Ancient Mothers of Drummers and the Art of Dance

Young girls standing on windowsill

The art of dance was incorporated in many religious rituals and festivals of ancient civilizations. From the third millennium BC, ancient Egyptians started to use dance as an integral part of their religious ceremonies, using dancers to perform important events such as divine tales and celestial patterns of shifting sun and stars. In ancient Greece, dance was very freely used for public purposes until it eventually brought about the birth of the popular Greek theatre in the 6th century BC. The Hindu faith has a close connection to music as they claim that it was the dance of the Supreme Dancer Nataraja, a representation of the Hindu god Shiva as the supreme dancer, that formed the entire Universe. Indeed, each of the Hindu gods and goddesses has their own manner of manifesting power through dance movements. Buddhism is also known for their Korean Seungmu dance performed by Buddhist monks.

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Master Assistant Kim Myo Seon performing the Seungmu dance, in the traditional Changsam costume.

The significant role of women in the art of dance can also be traced back to civilisation’s very beginnings. Examples of cave paintings from as far back as 6000 BC, such as in the Addauta Cave near Palermo and Catalonia’s Roca dels Moros, include scenes of women dancing. Depictions of female ritual dancers also come from tomb-scenes of the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt where dancers and singers are shown performing in the funeral procession at the entrance to the tomb. In the Old Kingdom, most dancers were women who belonged to the bureau called the Hnr which sent them to perform at funerals and important festivals. Initially at least, all the members of the Hnr seemed to be female with women classified in tomb scenes with titles such as “hnr overseer” or “hnr inspector.” One lady of the Fifth Dynasty, Neferesres, was given the titles “overseer of the king’s hnr” and “overseer of the king’s dances.” The hnr’s female supremacy ended at the close of the Old Kingdom when male performers began to be portrayed in the tomb-scenes and the names of male officials.

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Dancing scene in a burial chamber. circa 1950 BC

Every ancient religion had a god or goddess closely associated with dance. The Egyptian goddess Bastet was celebrated with dancing. There are also several pieces of ancient Greek art that portrays dancing women from the sixth and fifth centuries BC. The virgins of Delos danced in a circle to honor Apollo who represented the power of medicine, music and poetry, while women known as the Dyonysiac danced in frenzy honoring Dionysos, the god of wine. These dancing women, whose hysteria even sweeps them into a murderous act are not only often depicted on Greek vases, they were even immortalized in a tragedy – the Bacchae by Euripides. In Ancient Rome, women singers and dancers participated in Isis’s annual ceremonies that included mystery plays representing the resurrection of Osiris. In India, the Hindu dance Bharatanhatyam is a surviving ancient art in which a traditional team performance art that consists of a female solo dancer accompanied by musicians and one or more singers. This dance is still performed even today.

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Konstantin Makovsky, “Bacchante” (1905)

There is also a long known tradition of women dancers in China. Texts from the Spring and Autumn period (771–476 BC) include accounts of skilled dancing girls. The Nishang Yuyi dance, produced by Emperor Li Longji (685–762 AD), stages a group of virgin women performing as though they were performing in a magical universe. The women’s chorus dances performed during the Zhou dynasty (c. 1046–256 BC) were known as xi. The ancient theatrical spectacles called baixi involved dancing girls with fluttering silk sleeves in their dresses. The Shirabyoshi dancers of 12th century Japan were known for their dancing and poetry. The Shirabyoshi were popular female dancers in the Imperial Court of Japan who participated in the traditional Japanese dances dressed as men. One of the most famous was the court dancer was named Shizuka who appears in many of the Japanese literature of the period.

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Shirabyōshi Dancer by Chiyōka, c. 1920s, ink and color on paper

In Mesopotamia, the dance of girls and women seems to be described in a more sexual sense. In a letter dated to the first half of the second millenium BC, dancing was apparently seen as a symbol of irresponsibility and disrespect. Namram-sharur and the city’s elders write to Shapirini to complain about a certain woman. They write, “while dancing every day, the woman slighted us tremendously by regularly behaving thoughtlessly.”

In most cultures, people have expressed their innermost thoughts and feelings throughout history through dance in an outward display of happiness, sorrow, celebration and other strong emotions. An example of dance’s ability to convey these powerful emotions comes from Xenophon’s Symposium, where two dancers performed Ariadne and Dionysos’ love affair in the final scene. The dancers, a boy and a girl, so vividly demonstrated the emotional state that, after the set, the crowd of Athenian men who made up their audience, rushed back home to their wives, and those who were not married swore that they would find a wife or lover to rush home to as soon as possible. In other words, the emotional state that the dancers portrayed was passed to the audience and felt vividly. It is this expressive capacity of dance that made it possible to find a certain form of dance dangerous as a dance style might expose the inner values of the dancer. In the story of Herodotus of Sicyon’s Cleisthenes, after Cleisthenes saw one of his daughter’s suitors, Hippocleides from Athens, dancing in a lewd manner he screamed, “you have danced away your marriage,” thinking that the man’s soul was indeed filthy like his dancing.

Skinny dancer jumping over sandy shore of ocean

The first person in history to be called drummer was a woman. She was a Mesopotamian priestess called Lipushiau who lived in Ur in 2380 BC. Lipushiau was the spiritual, political, and administrative leader of the most powerful temple dedicated to the moon god, Nanna-Suen, in Ur. Her office symbol was the balag-di, a little round drum used to perform liturgical chanting. As a priestess, Lipushiau acted as a bridge between the realms of the gods and of man. She associated herself with sacred rhythms and served as a summoner and conduit, summoning and transmitting divine energy to the world.

Sumerian written documents from 3000 to 2500 BC identify the goddess Inanna as the creator of the drum as well as many other musical instruments. Priestesses of Inanna sang and chanted to the rhythms of the drums. Such drumming practices were carried out in Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Palestine and Assyria in the later worship of Ishtar, Asherah, Ashtoreth, Astarte, and Anat.

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Terracotta plaque showing the Goddess Ishtar standing on a lion. From Iraq. 18th-17th century BC

Priestesses also played a big role as composers and choreographers of the music and dance used on sacred occasions. A rectangular double-headed frame drum dated from 1400 BC was found in a tomb of a woman named Hatnofer. The skin head of a frame drum still survived from the Ptolemaic period. On its surface, there is a depiction of  a woman playing a frame drum in front of the goddess Isis.

Pre-classical Greece also saw the emergence of the goddess Cybele’s cult from western Anatolia. In the worship of Cybele and Dionysus as well as the priestesses of Artemis, Demeter and Aphrodite, the tympanum (the Greek drum) was the principal instrument of the maenads, the priestesses of the cult of Dionysos. The Romans saw the last major development of such rites when the cult of Cybele was introduced to Rome in April 204 BC. She was described as, “Cybele, the All-Begetting Mother, who beat a drum to mark the rhythm of life.” Later, Rome became the spiritual hub for the mystical religions of Cybele, Dionysus, Isis and Dea Syria — all of which used the frame drum in their ecstatic rituals. These practices flourished until the Roman Empire officially adopted Christianity in the fourth century AD.

Woman Raising Her Hands