A part of the fresco from the tomb of Nebamun depicting dancers at a funeral.

Anthropology: Dancing Through the Ages

Dance and the body have had a very long and deeply folded relationship. As far back as we can think, the body and its movements have been used to express emotions but also experience emotions and emotionalities. Dance is one example of this body movement. People have danced on their own and in groups, in traditional festivities and in rituals. They have ascribed spiritual, emotional, psychological, cultural, and “intellectual” significance to their dances. Some dance while happy and ecstatic, some dance to grieve and mourn. Dance offers a flow where words are not needed, and some would in fact argue dance goes beyond what language does and can. Dance reflects the culture and the worldview of the dancer. It is not a fixed representation but a flow which changes and shifts and moulds and shapes.

Dance can be categorized by the time period or place it started out from, the particular choreography style it bears, or the stock of its movements. While some anthropologists and dance ethnologists say that all dance has some meaning and symbolism to it, others argue it is not necessarily so, and the dance does not have to be any better for that reason alone.

The Ancients Danced

Dancing figures, or figures that seem to be dancing, have appeared in the paintings and drawings etched onto ancient cave and tomb walls. The Bhimbetka rock shelters in central India – an important archaeological site from the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) and Mesolithic (between Paleolithic and Neolithic periods) periods – comprises some more than 750 rock shelters in 7 hills. These rock shelters were inhabited some 100,000 years ago. Some of the paintings on the walls of these rock shelters depict people hunting but also people that are dancing.

The Mesolithic people shown dancing in a cave painting in Bhimbetka rock shelters.
The Mesolithic people shown dancing in a cave painting in Bhimbetka rock shelters.
(Image source: Wikipedia)


This cave painting at Bhimbetka shows a man holding a trident-like staff and dancing. The archaeologist V.S. Wakankar named this dancing man "Nataraj".
This cave painting at Bhimbetka shows a man holding a trident-like staff and dancing. The archaeologist V.S. Wakankar named this dancing man “Nataraj”.
(Image source: Wikipedia)

Dance is believed to have been an important part of life in ancient Egypt as well. Dancers would perform at festivities as well as funerals. Dancing figures have been found drawn on rocks, pottery and shrouds. A fresco from the wall of the tomb of Nebamun shows a group of people at a funerary banquet, playing music and dancing. It was hoped this scene would continue in the afterlife of the deceased. A specific dance at the funerary rites was dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Hathor, the symbolic mother to the pharaohs and who would help guide the dead pharaoh away into the afterlife. This dance included skips to the beat of percussion and claps. Sacred dancers called “mww” or “muu” would also dance in between, with the same purpose of helping the deceased pass through and over.

A part of the fresco from the tomb of Nebamun depicting dancers at a funeral.
A part of the fresco from the tomb of Nebamun, depicting dancers at a funeral.
(Image source: Wikipedia)

The Various Dances

People have danced on various occasions and for various sentimentalities through time. Dances exist from spiritual and funerary dances to festive and social dances. People dance at weddings and at births, at carnivals and festivals, as well as shrines and funerals.

Funerary, or Mourning, Dances

The funerary or mourning dances are danced collectively, and may or may not be accompanied by music. The performance and body movements carried out in sync by a group of people together can provide a vent to the grief and sense of loss experienced when a loved one dies.

The Maori people of New Zealand have a dance called the Haka dance, which traditionally was a war dance. Currently, it is danced at funerals, but also some other important occasions, such as ceremonies to welcome special guests. The dance is characterised by stomping feet and yelling rhythmically. It can also involve protruding the tongue out, but only when danced by men. Traditionally, only the men partook in it but now women and children can do so too. The group of people that perform the Haka dance is called the “kapa haka”. The word “kapa” means rank or row, whereas the word “haka” means bow-legged or dance. The Haka dance specific to the funerals is called “Manawa wera” haka, and does not involve much choreography but rather focuses on the free movement of the body whereby the dancer can express their emotions.

The Haka dance of the Maori people. This painting of the dance was made by Joseph Jenner Merrett (1845).
The Haka dance of the Maori people. This painting of the dance was made by Joseph Jenner Merrett (1845).
(Image source: Wikipedia)

The Mutu or Dodi dance of the Kenga people of central Sudan is a funerary dance, performed on the afternoon of the burial day. This dance is characterised by quick stomping steps and energetic movements. Both men and women can partake in this mourning dance. The mourners gather in the afternoon at the house of the deceased. The dance is then accompanied by music played on three drums, three rattles, and five differently-pitched flutes.

Spiritual Dances

Dance can also have a spiritual significance for those that engage in it. An example of this would be the dance of the “Whirling Derwishes” in Turkey. The dance of the Whirling Derwishes is a classic image of Turkey, and a much sought-after experience by those that travel to Turkey. It is a type of meditation which involves the physical activity of whirling around, and comes about from Sufi mysticism.

In the 13th century, the famous mystic poet Jaluluddin Rumi started the Whirling Derwishes ceremonies. The dance would help him achieve an enlightened state. His dance, called the “sema”, soon spread to other places within the Ottoman Empire. The Mevlevi order became the most renowned for this dance, and by the 15th century, it had established rules to this ritual dance.

The Derwishes wear a white robe with a full skirt which represents the shroud of their ego. On their heads, they don a black, gray, or brown, cone-shaped felt hat, called a “sikke”, which symbolizes a tombstone on the grave of their ego. Atop the white robe, they wear long dark-colored cloaks which represent worldly life; this cloak of a worldly life is shed away as the ceremony begins.

The dance itself involves whirling around in rhythmic patterns, using the left foot to help turn the body around while keeping the right foot anchored at the centre of the circular whirling pattern. This is accompanied by music played on a flute, kettle, and cymbal. As the dancing and whirling picks up, the skirts begin to rise to form a circular cone which seems to hover in the air. The dancers have their eyes open but do not look or focus at anything – their whirling has them in a meditative state already. The ceremony represents the spiritual ascension of the person.

The Whirling Derwishes.
The Whirling Derwishes.
(Image source: © Culture Trip/ https://theculturetrip.com/europe/turkey/articles/ancient-sufi-dance-rumis-whirling-dervishes/)

Shamanic, Medicinal, or Healing Dances

The Devil Dances of Sri Lanka are danced at the Yakun Natima ceremony, to help relieve ailments. This ritual ceremony can be traced further back than Sri Lanka’s pre-Buddhist past. The ritual can last up to 12 hours, and mixes relief and humor with fear and trepidation in order to provide a catharsis to the ailing as well as others gathered. The bereya drums play the beat, while the exorcist or shaman wearing the mask or “vesmuna” incarnates the devil responsible for that ailment. The wooden mask is made to look fierce and scary. This devil represents the cause as well as the cure to the ailment.

The ritual involves eighteen masked dances called the “sanni yakuma”. The eighteen physical and psychological ailments are believed to have been caused by the eighteen local demons, called the “sanni” in the Sinhalese tradition. The eighteen “sanni yakuma” dances help exorcise these disease-causing demons. The demon would be lured in by a specialist offering making him offerings, the demon would then be made to promise to leave the body of the afflicted one, and finally the demon would be exorcised out and away with a last dance.

The Naga Mask helps keep away from snake bites. It is an elaborately decorated mask with multiple cobra snakes adorning the demon face.
The Naga Mask helps keep away from snake bites. It is an elaborately decorated mask with multiple cobra snakes adorning the demon face.
(Image source: http://fernandopriyanga.blogspot.com/2010/09/vesmuhunu-devil-masks-of-sri-lanka.html)

Aesthetic Entertainment, Storytelling, and Interpretive Enactments

Kathak is a type of Indian classical dance, which is said to have traditionally stemmed from the bards travelling in the north of ancient India and storytelling as they went around. They were called “kathakars”, which is a Vedic Sanskrit word for storytellers, and stems from the word “katha”, which means story. Kathakars would tell stories through songs, music, and dance. The kathak dancers tell stories through their hand movements, footwork, and especially their facial and eye expressions, while their upper torso and legs remain straight. The dancers wear a band called “pazeb” laden with tiny bells called “ghungroo” on their feet when they dance. These tiny bells tinkle as the dancer dances, and the tinkle grows louder as the dance grows vigorous, thus conveying the emotions in the story that the dance is trying to tell quite well. The focus of the dance becomes the dancer’s eyes and the footwork.

This dance is believed to be traceable back to around 400 BCE. It is believed to have likely originated from the ancient Indian city of Varanasi (or Benares), and shaped further during the Bhakti movement era. So the story goes that a Bhakti named Ishwari developed this dance as a form of worship, and so the earlier theme of this dance revolved around the legends about the Hindu god Krishna, his lover Radha, and the milkmaids (gopis). The love between Krishna and Radha became to symbolize the soul within and the cosmic soul, in this dance. From Benares, this dance form is said to have eventually then travelled to Jaipur, Lucknow, and other parts in the north and northwest of India. In fact, the three distinct forms of the kathak dance, called “gharanas” (meaning household), are named after the three cities of Benares, Lucknow, and Jaipur. The stories told and the themes explored through the Kathak dance also expanded with time.

A Kathak dance performance. The dancer is wearing the 'pazeb' with tiny bells called 'ghungroo' on his feet.
A Kathak dance performance. The dancer is wearing the ‘pazeb’ with tiny bells called ‘ghungroo’ on his feet.
(Image source: Wikipedia/ Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France – Danse Kathak (musée Guimet, Paris)
Danse Kathak, Sharmila Sharma et Rajendra Kumar Gangani et leurs musiciens samedi 24 Novembre 2007 au musée Guimet (Paris))

Ballet is another dance that has a storytelling aspect to it. Ballet originated in the 15th century during the Italian Renaissance, and later further developed in France, where dance was combined with music, poetry, singing, and elaborate costumes and staging. The earlier ballet dancers in these courts were noble amateurs. Under King Louis XIV, the Academie Royale de Danse (Royal Dance Academy) was set up, and ballet dance instructors started teaching different ballet techniques. In 1672, the first professional ballet company, the Paris Opera Ballet, came into being. Some of the most famous classical ballet productions that are performed today are: Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty – stories dramatised and danced for the audience. The classical ballet involves dancers wearing specially made costumes for this dance, called tutus. A classical tutu is stiff and short, ending in a horizontal outward projection at the waist and hips (like the one shown in the photograph below).

The ballet production, Swan Lake, is being performed.
The ballet production, Swan Lake, is being performed.
(Image source: Wikipedia/ Alexander Kenney / Kungliga Operan – http://www.mynewsdesk.com/se/pressroom/kungliga_operan/image/view/svansjoen-i-klassisk-och-unik-version-25195
Swan Lake production 2008 at the Royal Swedish Opera)

Harvest Festival Dances

The Bhangra dance from the region of Punjab – in Pakistan and India – is traditionally associated with the celebrations related to the harvest season. “Bhangra” is known as both a type of dance as well as a genre of music, to which the Bhangra dance is danced. The dance comprises skips and leaps, arms and a foot occasionally raised up, and energetic movements to the beat of a particular drum called “dhol”. This is accompanied by people singing short lyrical songs called “Boliyaan” to one another.

Bhangra dance of the Punjab region.
Bhangra dance of the Punjab region.
(Image source: © Pete Birkinshaw (CC BY 2.0)/ https://www.britannica.com/art/bhangra)

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Dance has existed in various time periods and various geographies. Dance has had cultural and social value for people. The ancient civilizations, such as the ancient Indians or the Egyptians, seem to have had dance as a part of their way of life. The Haka dance of the Maori in New Zealand and the Dodi dances of the Kenga people in Sudan take place at funerals and on burial days. The Whirling Derwishes in Turkey engage in a “sema” dance as a form of spiritual meditation. The Devil Dances of Sri Lanka help exorcise the local demons causing the various ailments. Dance can also be an interpretation of ancient legends, and a way to tell a story. The Kathak dance in South Asia and the ballet are examples of such a dance. Then there are festival dances, such as the Bhangra in South Asia. There are many more dances out there. Some would also argue that yoga, tai chi, or kung fu can also be called a dance. No matter how we define ‘dance’, one thing is clear: we have been dancing through the ages!

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