Lilian Lawler, an eminent Greek scholar, noted that the Greeks have participated in esoteric religious rites which included dancing throughout their history. The rites of Dionysus and Bacchus have been most commented upon, but there were many more deities, especially those which pertained to fertility. At the shrine of the goddess Artemis in southern Greece, choruses of young girls sang and danced in her honor. In Sparta, girls and young women came to the shrine of Artemis and performed unrestrained, ecstatic dances to the goddess wearing "only one chiton", that is what was normally their underdress. In connection with the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, in Asia Minor, there is mention of mysteries in which maiden priestesses engaged in "ecstatic dances". At Ancyra, also in Asia Minor, it is said that women performed dances likened to "Bacchic orgies" in both the cults of Artemis and the Goddess Athena as well.
There was also the Goddess Hecate, mysterious goddess of magic arts. She had power over the dead and was worshipped at night, in secret rites which undoubtedly included dancing. Pan, the ancient god of nature, was also worshipped in nocturnal mysteries and dances in the Greek world. There were also mysteries celebrated in honor of Aphrodite, goddess of human love and fertility on the island of Cyprus. Ecstatic and lewd dances to the tympanum (a type of cymbal) were a feature of these rites. And there were, of course, the great mysteries celebrated at Eleusis, near Athens, for Demeter and Persephone.
The Greeks "borrowed" many of these cults from Thrace, Syria, Phrygia, and Asia Minor in general. They were often characterized by frenzied nocturnal dances, with crazed outcries, to the stirring accompaniment of shrill flutes, tympana, metal cymbals, castanets of wood, earthenware or metal, horns, "bull-roarers", and rattles. There is also mention of snake handling, of trances, of prophesying, and even of self-mutilation. Some were performed openly and some only in secret. In these situations, music and dance were used as a form of "medicine" for illness of the spirit and the body, as will be seen in the "trance dance" cults that still survive in many parts of the middle east.
Little is known about the rites of the Cabiri, where Phillip of Macedonia (father of Alexander the Great) met his future wife, Olympia. But these rites are recorded as having taken place at night, attended by Dionysaic excesses. The cult was very old, probably Phoenician in origin, and was rooted in nature worship as was that of Dionysus. The mysterious ritual was conducted by torchlight. Olympia was a princess of Epirus, site of the ancient oracle of Dodona, and should have been familiar with the mysticism of the cults of the northern and western borderlands of the Greek world. She is, in fact, said to be a priestess of Dionysus who led her followers in orgiastic rites in which snakes apparently played a major part. One ancient author wrote of her habit of taking tame snakes out of baskets of ivy and "allowing them to curl themselves around the thyrsis of the woman so as to terrify the men". It is said that Phillip eventually became so nervous about his wife's religious observances that his affection cooled, and he "seldom came to sleep with her".
If additional confirmation is needed as to the symbolism of snakes, a surviving folk custom relating to the ancient fertility rites was recorded just before World War II. One of these rituals was the yearly charming of the poskok vipers on a "snake hill" near Skopje, Turkey, making them slither over female garments spread out on the ground, thus bringing fertility to the winners. These rituals are now prohibited by law. About ten miles from Skpoje there is another village which also has a "snake hill" believed to be the capital of the Snake Tsar of the world. Thousands of Posoks live in its rocky slopes. These are the deadliest form of European vipers. The belief was that no snakes would strike on snake day (March 14 and 22) and that none could be injured. The women who wished to become pregnant would taunt the snakes, and if jumped on by a snake would wash their garments in water, which their husband would then wash his face in. They would expect a child the following year.
While the Greeks of classical times deplored "professionalism" of any kind, it is quite likely that members of the lower classes constituted "professional" dancers and musicians. The transition from religious to purely secular is a major change for the dance everywhere it occurs. Certainly at their favorite entertainment, the "symposia" or dinner party courtesan dancers were called upon to entertain. In Greek vases they are pictured in scanty costume, or entirely nude, dancing spiritedly to the music of the flute. These courtesans also performed a variety of the pyrrhic dance (leaping), with helmet, shield and spear. The so called "Ionic dances" are also associated with the courtesans, spoken of as notorious for their softness and lasciviousness.
The steps and figures in which Greek courtesans engaged, as Lawler points out, look very much like those associated with the dances of comedy. Included in this genre were several figures the essential character of which was a rotation of the hips and abdomen; the same movement was as found in the dances of courtesans. One such figure or dance is called "makter" or "maktrismos", both words derived from "maktra" which translates as "a kneading-trough, tub". We are told specifically that it involved a lascivious swaying of the hips. A similar dance called variously "igde, igdis, igdisma", derives its name from the word for "a mortar", which in turn goes back to a verb meaning "grind, pound". In this dance 'they used to rotate the hips in the manner of a pestle' (in a mortar); it also involved "writhing, twisting". Lawler concludes that this dance must have included both a rotation of the hips, a movement which reminded the Greeks of the stirring of a pestle and also an occasional sharp jerk, suggestive of pounding. It was certainly a lewd performance, and was not some sort of "folk dance" about the pounding of food as some scholars have suggested. It lacks only the name to be a lively version of our own "belly dance".
From the fourth century onward to the Greco-Roman times one finds in Greek literature the complaint that the dance is deteriorating. "In ancient times...the dancers moved modestly, and gathered up their garments decently. Their emphasis was on the feet and the gestures of the hands."With the popularity of Christianity, many of the dancers were forced to retreat from the capital to small towns, and some undoubtedly went to the East, to Constantinople, where spectacles and dances continued to be popular.
Any discussion of references to dance in the Bible will, of necessity, be controversial. And any "proof" that one scholar can devise, a dozen others can refute. Nonetheless, I present the following as a commentary on the function of the dance in the culture of the middle east.
The Song of Solomon has had many volumes of interpretation by biblical scholars who explain in depth such things as the relationship of the church to God, etc. But Carlos Suares has taken a unique approach to its interpretation by exploring the meanings of each word according to the code of the cabbala, as well the usual meanings of the words. The line in the Song which is usually translated as "your rounded thighs are like jewels" has been retranslated by Suares as "The curves of your hips seem to torment themselves." He notes that the Hebrew word "yerekh" means hip as well as thigh and the translation of hhalaeem as "jewels" in the orthodox version is incorrect. The root of hhalaeem, he states, is "hhal" which means "to fall, to write, dance, or tremble." Thus, "the curves of your hips seem to torment themselves", which is a perfectly reasonable description of a belly dance. Through the Song of Solomon there are references to the Shulamite's fertility, a "keeper of the vineyards", and references to the moon, an ancient female symbol. Interestingly enough, our Shulamite is veiled. The Song of Solomon, whatever its christian symbolism might be, bears great similarity to ancient Egyptian love songs, both in style and spirit. It is, in any case, a very ancient composition.
The second pertinent passage in the bible is the well-known story of Salome, who is said to have danced for the head of John the Baptist. Before we discuss this story once more, consider that in the time the bible stories were created, their greatest competition for the hearts of the people were the many pagan religions already in existence, many of which would have been mother goddess or fertility cults. There are numerous references to these cults, if one understands that these cults often featured sacred trees or groves of trees where rituals were conducted. Therefore, one finds in the bible numerous references to "groves", and building altars in groves, where the protagonist is condemned; Reference Deuteronomy 16:21; Judges 6:25, 6:28, 6:30; I Kings 15:13, 16:33; 2 Kings 17:16, 21:3, 21:7, 23:4, 23:6, 23:15, and 2 Chronicles 15:16. It is possible that the story of Salome was a Christian reinterpretation of a pagan legend, whose entire point was to condemn the pagan worshippers.
With this in mind, Buonaventura suggests another interpretation of this story. One of the ancient legends of the goddess Ishtar, Babylonian Goddess of love and fertility, concerned her descent into the Underworld, which caused the seasons to occur. When Ishtar went below for six months of the year, the earth died and nothing was born; when her husband Tammuz went below for the other six months, the earth was reborn and all celebrated her return. When Ishtar is forced to visit the underworld, She passes through the seven-times-seven gates. At each seventh gate she must part with one of her "attributes" (wealth, power, beauty, temples) so that she arrives there naked and defenseless, as indeed every person who dies passes into death. The "Dance of the 7 veils" symbolizes the 7 gates through which Ishtar (Inanna, Demeter/Persephone) had to pass in her journey to the underworld. The Hebrew word "Shalome" means "welcome", thus "Salome" could very likely have been doing a version of an ancient pagan dance of welcome. Whether this dance actually occurred, or whether it is merely a symbolic retelling, is for Biblical scholars to debate. But it is another link between the fertility cults of the ancient world and the world of the bible.
Many clay figurines of dancing girls have been excavated from the ancient cities of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa. Although it is impossible to determine if these early dancers were connected to religious rites, it is certainly true that it forms an important part of religion in India today, and that when the great temples were first built in India, dancing girls were attached to them as a matter of course. It is impossible to determine if these early dancers of the Indus valley were involved in any form of temple prostitution. The ninth and tenth centuries saw the most glorious period of temple architecture, and their beauty was complimented by the devadasis (lit. "servants of god). These women were held in high regard, housed in luxurious quarters and granted tax-free lands. Each of them had undergone intensive training in music and dance, were skilled in languages, and had been 'married' to the temple deity.
These "temple marriages" were considered lucky for a girl since she would never be considered a widow. Her presence, therefore, on auspicious occasions such as weddings and births was regarded as essential. Much like the geisha of later Japan, and the Almeh of Egypt, these women were highly educated and polished in manner and were able to provide their patrons with intellectual stimulation, which their wives would have been unable to do.
The institution of dancing girls, therefore, became an accepted part of Indian society, even after it became a Muslim society in the Mughal era. Non-temple dancers known generally as tavaifs were not devadasis, but were sophisticated courtesans and repositories of culture and refinement. However, the tavaifs were also "married" to trees and flowers in the same sense that the temple dancers were married to the deity. The institution was so accepted that no respectable wife would admit to training in singing and dancing because those were needed only by the lower caste dancing girls. In later times, these dancers would also be known as "Bayaderes" and would appear in other countries.
In some South Indian Princely states and the Madras High Courts, temple dancers were allowed to adopt daughters from outside their profession or caste, who were then legally entitled to inherit from their adopted mother. In Indian society, the birth of a son was welcomed because he could inherit the family wealth. However, another option was open to the family if there were only daughters. They could "marry" a daughter to the temple, she would serve for a time as a devadasi, after which she would return home and assume all the privileges of a son and heir. She would even be given the important duty of applying the funeral torch to the funeral pyres of her mother and father. The devadasis were outlawed in the early nineteenth century by the British, who wished to prevent the abuses of the system such as kidnapping girls to fill the temples. Nevertheless, these dancers are responsible for preserving much of Indian culture and dance as it exists today.
Indian dance evolved dance forms codified and distinct from what we know as belly dancing. But these Indian dancers influenced dance in Egypt and in the areas surrounding them. There is also an obvious relation between Northern Indian dance and Persian dance, but it is difficult to say whether Persian influenced Indian or vice versa. The decline of the Mughal empire and the rise of European power in later centuries saw the gradual decadence of one form of Indian dance, the Kathak. It degenerated from a purely religious dance to a more voluptuous dance performed by women of low reputation. It was this debased form of Kathak that the European adventurers called "nautch", which was a corruption of the Indian word "naach", meaning dance. This infamy hurt even the reputation of the temple dancers and contributed to their decline.
Curt Sachs considers India the possible source of eastern rhythms, having the oldest history and one of the most sophisticated rhythmic development. The other possible source considered by Sachs is the ancient civilization of Sumeria, which influenced the Phoenician and surrounding cultures. It is probably no accident that Sanskrit, the language of India, is one in which there is no pre-determined accent upon the long and short syllables; the accents are determined by the way in which it falls in the sentence. Sanskrit developed in the first thousand years B.C. Each section of the ancient holy book, the Rigaveda, has a distinct rhythm associated with each section so that the two aspects are learned as one.
Classical Indian dancers do not use finger cymbals in the manner of belly dancers because their hands are busy forming the sacred mudras. However, finger cymbals are still used in some folk dances. One particularly interesting variation is still performed by the Kamara tribe. Indian finger cymbals, called "manjira" are tied to different parts of the body, and it is generally performed by two or three women who sit on the ground. The dancer's face is veiled, a naked sword is held between the teeth, a decorated pot is balanced on the head, and the manjira are held in each hand. Thus equipped the women sit on the ground and produce a variety of sounds by striking the manjira tied to her body. The dancer remains on the ground, shifting and sliding along while complex arm movements are performed. This is considered by the Kamara to be a fertility ritual, although it has the same elements as a dance.