egypt, and the symbolic network of ideas behind the nudity of the painted banquet dancers, my own feeling is that the Nebamun dancers and others are afterlife projections, rather than accurately-depicted entertainers.
On the other hand, boudoirs and whorehouses may have featured naked belly dancing every day of the year since, as in many cultures of the ancient and modern world, ancient Egyptian prostitutes made music and danced to entertain and arouse their customers. Such scenes may be depicted in the Turin Erotic Papyrus, found in the workmen’s village at Deir el Medina, and on potsherds on which bored workmen sketched out some of their fantasies of naked women, their musical instruments only that moment laid aside. So if the Nebamun dancers are projections of afterlife blessings rather than realistic representations of gigging dancers, what did real-life dancers wear? In particular the professional (or at least specialist) dancers at banquets, who may (or may not) be belly dancing?
When the New Kingdom banquet dancers are shown clothed, it is in long, form-fitting dresses similar to those worn by the women they are entertaining, and this is true of most other representations of dance in social situations.
Our society expects dancers to wear a kind of costume that makes them stand out as different, whether they’re belly dancers in a nightclub or ballet dancers on stage. But our expectations might not apply to ancient Egypt.
In many of the world’s societies, professional entertainers, including dancers, wear clothing as close to the richness and quality of aristocratic dress as they can manage. Professional dance – especially if it is a form that like belly dance arose from a social dance – is often best costumed in a “party dress” that makes the dancer look like she belongs among the elite. Given that a proportion of the entertainers at elite banquets are depicted as wearing such clothing in Egyptian art, I propose that in general, it is with this sort of elegance that ancient Egypt’s professional musicians and dancers really dressed, not in the hereafter but in the here and now.
Given the importance of dance and music in the afterlife, it’s possible that the real women, whether professionals or household members, who entertained as dancers, had somewhere in their subconscious minds an appreciation of their sensual art as life-giving, beautiful, and capable of inspiring the kind of desire that transcends worlds. Egypt’s rich imagery of sensual pleasure and spiritual transformation might have created, for them and for their audiences, their own delightful experience of enchantment.
Tomb paintings like the banquet scene of the tomb of Nebamun, or the entertainers of the tomb of Nakht, were not public art, produced for the entertainment of the masses. They were private scenes, visited by family members as tombs were constructed, and later for offerings to be left and respects paid. The dancers who actually entertained at banquets may or may not have been aware of the stylized images of dancers that elite tombs have left us, and that the Internet has made so familiar to those of us with an interest in Egyptian dance. If they were aware of these images – say, from household altar scenes such as those in the workmen’s homes at Deir el Amarna – they may or may not have identified with them.
Their own experience of their dancing was not in the frozen images of eternity but in the here and now: in the pleasure, magic, enjoyment, giddiness, delight, and of course, the little annoyances and troubles (Drunken patrons? Cheap employers? Bitchy competitors? Long walks to venues that turned out a little less nice than they were made out to be?) that make dancing real and not a thing of fantasy after all. So perhaps we should remember ancient Egyptian dancers not by the perfection with which they were painted, but as the women (and men) they undoubtedly were, whose lives contained triumphs, annoyances, connections, pleasures, headaches, torn skirts, chipped fingernails, good nights, bad nights, long walks home, goodbyes at the door, and settlings down in hot nights into beds strung with cotton netting, with the remnants of the evening’s music, dust and noise finally drifting into silence.
Asher-Greve and Sweeney 2006: 157-8.
Robins 1996: 30-34.
See Asher-Greve and Sweeny 2006: 163-4.
Robins 1996: 30-34.
Scenes that may reflect this are seen in the explicitly erotic scenes of the Turin Erotic Papyrus, found in the workmen’s village at Deir el Medina; some of the women are holding (or have recently set down) their musical instruments. Manniche 1992: 108-119.
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
Simpson 1976: p. 25, fig. 24, pl. 24.
On nudity in Egyptian culture: Goelet 1993: 20-26; Robins 1996: 36-9; Asher-Greve and Sweeny 2006: 135-6,47-50, 53-64.
Manniche 1992: 42.
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