“On with the Dance!”, by Ambrose Bierce

iii

There are Corns in Egypt

Our civilization — wise child! — knows its father in the superior civilization whose colossal vestiges are found along the Nile. To those, then, who see in the dance a civilizing art, it can not be wholly unprofitable to glance at this polite accomplishment as it existed among the ancient Egyptians, and was by them transmitted — with various modifications, but preserving its essentials of identity — to other nations and other times. And here we have first to note that, as in all the nations of antiquity, the dance in Egypt was principally a religious ceremony; the pious old boys that builded the pyramids executed their jigs as an act of worship. Diodorus Siculus informs us that Osiris, in his proselyting travels among the peoples surrounding Egypt — for Osiris was what we would call a circuit preacher — was accompanied by dancers male and dancers female. From the sculptures on some of the oldest tombs of Thebes it is seen that the dances there depicted did not greatly differ from those in present favor in the same region; although it seems a fair inference from the higher culture and refinement of the elder period that they were distinguished by graces correspondingly superior. That dances having the character of religious rites were not always free from an element that we would term indelicacy, but which their performers and witnesses probably considered the commendable exuberance of zeal and devotion, is manifest from the following passage of Herodotus, in which reference is made to the festival of Bubastis:

Men and women come sailing all together, vast numbers in each boat, many of the women with castanets, which they strike, while some of the men pipe during the whole period of the voyage; the remainder of the voyagers, male and female, sing the while, and make a clapping with their hands. When they arrive opposite to any town on the banks of the stream they approach the shore, and while some of the women continue to play and sing, others call aloud to the females of the place and load them with abuse, a certain number dancing and others standing up, uncovering themselves. Proceeding in this way all along the river course they reach Bubastis, where they celebrate the feast with abundant sacrifice.

Of the mysteries of Isis and Osiris, in which dancing played an important part, the character of the ceremonies is matter of dim conjecture; but from the hints that have come down to us like significant shrugs and whispers from a discreet past, which could say a good deal more if it had a mind to, I hasten to infer that they were no better than they should have been.

Naturally the dances for amusement of others were regulated in movement and gesture to suit the taste of patrons: for the refined, decency and moderation; for the wicked, a soupçon of the other kind of excellence. In the latter case the buffoon, an invariable adjunct, committed a thousand extravagances, and was a dear, delightful, naughty ancient Egyptian buffoon. These dances were performed by both men and women; sometimes together, more frequently in separate parties. The men seem to have confined themselves mostly to exercises requiring strength of leg and arm. The figures on the tombs represent men in lively and vigorous postures, some in attitude preliminary to leaping, others in the air. This feature of agility would be a novelty in the oriental dances of to-day; the indolent male spectator being satisfied with a slow, voluptuous movement congenial to his disposition. When, on the contrary, the performance of our prehistoric friends was governed and determined by ideas of grace, there were not infrequently from six to eight musical instruments, the harp, guitar, double-pipe, lyre, and tambourine of the period being most popular, and these commonly accompanied by a clapping of hands to mark the time.

As with the Greeks, dancers were had in at dinner to make merry; for although the upper-class Egyptian was forbidden to practice the art, either as an accomplishment or for the satisfaction of his emotional nature, it was not considered indecorous to hire professionals to perform before him and his female and young. The she dancer usually habited herself in a loose, flowing robe, falling to the ankles and bound at the waist, while about the hips was fastened a narrow, ornate girdle. This costume — in point of opacity imperfectly superior to a gentle breeze — is not always discernible in the sculptures; but it is charitably believed that the pellucid garment, being merely painted over the figures, has been ravished away by the hand of Time — the wretch!

One of the dances was a succession of pleasing attitudes, the hands and arms rendering important assistance — the body bending backward and forward and swaying laterally, the figurante sometimes half-kneeling, and in that position gracefully posturing, and again balanced on one foot, the arms and hands waving slowly in time to the music. In another dance, the pirouette and other figures dear to the bald-headed beaux of the modern play-house, were practiced in the familiar way. Four thousand years ago, the senses of the young ancient Egyptian — wild, heady lad! — were kicked into confusion by the dark-skinned belle of the ballet, while senility, with dimmed eyes, rubbed its dry hands in feverish approval at the self-same feat. Dear, dear, but it was a bad world four thousand years ago!

Sometimes they danced in pairs, men with men and women with women, indifferently, the latter arrangement seeming to us preferable by reason of the women’s conspicuously superior grace and almost equal agility; for it is in evidence on the tombs that tumblers and acrobats were commonly of the softer sex. Some of the attitudes were similar to those which drew from Socrates the ungallant remark that women were capable of learning anything which you will that they should know. The figures in this pas de deux appear frequently to have terminated in what children, with their customary coarseness of speech, are pleased to call “wringing the dish-clout”— clasping the hands, throwing the arms above the head and turning rapidly, each as on a pivot, without loosing the hands of the other, and resting again in position.

Sometimes, with no other music than the percussion of hands, a man would execute a pas seul, which it is to be presumed he enjoyed. Again, with a riper and better sense of musical methods, the performer accompanied himself, or, as in this case it usually was, herself, on the double-pipes, the guitar or the tambourine, while the familiar hand-clapping was done by attendants. A step not unlike that of the abominable clog dance of the “variety” stage and “music hall” of the present day consisted in striking the heel of first one foot and then the other, the hands and arms being employed to diminish the monotony of the movement. For amusement and instruction of the vulgar, buffoons in herds of ten or more in fested the streets, hopping and posing to the sound of a drum.

As illustrating the versatility of the dance, its wide capacities of adaptation to human emotional needs, I may mention here the procession of women to the tomb of a friend or relative Punishing the tambourine or dara booka drum, and bearing branches of palm or other symbolic vegetables, these sprightly mourners passed through the streets with songs and dances which, under the circumstances, can hardly have failed eminently to gratify the person so fortunate as to have his memory honored by so delicate and appropriate observance.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31