What is Pharaonic Dance?

by Shira

Every once in a while, the term Pharaonic dance comes up among the European and North American belly dance communities. You might see it mentioned as the style intended for a particular song appearing on an Eddie Kochak CD. Or maybe you'll overhear another dancer at an event stating that one of her specialties is Pharaonic dance. So what is it, who performs it, and how does one do it?

Delilah in Pharaonic Costume

In the above photo, Delilah Flynn of Seattle portrays Hathor, with a brass mirror in one hand and an ankh in the other.

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A Definition

Technically, the name Pharaonic dance refers to "dance style performed in the time of the Egyptian pharaohs". When most dancers use the term, they are associating it with modern day beliefs about the culture of ancient Egypt, many of which have not been supported by research. In other words, most such performances are a 20th-century or 21st-century creation which grew out of the Orientalist art and literature movement of the 19th century and the early days of the modern dance movement. Usually, Pharaonic dance is performed to New Age music, by a dancer or ensemble wearing clothing inspired by the paintings from tomb walls. Many such dances will include poses with the palms of the hands flat and parallel to the floor, sometimes with candles balanced on them. Such poses aren't supported by historical research, but because Western audiences have been conditioned by the posturing of early modern dance artists to expect these poses in Pharaonic dance, performers often include them to lead the audience into the right frame of mind.

In the photo to the right, Arabella of Toronto, Canada wears a Pharaonic costume. Photo by Carolyn Thompson. Several articles written by Arabella including instructions on how to make this costume appear elsewhere on this web site.

Arabella In Her Costume

Of course, the major problem with the "weird hand positions" approach is that it's a cliché. People do it because it's easy, but that doesn't mean it's the path to a captivating performance. That's why some people who refer to their dance as "Pharaonic" such as Delilah Flynn and Laurel Victoria Gray take a different path. What they and others create looks entirely different from the above. These dancers have done their own independent research into examining artwork from ancient Egyptian sources. They have attempted to extrapolate what types of movement may have been depicted by such pictures. These dancers have provided the most exciting interpretations what the dance forms of ancient Egypt may have looked like.

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A Historical Perspective

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the archeological finds in Egypt captivated European and North American society. People were fascinated by the discoveries, and the world of ancient Egypt became fashionable. Against the backdrop of this cultural fad, the early pioneers of modern dance drew inspiration from the Orient. Isadora Duncan, and later Ruth St. Denis, embraced Egypt as a theme, and used it as inspiration when creating their own distinctive dances. In its early days, modern dance relied heavily on European and American imagination of what ancient Greece and Egypt might have been like, without much factual research to substantiate it. Of course, modern dance was important to Western culture for many, many reasons. The early modern dance artists who were inspired by motifs of ancient Egypt and Greece may not have been historically correct in their depictions, but they reinvented the entire institution of theatrical dance in Western society. Today, we need to view their work as wonderfully creative innovation, not as re-enactment of ancient dance. In the book Ancient Egyptian Dances by Irena Lexova, which was published in 1935, the preface written by Dr. Frantisek Lexa states:

"Some years ago I saw some modern dancing girls perform Egyptian dances. The common characteristics of all these dances were the insipid, jerky movements, unaesthetic postures, and abrupt turns of limbs. Although some of the girls asserted that it was the ancient Egyptian pictures of Egyptian dancers which they copied, I could not recollect seeing such movements and postures on any ancient Egyptian pictures."

Lexova's book contains 76 pages of illustrations, and interestingly the only two that show the right-angle wrist and elbow positions that we normally associate with Pharaonic dance are figures 77 and 78, which are not Egyptian at all, but rather come from Etruscan tombs in Italy. Lexova's point, of course, is that the early 20th century dancers who brought this "Egyptian" posturing on stage were certainly not using real Egyptian information as their source. Still, although Lexova could find no historical, factual link to ancient Egypt in those angular arm poses, Europeans and North Americans now widely associate them with that culture. Unfortunately, the ancient Egyptians didn't leave behind any video tapes or DVD's for us to show what their dance forms looked like. We have to guess as best we can from the artwork and textual descriptions left behind.

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Where Can Pharaonic Dance Be Seen?

Pharaonic dance is not a mainstream part of the Oriental dance scene today. Once in a while someone will do it, but more likely you could sit through an entire belly dancing festival without seeing any Pharaonic dance at all. I'm not knowledgeable about modern dance, so I can't comment on today's choreographers have carried forward the Egyptian theme that inspired Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. Within the belly dancing community, you are most likely to see Pharaonic dance in these situations:

Video

  • Delilah has a video titled Dance to the Great Mother, which captures a Pharaonic dance she created to celebrate the role of women as life-givers. In her performance on this video, Delilah is 8 months pregnant. See the "Resources" section below for more information.
  • In the mid-1980's, Horacio Cifuentes (now in Berlin, Germany) released a video showing several of his performances, including a Pharaonic piece. He no longer sells this video, but you may be able to obtain it through used-video sources such as eBay.
  • When I asked Horacio about the 1980's video, he told me that he has a new video titled Best of Oriental Fantasy with what he feels is a better Pharaonic piece on it. I haven't seen that video, so I can't comment on its merits.

Special Theatrical Productions

Some belly dancers organize special theatrical presentations which build dance performances around a central artistic theme. For example, every summer Dhyanis sponsors a show in the San Francisco area called The Living Goddess which focuses goddess-themed dance performances. When appropriate to the theme of such a show, some dancers may present Pharaonic-style performances.

Egypta Publicity Postcard

In 1996, Laurel Victoria Gray produced an entire show in Berlin, Germany of dances inspired by ancient Egypt. She created much of the choreography herself, and drew from other dancers such as Delilah Flynn of Seattle to contribute some pieces. Since then, "Egypta: Myth, Magic, and Mystery" has also been performed in the U.S. on various occasions. The above illustration shows the postcard that Laurel used to promote one of the performances of Egypta. The wings for the costume of the goddess Isis were made from over 200 separate pieces of fabric.

Dance Festivals or Seminar Shows

At a dance festival that offers continuous performing on stage or a seminar show that features a dozen or more individual dance acts in one show, the audience can grow weary of an endless parade of generic belly dancing. Even a highly talented dancer can have trouble holding the audience's attention if seven other good soloists have performed just prior to her. For that reason, some dancers will experiment with other approaches, such as Pharaonic dance, to stand out from the crowd.

Performance Art

Occasionally, belly dancers will be invited to participate in artistic events that showcase a variety of dance styles. Or, perhaps they'll be offered an opportunity to perform for a museum opening that asks for an artistic presentation tied to the ancient Middle East. In these situations, they may experiment with unusual approaches, such as dancing while poetry is recited, performing Pharaonic dance, or enacting a story.

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How to Try Pharaonic Dance

There aren't many belly dancers who teach or perform Pharaonic dance because it's not part of the mainstream. For that reason, you'll probably have difficulty finding a teacher in your community who has worked with Pharaonic dance. You may need to rely on videos showing performance of Pharaonic dance as a source of ideas and inspiration.

Reflect on What You're Trying to Do

I would suggest that you start with doing some reading about the culture of ancient Egypt, particularly the goddesses Hathor, Bastet, and Isis, all of whom are associated with dance. By grasping some of the flavor of this culture, you'll be in a better position to deliver a convincing dance interpretation. When I asked Delilah Flynn about the process she has used to create her Pharaonic dances, here is what she said:

To create a meaningful Pharaonic dance I need to think like an ancient Egyptian. I do this by reading about ancient Egyptian philology and religion, studying the hieroglyphics, reading works on the daily lives of the Egyptians as scholars have presumed, by visiting the temples of Egypt, and meditating for inspirations. I research the dress, I make it, and I wear it, to have a sense of movement. I craft, I paint, I bead. I listen to the musical instrumentation known to exist at that time. For the Egyptians all their gods and goddesses are alive. I resurrect them from out of the pages of history and I make them live for me today.

Everything has meaning. As an artist I must have total immersion. One must study the origins and impetus of all dance. It will lead them to a deeply spiritual place; a communion with body, life force and space. Go to the temples and you will find they were all about space. Isadora Duncan said, "No movement is owned by any culture, only rediscovered."

Imagine you are there and ask your deepest self how you feel like moving and you will arrive at an authentic dance. Ask your ba, your ka, your akh, your khaibit, your sahu, your khat.

As you learn more about the culture of ancient Egypt, plan what you want your dance to say. Familiarize yourself with some of the stories of ancient times - perhaps you'll find one that you'd like to re-enact through dance. Maybe you'll want to use dance to portray an actual historical character such as Hatshepsut, or maybe you'll want to dance an archetype such as a temple priestess to Hathor or an Assyrian slave girl dreaming of freedom. The book Ancient Egyptian Dances talks about the use of dance for different occasions, such as funeral, religious, war, and others. Maybe one of these concepts will inspire you. Reflect on your own ideas about ancient Egypt. What did they have to dance about? Why do you want to do a dance inspired by this culture - what does the culture say to you? The more you can bring your thoughts together into an understanding of what you want to accomplish with your own dance, the more powerful your dance will be. If you don't know what you're trying to say with your dance, then your audience certainly won't know, either.

Costuming

Hathor & Neferari

Some dancers wear fairly simple costuming for Pharaonic dance, teaming a simple white robe with a Cleopatra-style wig and a gold band around the forehead. Others create beautifully draped elaborate dresses with sumptuous jewelry, belts, and other accessories.

The abundant supply of Egyptian artwork that has been discovered on tomb walls provides many costume ideas. Spend some time studying books about the art and history of ancient Egypt to look for ideas that appeal to you.

Instructions for making Arabella's costume (shown to the right) appear elsewhere on this web site.

Arabella's Costume

Music

For music, we know from ancient artwork that they used harps, flutes, stringed instruments that resemble the modern-day saz (long-necked lute), frame drums, and sistrums (type of rattle). Some of the illustrations in Ancient Egyptian Dances distort the shape of the fingers, as if they were playing finger cymbals or castanets. This allows us to make some guesses about the type of music that may have been used.

Musicians Papyrus

  • My favorite music for this is Ancient Egypt, composed in 1978 by Ali Jihad Racy, an Egyptian ethnomusicologist for the King Tutankhamun Exhibit in Seattle. Racy has conducted extensive research into musical notations and instrumentation from ancient times and composed some fascinating music based on what he learned. It's probably the closest you're likely to get to music that captures the true flavor of ancient Egypt, short of finding an ancient CD in an as-yet undiscovered tomb.
  • Many dancers choose New Age music for their Pharaonic interpretations, particularly if they choose to enact a temple scene. The band named Desert Wind has a number of CD's that may provide inspiration. My favorite Desert Wind CD's are Kali Ma and Return to the Goddess.
  • Volume 6 of Eddie Kochak's Strictly Belly Dancing recordings contains one song titled Phaedra Pharaonica which is intended for this type of dance interpretation.
  • The Phaedra Pharaonica track from the Eddie Kochak album can also be found on a CD titled Aziza Raks, which is available from Hollywood Music Center.

Movement

Don't limit yourself to those funny arm and hand poses that everyone thinks are typically Egyptian. If you want to throw some of these poses in because it matches your creative vision, that's your privilege as an artist. But don't feel that you're required to. Try to expand your thinking beyond the obvious cliché, and unleash your personal creativity. Start with a view of what message you want the dance to portray. Then pick music that evokes that message in you. Once you have your message and your music, the movements will follow. Just make sure that your movements and your desired costuming approach will work together!

Resources to Inspire You

  • Ancient Egyptian Dances. This book by Irena Lexova is an excellent starting point for learning facts about the dance forms of ancient Egypt. It has some limitations, but is worth a look. Click here to read my review.
  • The Belly Dance Book. This book, edited by Tazz Richards, contains an article by Elizabeth "Artemis" Mourat about the dances of ancient Egypt. It's a shortened version of a 56-page research manuscript that she wrote on the subject. Click here to read my review.
  • Delilah Flynn. Delilah, based in Seattle, Washington, has been exploring Pharaonic dance for many years. Visit her web site for several resources, including an article she wrote titled Experience of the Beautiful and her video Dance to the Great Mother. If you're ever in the Seattle area, you might consider arranging a private lesson with her in her interpretation of Pharaonic dance.
  • Laurel Victoria Gray. Although Laurel's primary specialty focuses on folkloric dances of Central Asia, she has also experimented with Pharaonic themes in her dance, and she produced a full-length show in Germany titled Egypta in tribute to the show of the same name that Ruth St. Denis created many decades earlier. Visit her web site at silkroaddance.com for information about her Pharaonic workshops and performances. If you're ever in the Washington, DC area you might consider arranging a private lesson with her.
  • The Ancient Dances of Egypt. This 56-page manuscript by Elizabeth "Artemis" Mourat describes the research by Artemis into the religious, festival, combat, harem, and banquet dances of ancient Egypt. A 10-page excerpt from this appeared in The Belly Dance Book, mentioned above. See her web site at serpentine.org for more information.
  • The Daily Lives of the Egyptian Gods. By Demetri Meeks and Christine Favard-Meeks. Recommended by Delilah.
  • Temple of the Cosmos. By Jeremy Nadler. Recommended by Delilah. Click here to order from Amazon.com or here to order from Amazon.co.uk.
  • When the Drummers were Women: A Spiritual History of Rhythm. By Layne Redmond. Recommended by Delilah. Research into the historical place that drumming had in spiritual practices in the pre-patriarchy religions. Click here to order from Amazon.com or here to order from Amazon.co.uk.
  • Hathor Rising: The Power of the Goddess in Ancient Egypt. By Alison Roberts. Recommended by Delilah. Click here to order from Amazon.com or here to order from Amazon.co.uk.

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Where to Do Pharaonic Dance

As I mentioned above, some situations that lend themselves well to Pharaonic dance include belly dance festivals, seminar shows, special theatrical productions, and special performance art presentations. In addition, there may be opportunities to perform it at a local museum that's showcasing Egyptian antiquities, a theme party based on ancient Egypt, or an educational presentation about ancient Egypt.

But there are also some situations where Pharaonic dance is not the right fit. I would advise against performing it whenever the audience and person who hired you are expecting either a belly dance performance or a traditional dance of the Middle East. Don't do your Pharaonic dance at Arabic weddings who expect a 3-tiered candelabrum, birthday parties where the person who hired you expects a "bellygram", restaurants serving primarily Middle Eastern audiences, or educational seminars about ethnic/folkloric dance forms. In such situations, you would disappoint your audience and lose credibility as a dance professional.

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In Conclusion

It can be fun to explore Pharaonic dance as a change of pace in your creative process. But don't expect to find teachers, choreography, and methodology all ready for you to adopt. There is not much information available on the actual dances performed by the historical people, so you'll need to pursue your own creative vision and perform an interpretive dance. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as you choose appropriate places to present it, and as long as you're honest about the fact that this is your own creation rather than an authentic historical re-enactment. So have fun with it, and let your own artistic vision take you on a flight far beyond those angled-wrist poses.

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Acknowledgements

This article originally appeared on the Suite101 web site, in the Middle Eastern Dance category, on August 31, 2002.

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