Preconceptions about Dance

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Preconceptions about Dance

Earlier Misunderstandings.

Nineteenth-century Egyptologists hindered accurate interpretations of ancient Egyptian dance by imposing their own value systems on the evidence. The lack of clothing in Egyptian dance caused scholars to think of Egyptian dance as lewd, and thus they turned to more seemly subjects for study. These scholars also mistranslated the word "khener"—an Egyptian word meaning "musical bureau"—as "harem." They assumed that there was a connection between the word for musical bureau and the word for women's quarters (harem) because of the similarity of the hieroglyphic writing of the two different words. This misconception added to scholars' difficulties in dealing with Egyptian dance. Moreover, Western scholars did not make an immediate connection between dance and religious ritual because Western culture does not generally maintain the tradition of sacred dance that was common to biblical religion. The absence of dance in the church, synagogue, or mosque traditions found in the West made scholars tentative in accepting dance as integral to ancient Egyptian culture.

Recent Scholarship.

Recently scholars have recognized the important role dance played in Egyptian funerals and cult ritual. They note, for example, that the ancient text called "The Wisdom of Any" ranks dance along with food, clothing, and incense as essential to divine worship. Some scholars have now studied different words for dance in ancient Egyptian and recorded dance scenes in tombs and temples. Additional data, along with less prudish attitudes toward dance, will eventually result in a better understanding of this phenomenon.


introduction: Egyptologists have given the name "wisdom texts" to a genre of Egyptian texts that dispense advice and explain the nature of the world. The "Wisdom of Any" was written in the late New Kingdom and touches on many aspects of life. In this passage Any discusses man's relationship to the gods, which includes a mention of the importance of song and dance to the gods.

Observe the feast of your god,
And repeat its season,
God is angry if it is neglected. …

It will extol the might of the god.
Song, dance, incense are his foods,
Receiving prostrations is his wealth;
The god does it to magnify his name.

source: "Ani," in The New Kingdom. Vol. 2 of Ancient Egyptian Literature. Trans. Miriam Lichtheim (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976): 136.


Janice M. Cummings, "Temple Dance in Ancient Egypt." Unpublished master's thesis (New York: New York University, 2000).

Jonathan van Lepp, "The Dance Scene of Watetkhethor." Unpublished master's thesis (Los Angeles: University of California at Los Angeles, 1987).

Magda Saleh, in International Encyclopedia of Dance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998): 482–483.