To the ancient Egyptians, dance was an essential part of their culture. People from every social class were exposed to music and dancing. The laborers worked in rhythmic motion to the sounds of songs and percussion, and street dancers entertained passers by. Dance troupes were available for hire to perform at dinner parties, banquets, lodging houses, and even religious temples. Some women from wealthy harems were trained in music and dance. However, no well-bred Egyptian would consider dancing in public, because that was the privilege of the lower classes. Wealthy Egyptians kept slaves to entertain at their banquets, and offer pleasant diversion to their owners. The same idea is reported by those study middle eastern countries today: the more responsibility a woman has, such as being the female head of household, the less often she will dance, even in private. In fact, she might only dance on some significant occasion, like the betrothal of a son or daughter, to make the agreement official. Egypt is considered by many modern dancers to be the source of belly dance.
Elizabeth 'Artemis' Mourat, performer and dance-scholar has categorized these dances into six types: religious dances, non-religious festival dances, banquet dances, harem dances, combat dances, and street dances. Although the Egyptians also had temple dancers, we are primarily concerned with the last three. Little information exists on the wandering street dancers. However, an interesting legend has come to us about the birth of the kings of the Fifth Dynasty. The story tells how the god Ra was about to become the father of triplets. The mother, Ruditdidit as the wife of Rausir who was a priest of Ra. Rausir did not know that the father of the children was his beloved Ra. When Ruditdidit felt labor pains, Ra sent four goddesses (Isis, Nephthys, Maskhonuit, and Hiquit) and the god Khnumu to help her. In order to arrive unrecognized, the goddesses transformed themselves into street musicians and dancers. The god Khunumu assumed the role of their porter. When the group arrived, they were informed that the lady of the house was suffering the pangs of childbirth, they replied, "let us in, for lo, we are skilled in midwifery."
This story raises an interesting question. Did street dancers actually have a sideline as midwives, so that it would be plausible for this story to have occurred? And was this a logical development from the old association of the dance with fertility cults? There is no way to know, but it is possible. These dancers were evidentally accustomed to arriving unannounced and conducting a regular circuit of performances. Edward Lane, who visited Egypt in the 19th century, described the procedure for the ritual of facial tattooing of female children in Egypt, and added that this was usually done by itinerant Gypsy women. His book of 1860 illustrated face, hand, and feet tatoos of ancient design. Like the practice of applying henna designs to the bride and bridegroom, tattooing also has magical-protective meaning for tribal peoples.
Nudity was very much a part of Egyptian society. In the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom, women frequently wore very short skirts and danced bare breasted. They often danced quite nude, except for the hip belts and perhaps jewelry. Henna was used to stain the hands and nails for beauty, and for its medicinal and magical properties. This custom has also survived: The traditional Turkish wedding ceremony still contains a Henna ceremony for the new bride the night before the wedding.
The women of the harem were known as the "adorned ones". They were there to please and delight their master. Harem women and society ladies were instructed by choirmasters and mistresses of dance as part of their education. They also learned to play the lute, the lyre, the harp and, most importantly the sistra and menits which were religious instruments. Banquet and harem dances were certainly more refined and sophisticated than the street dances. They featured solos, pas de deux, pas de trois and group dances. That is to say, they created choreography instead of just improvising the dance as they went along. There was a definitive system for choreographic notation. These steps and gestures had names such as "the calf, the successful-capture-in-the-boat, the leading-along-of-an-animal, the fair-capture-of-the-beauty, the taking-of-the-gold and the colonade."
Fortunately for modern researchers, the acrobatic dances and pair dances of ancient Egypt were described by a young man of Syracuse, who visited Memphis at the end of the fourth century B.C. He wrote the following letter describing the entertainment provided at a private banquet. Irena Lexova provides the following translation from the German version by Fritz Wegge:
"Suddenly they disappeared and in their place came forward a group of dancers who jumped about in all directions, gathered together again, climbed one on top of the other with an incredible dexterity, mounting on the shoulders and the heads, forming pyramids, reaching to the ceiling of the hall, then descended suddenly one after the other to perform new jumps and admirable 'saltomortales'. Being in constant motion, now they danced on their hands, now they gathered in pairs, one turning his head down between the legs of his mate, then they lifted themselves mutually and returned to the original position, each of them alternatively being lifted and upon falling lifted his partner up."
He then describes a man and woman dancing with "clappers", i.e. wooden castanets:
"Now I caught sight of a troupe of musicians, coming with various musical instruments in their hands, in which I recognized harps, guitars, lyres, simple and double pipes, tambourines and cymbals. We were overwhelmed constantly by songs which were most cordially applauded by the audience. Then, at a given sign, the middle of the hall was taken by a man and a girl dancer, who were provided with clappers. These were made out of two small pieces of wood round and concave, located in the palms, and gave rhythm to the dancing steps when suddenly knocked together. These two dancers danced separately or together in harmonious configurations, mixed with pirouettes, soon parting and again approaching each other, the young dancer running after his mate and following her with expressions of tender desire, while she fled from him constantly, rotating and pirouetting, as if refusing his endeavors after amorous approach. This performance was done lightly and energetically in harmonious postures, and seemed to me to exceedingly entertaining."
Lexova further notes that a number of these castanets have been preserved in the collection of the Berlin museum, as noted by Curt Sachs in his German treatise on the musical instruments of the Egyptians. They are described as being of small size, so that they "can be seized by the hand in such a way that on the picture one cannot perceive them." Lexova further theorizes that in pictures where the dancer's hand is formed into a fist, it is likely holding castanets. The other rhythm instruments which gave great freedom of movement were true clappers, i.e. short wood, bone or ivory sticks, of various shapes and sizes. Dancers of the New Kingdom are shown using both tambourines and castanets in dance.
Yet another interesting prop used by the dancers was a short curved stick, or cane, carved with little gazelle heads. Given the popularity of various rhythm instruments, including rattles, Lexova states that these were probably canes with rattles on the end. Since that modern Egyptian dancers also do a "cane dance", this is a very interesting connection to ancient Egyptian culture.
From her study of tomb drawings, Lexova identifies one step as being the most fundamental of Egyptian steps: one the modern belly dancer would call a "down". A "down" step is the opposite of an "up", that is, on a "down" the hip goes down when the foot goes down. This is much harder to do, and less natural than an "up", when the hip lifts as one steps. Furthermore, these Egyptian "downs", are emphasized by the action of the foot which is not simply placed flat, but first places the toes and then the heel on the ground. The "down" is still a very typically "Egyptian" step.
In Egyptian dance, the feet were always bare, with traveling steps based on natural movements. The dancers were familiar with a wide range of movements: all types of jumps, hops and ballet-style pirouettes. They used simple walking, vigorous walking, stamping, running, short hops, or leaping. They did turns of 180 degrees. The hands were usually soft, relaxed and open. But there were also movements where the fist was clenched, or the palms were rigid and geometrical. Irena Lexova described the body movements as follows: "the movements of the trunk may be classified from the technical point of view into forward inclines, reclines, sideways inclines, hip, belt, waist and shoulder circulation. Dancers can combine these movements and execute them whilst keeping their spines stiff or accompany them by bending the spine forwards or backwards. Having regard to the manner of execution, one could distinguish movements performed at a normal speed from swings and retarded movements." In other words, the early Egyptian dances had a much larger range of movement that allowed by traditional "belly dance".
But as the Egyptian civilization grew it and became more sophisticated, and was influenced by other cultures. They felt the effects of Phoenicia, Syria, Palestine, Nubia, the Sudan, Ethiopia and the Bedouins. Foreign customs and wealth poured into Egypt. Around 1500 B.C. the Egyptians brought the previously mentioned Bayaderes, who were the elegant temple dancers of India. As an ancient text describes, the dances were becoming less like marches and more elegant: "the lines flow softly and pleasantly; nowhere do they bend sharply or break; and even where the mood is impetuous and impassioned, the movement remains close."
After the New Kingdom there were several invasions: the Libyans, the Sudanese, the Assyrians, and the Persians all influenced Egypt. In 30 B.C. Egypt became a Roman province. Martial, a Roman writer from the last half of the first century A.D., mentioned that dancers from the Nile were sent to Rome. Egyptian culture, whose development had been influenced by its neighbors, was also taken abroad to influence the new Roman Empire.
Perhaps one of the oldest records of a dance contract can be found in the archives of Greek papyri purchased by Cornell University. The following contract, recorded in koine (the Greek used in the Hellenistic period), dates from 206 A.D.:
"To Isadora, castanet dancer from Artemisia of the village of Philadelphia. I wish to engage you with two other castanet dancers to perform at the festival at my house for six days beginning with the 24th of the month of Payni [May 26-June 24] according to the old calendar, you receive as pay 36 drachmas for each day and for the entire period four artabas of barley and 20 pairs of bread loaves and whatsoever garments or gold ornaments you may bring down, we will guard these safely; and we will furnish you with two donkeys when you come down to us and a like number when you go back to the city. Year 14 of Lucius Septimius Severus Pius Pertinax and Marcus Aurelius Antonius Pius, Augusti, and Publicus Septimus Geta Caesar Augustus, Payni 16."
[fig 1] The dancer Isadora is referred to specifically as a "krotalistria", whereas the normal term for a dancer in Greek is "orchestria". Therefore, Isadora was a specialist in castanet dancing. (Fig 1 shows one type of "castanet dancer"). She was furnished with transportation and insured against lost of her costumes and props. Had she been a slave, she would not have been allowed to negotiate her own contracts. Thus, Isadora was also a free woman, and agreed to bring two other dancers with her. She could have had other dancers in her troupe as well. Given that the standard pay for bricklayers of the same era was about 2-1/2 drachmas per day, and a skilled weaver about 7-1/2 drachmas a day, the pay of 36 drachmas a day for the dancers was substantially higher. Saretta, who provided this analysis, added that there were approximately 14 other contracts in this period for entertainers who performed in the cities of the Empire.
Curt Sachs claims that Egyptian castanets existed in two forms: First, one shaped like a small wooden boot, cut in half lengthwise and grooved in the leg part, while the tapering foot part served as a handle. The second form was shaped more nearly like the modern Spanish castanuelas; but it was less flat and looked more like the chestnut (castana), for which it was probably named. Sachs adds that neither form is properly Egyptian. The best ones were Greek, and could have come originally from Phoenicia. The actual instruments found in Egypt, in the New Kingdom era, also include a small pair of finger cymbals with an upraised boss in the center, connected by the aforementioned short string. These are virtually identical to a pair found in Pompeii, c. 50 A.D., which are connected by a short chain. Whether the dancers used connected finger cymbals or a more rounded "castanet", the tradition of castanet dancers was widespread throughout the ancient world.
The well-known Ghawazee of Egypt (and the Ouled Nail of North Africa), are unfortunately not documented until the time that European foreigners start to travel in the middle east and write about the scandalous and exotic dancers of Egypt. The reason is likely to be the same that there is no written record of the dancing boys and girls of Istanbul; it simply was not respectable, and/or important enough for anyone to write about in a society where only the most elite and most respectable knew how to write. Therefore, we will discuss what these foreigners found when they wrote about the Ghawazee, even though none of it dates to before the 1600's. From the previous history of Egyptian culture, it is readily apparent that indeed, there were professional dancers from earliest times, and that dance was a part of everyday life. What these early itinerant dancers might have worn, or been called, we have no record of. So we will continue the story as seen by outsiders.
In 1798 the first organized expedition to Egypt was undertaken by a European power: Napoleon landed there seeking an alternative route to India. In Cairo, his soldiers encountered the Ghawazee, otherwise known as banat el beled. The Ghawazee (which meant "invaders of the heart"), were gypsies. They were found in settlements along the lower Nile and also in Cairo, where they quickly discovered a new source of revenue - the French soldiers. Bonaparte's Generals likened them to a pestilence and suggested that they be drowned if they were found loitering. In fact, the writer Auriant tells about four hundred of the Ghawazee who were captured and decapitated, after which their bodies were bundled into sacks and thrown into the Nile. General Billier then suggested to the government that they should try to find proper work for the Ghawazee. On a more practical level, the French later set up licensed brothels in the city. Not only could the women be checked by doctors, they could be taxed.
The attitude of the Egyptians themselves toward the dancers was much different. During the reign of Haroun Al Rashid in Egypt in the ninth century, dancers outnumbered singers to such an extent that it was decided to train some of them more fully in the musical arts. These became known as Almeh (from Alemah, Arabic for learned women) The Almeh were not seen by Napoleon's army, because they were so disgusted with the foreigners that they withdrew from the city and did not return until Napoleon left. Except for special occasions it was considered improper to have Ghawazee inside the house, which was the province of the more respectable Almeh. The Almeh were often part of private harems, and taught the arts of love through their sensuous dances.
[fig 2] Although these early foreigners found the Ghawazee quite obscene, their pictures show women wearing fitted tunics with a low cut bodice, large full skirts, and bulky scarfs around their hips (fig 2). The tunic, cut low around the bodice appears to have derived from the Persian/Turkish tunics as seen on the ladies of the Ottoman Court. Another distinctive feature associated with the Ghawazee are the elbow-length sleeves with a decorative piece of material off the elbow; these are quite logically derived from the Persian coat, which had detachable sleeves, and sleeves which were so long as to be impractical and purely decorative. They are also shown wearing fitted jackets which go halfway down over their hips. Yet another version is the sheer blouse, with small fitted vest, and long full skirt starting at the hips (fig 12). A very full pair of Turkish "hareem" pants might also been seen instead of the skirt.
[fig 12] There exists in Egypt today a family with claim to be the true descendants of the "Ghawazee". They were generally said to have been centered in Esna, Qena, or Luxor. The modern-day descendants live in Luxor, and are known are the Banat Mazin, or the Mazin family. The Egyptian National Folkloric group used research done with this family to choreograph "Ghawazee" dances for the new folkloric tradition. Interestingly, the Mazin dancers speak of their dance as "raqs sha'abi", or folk dance, rather than "raqs sharqi" or belly dancing. "They said that oriental dancers moved around more, and had a more varied repertoire, especially of arm movements. Oriental dancers performed to "oriental" music with the classic middle eastern instruments, a taqsiym (slow/arrhythmic) section; while the proper music of the Ghawazee was folk music on the mizmar and tabla baladi, or perhaps the rebabi (a type of string instrument). Oriental dancers wore revealing costumes of delicate, gauzy materials; Ghawazi wore heavier, more complicated outfits which, they said, did not allow as much freedom of movement" (fig. 12)
As to the dance style of these 19th century Ghawazee, those who see Edward Lane's time-stopped, very elegantly engraved dancing ladies forget that he intended nothing of the kind! Quamar notes that, a 19th century engraver, noted that their dances had "little of elegance; it's chief peculiarity being a very rapid vibrating motion of the hips, from side to side". Qamar noted that the chief movement of the Ghawazee dance was a side-to-side shimmy performed extensively to a very fast 4/4 beat, and was the basic movement to which the dancers returned again and again. The dancers not only dance, they also sing, tell jokes, and generally interact with the audience. This aspect of their performance would have been lost to foreigners, who did not understand the language.
[fig 5][fig 4] Another type of dance associated with Egyptian folkloric dance is the men's cane dance, or stick dance, shown in fig. 5. The Tahtib is the oldest form of Egyptian martial art to have survived, intact, from remote antiquity according to Magda Saleh. Egypt's first theatricalizer of folk dance, Mahmoud Reda, reports viewing representations of this form depicted on the great monuments and tombs in Luxor (fig 4). The long stick used in the Tahtib in Egypt - thick and solid bamboo staff - is know as Asa or Asaya, shoum or Nabboot. As Edward Lane reported: "The Nebboot is a formidable weapon and is often seen in the Egyptian peasant: he usually carries it on a journey; particularly when he travels by night." The tahtib is a favorite at any festive occasions, such as weddings, welcoming parties, and harvest festivals. It is also practiced by the men as a pastime and used as a means of self-defense.
[fig 3] [fig 6] It has also become the custom for female dancers to dance with a cane, in a much more delicate fashion, (see fig. 3 & 6) This may include balancing the cane, holding the cane and shimmying, and swinging the cane about at above and below head level. It has been suggested that the women's cane dance is a "parody" or "comedy" of the men's dance. The ghawazee cane dance witnessed by Qamar did include, however, a very interesting and distinctive step. It is a step-hop, (fig 6) which the National Folkloric group calls the "tawalli" step. The step is basically a hop on one foot, and a lifting of the other leg with the thigh horizontal to the floor at hip level, and the leg bent downward at the knee. In addition to being a very folkloric move, it also bears great similarity to the hop-step shown in pictures of Turkish dancing boys and girls.
Modern belly dancers also perform sword dances, in the sense of sword balancing. Eva Cernik, a professional dancer who travels regularly to Egypt and Turkey, tells this anecdote about sword dancing: "There was a time in Egyptian history when dancers were sold as slaves into the courts, or as property of the wealthy. Some acclimated well, but some retained their independence in a very special way. They took to dancing with swords normally used in battle. They did not wave them around in fighting mode, as the men did, but rather they delicately balanced them on their heads, dancing undaunted, expressing themselves beneath the sword. 'You control my life, you hold the sword over my head, but you do not control my spirit.'" Whether this story is true or not, it is a wonderful explanation.