Short History of Ritual Dance

Vestal Virgins

The art of dance has been an integral part of the human civilizations for eons and continues to evolve as our society progress. In the ancient period, it was considered as something sacred and meaningful. If we go back to the Mesolithic age (approximately from 10,000 BCE to 8,000 BCE) in the Indian State of Madhya Pradesh at the Bhimbetka rock shelters you’ll be amazed to find the impressive rock art depicting dancers and even hunter-gatherers, and anthropomorphic petroglyphs

There have been numerous discoveries of rock art across the world where similar kinds of depictions were made. And to some archaeologists like Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, these paintings were made in a state of trance either by dancing or by ingesting psychedelic drugs.

Dance has been prevalent in these ancient societies where ancient rituals were being practiced to honor certain deities. For instance, in Rome the Vestal Virgins were the high priestesses representing purity, they dedicated 30 years of their life into the service of honoring the Goddess Vesta. And they were responsible to keep the fire alight at the Temple of Vestae perched on the Palatine Hill in Rome.  Fire was considered as a symbol of unity in Rome and the vestals would have faced severe punishment in case it was put out. Festivals such as Parilia and Bona Dea consisted of rituals conducted especially by the vestals virgins including ritual dance.

Ritual dance has been well-integrated in ancient societies, especially among the feminine cult. In India, there was the practice of the temple dancers also known as devadasi (the servants of the gods) who would ‘marry’ to the gods of the sacred temples such as the Jagannath Temple of Puri situated in the state of Odisha in India. These devadasis would dedicate their life to devotion and the practice of ritual dance was only reserved to the temple deities.

Dance rituals were also performed in the hope to yield a good harvest or even for smooth child birthing. One good example is the birthing ritual of the Amazigh (Berber) communities such as in Algeria or Morocco. It’s the Azriyat a group of professional dancers and singers who come together to celebrate events such as harvest, wedding and the Chaoui ‘Abdaoui-a fertility dance at the Aures Mountains in the north-eastern part of Algeria.

Birthing rituals were pretty much common in these traditional societies and were reserved only among women. The ritual consists of helping a pregnant woman to conceive in a conducive environment, whereby she is encircled by dancers who would make repeated abdominal movements like moving the pelvis in a circular motion or by doing the figure 8 movement of today’s Bellydance (oriental dance). 

But we cannot also ignore the fact that belly dance has some nuances taken from flamenco and gypsy dance. If you happen to visit India in the month of April then try to attend the annual Jodhpur Flamenco and Gypsy Festival at the Mehrangarh Fort in Rajasthan where you’ll get to witness the similarities between Spanish and Rajasthani Folk dance.  The obvious reason goes back to 1,500 years ago when Indian Gypsy (Roma) migrated to Europe. According to a genetic study conducted with 13 Gypsy groups around Europe, it was concluded that gypsies from north-west India migrated in a single wave with the earliest population reaching the Balkans in the 9th century and Spain in the 15th century.

Likewise in Turkey, the Turkish Bellydance (rakkase) share a strong connection to the Turkish Roman Havasi (Turkish Gypsy dance) which consists of technical pelvic movements, including beautiful arm movements. While the shimmy (weight shifts and hip slides) in belly dance can also be observed among the Kabyle folk dance (also a fertility dance) originating from the north-eastern Algerian Mountains. 

Today Bellydance is quite popularized among the young generations especially through music clips promoted by celebrities. What was once considered sacred today has changed into something quite the opposite. Fortunately, there are passionate artists such as Colleena Shakti who is putting much effort to revive the art of ancient dance, including belly dance which over the past years has evolved into some sort of fusion- from American Tribal Bellydance, Metal Bellydance to Dubstep Bellydance.

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