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The History of Traditional Egyptian Music and Dances Throughout Time

posted on: Sep 7, 2022

The History of Traditional Egyptian Music and Dances Throughout Time
Photo: Farida Fahmy and the Reda Troupe participating in an Egyptian folklore dance / Source: Egyptian Streets

By: Carrie Stewart / Arab America Contributing Writer

Music and Dance have traditionally brought people of specific cultures together. Whether it be to celebrate, show respect, worship, display talent, or create art, music and dance can be inspiring, influential and impactful. The following article will examine music and dance traditions in Egypt. 

Background: Religion and Music: 

The History of Traditional Egyptian Music and Dances Throughout Time
Picture: Picture of women dancing / Source: Wikipedia

In ancient Egypt، it was believed that music and dance were highly important in the creation of gods and communication with them. It was also seen as a response to the gift of life. Dancing was connected to “equality with the elevation of religious devotion and human sexuality and earthly pleasures.” 

There were musical performance scenes on tomb paintings and temple walls. Dances were performed at dinner parties, banquets, lodging houses, and even religious temples. 

There was additionally the development of Egyptian musical instruments due to contact with surrounding people and the entry of some foreign instruments.

Egyptian Dance: Types and Traditions:

The History of Traditional Egyptian Music and Dances Throughout Time
Picture: Depiction of Egyptian Dance / Source: ShutterStock

Interpretive dance was a regular part of religious rituals. It served to elevate dancers to a closer relationship with a deity. One common feature of ancient Egyptian dances was people impersonating a deity. 

For example, “dancers would imitate the goddess by invoking her epithet, The Golden One, and enacting stories from her life or interpreting her spirit through dance.

There was a variety of dance types that Egyptians participated in including  

  1. The purely movement dance 
    1. Outburst of energy 
    2. Just dancers enjoying movement 
  2. The gymnastic dance 
    1. More strenuous and difficult
    2. Required flexibility and training 
  3. The imitative dance
    1. Emulating animals movements 
  4. The pair dance
    1. Two men or two women dancing together 
  5. The group dance 
    1. 4-8 dancers matching rhythm
  6. The war dance 
    1. Recreations for resting mercenary troops 
  7. The dramatic dance
    1. Depiction of a king holding an enemy 
  8. The lyrical dance 
    1. Similar to today’s ballet
  9. The grotesque dance 
    1. Primarily performed by dwarfs
  10. The funeral dance 
    1. Three parts performed at funerals
  11. The religious dance 
    1. Temple dances 

All of these dances had the purpose of elevating someone’s spirit. Clearly, dance in ancient Egypt was very much connected to religion. What’s interesting; however, is that men and women were never depicted dancing together. Also, wealthy Egyptians would not dance in public, only lower-class citizens did. Wealthy citizens keep slaves to entertain at their banquets.

Egyptian Music:

The History of Traditional Egyptian Music and Dances Throughout Time
Picture: Depiction of Harp Player  / Source: University of Michigan

In the time when the Egyptian dynasties of the pharaohs were established, music was very important in Egyptian society. The Egyptian gods Hathor and Bes were gods of music. As a result, there were music and dance ceremonies devoted to them.

Music was used in many contexts in Egypt: “temples, palaces, workshops, farms, battlefields, and the tomb.” Egyptians used instruments, clapping, chanting, and singing in their music.

There were even musicians (talented singers and harp players) who were connected to the royal household. Also, there were musicians who served as entertainment at parties and festivals.

Egyptian Instruments:

The History of Traditional Egyptian Music and Dances Throughout Time
Picture: An image of an oud / Source: dreamstime

The typical musical instruments played in ancient Egypt were percussion instruments (rattles, hand-held drums, bells, castanets and an instrument called the sistrum), string instruments, and wind instruments (trumpets as well as both single and double reed flutes and some flutes without any reeds). They also used small shells and whistles. There was no writing down of music, it was passed from generation to generation. 

A typical early 20th century musical ensemble was made up of the Oud, qanun (string instrument), violin, ney (end blown flute), and cello. Hieroglyphs depict that music groups even had conductors. 

Egyptian instruments were influential on what we have today, as many of them are still used today.

Egyptian Music: Modern Day

The History of Traditional Egyptian Music and Dances Throughout Time
Picture: Egyptian singer Amr Diab / Source: The Africa Report 

Since the end of the first world war, the biggest stars that have come out of the Middle East have actually been Egyptian. The biggest stars in Egypt right now are Mohamed Ramadan (rap artist), Amr Diab (pop artist), and Tamer Hosny (pop artists). 

Today, the most popular dance in Egypt is Baladi. “Women dance this style at haflas, weddings, at home and in clubs.” “A Beledi dance is performed to earthy music based on the easy-to-dance-to Beledi rhythm.” It has also been referred to as Egyptian folkloric style belly dancing.

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