In
today’s modern society dance is capable of being used in any type of situation
imaginable even if it goes against typical social norms. The same can be said
for other cultures throughout history. While dance is normally looked at being
used in times of joy and celebration, a look into the ancient Egyptian,
Greco-Roman, and Medieval mourning rituals shows how dance can also be used in
times of death and sorrow.

            In order to look at these ancient
cultures and their use of dance, it is first necessary to dive into its
origins. Oscar G. Brockett and Franklin J. Hildy give a great description of
one of the main theories that most anthropologists believe to be as the origin
for all theatrical activities, including dance. They start by pointing out that
since there is very little remaining documentation from which historians can
pull from, the precise origin is purely speculation. Even so, the most popular
belief of anthropologists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
describe theatricals activities as emerging from myth and ritual. They continue
to illustrate that since ancient societies had little understanding of the
natural world they became aware of the forces around them that appeared to
influence their well-being. For the people in these societies it was easy to
attribute positive and negative effects of these forces and try to influence
them so favorable results would follow. By using their perceived connection
between the two they would repeat, refine, and formalize their actions until
they were fixed rituals.1

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            Rituals can be described as a series
of symbolic acts that are focused towards fulfilling a particular objective.
Often being associated with religion, rituals are actually a common part of
everybody’s daily lives.2 From simple chores to
elaborate performances, the use of rituals has been a part of human cultures
since even before the first documented societies. There are many different
types of rituals for all occasions. One interesting type of ritual is called an
“ending” ritual. Renee Beck and Sydney Barbara Metrick describe “ending”
rituals as being one that focuses on something being terminated. This can be as
simple as finishing school all the way to the loss of someone close. “The
rituals of wakes and funerals are very important in helping to cope with such a
loss”.3 One of the main components
of ancient rituals is the use of symbolic actions which were used to portray
various things that related to the purpose of the ritual. These actions are
often described as being mimetic in nature and even though it would be nothing
like the dancing we have today, according to the Oxford English Dictionary
definition: dance is a series of steps and movements matching the speed and
rhythm of a piece of music, they can be described as the earliest forms of
dancing.4

History
World supports that in their History of Dance saying that, “Like cave painting,
the first purpose of dance was probably for ritual – to appease a nature
spirit or accompany a rite of passage”.5 This gave the people of
ancient societies an outlet from which they could release the deep emotions
that came with losing someone close to them. It is also noted in The
Encyclopedia of Death and Dying that, “Dance, like other forms of art, has
treated the subject of death continually throughout history and … funeral
processions were an important example of organized movement to music,
expressive of grief,”6 showing that the use of
dance was important enough to these ancient cultures that they would
incorporate it into their mourning rituals in order to express themselves. Even
if these ancient cultures weren’t aware of their feelings enough to recognize
the benefits that dancing was providing to themselves, it was kept alive
because it worked and did help people mourn. One of the earliest examples of
this dancing can be found in Egypt where, “women were known to dance to express
the grief of the mourners”.7 Gayle Kassing states that dance
was the chief means of expression in Egyptian religious services, which would emphasize
life after death. For their funerals, one person would wear a mask and dress in
the deceased’s clothing to lead death processions and reenact events from the
dead person’s life. During the procession, professional dancers were hired to
perform mimetic dances alongside the mourners from the deceased’s house to the
tomb.8

There
were three kinds of funeral dances in Egypt; they included ritual dances,
postures and gestures, and secular dances. Ritual dances were performed by men
and women who would move with their hands above their heads and people who
attended funerals with them would provide rhythmic clapping as accompaniment.
The postures and gestures would express grief and were incorporated into
movement and executed in a rhythmic pattern. This type of funerary dance
started with families and friends showing their natural expressions and then
moved to hiring professionals that would perform during the funeral instead.
Lastly, secular dances were meant to provide entertainment for the deceased
person. Higher ranking noblemen would get the men and women who danced for them
during their life perform the dances he liked best before his tomb.9 The Egyptians, being the
first society to document their use of dancing in pairs and also have it
documented that they would also adapt their dancing to be used in funerary
rituals again shows how important the practice of mourning the dead was. Another
example of Egyptian funerary rituals is the use of a song called Maneros. Named
after the only son of the first Egyptian king’s untimely death, Maneros was a
dirge invented in his honor and became the first and only melody in existence
at the time.10
This gives us one of the first examples of the combined use of dance and music
and it was used specifically for mourning in ancient Egypt.

In
Greece, funeral processions similar to those of Egypt took place. These
processions included the family and friends to the tomb as well as hired
mourners that performed professional dances in which they executed symbolic
gestures and movements such as twisting their hands, beating their chests or
thighs, scratching their faces, and tearing their clothing. These processions
were led by a priest, instead of the masked person that would imitate the
deceased’s life events, who could be male or female in order to facilitate
communication between humans and the gods. The number of mourners participating
in the dance would be directly related to the show of strength for the
deceased. Accompanied by a flute, mourners would speak to the dead or chant
laments or dirges.11 During this time period
though, not everyone was exactly in favor of the processions that would take
place for the dead. Plato believed that regular citizens should keep their
funerary services discreet and that death was a private family concern. Mourning
should occur in the deceased’s home and then go straight to the burial and only
before daybreak. Only higher-ranking officials and priests could have a funeral
procession outdoors and dirges were not allowed, instead, they would sing
antiphonally hymns.12

Similar
to Maneros, in ancient Egypt, invocation and lament for things like dying crops
were the bases of folk songs in ancient Greece. One song called the Linus song
was used at the time of harvests and is noted as being of a common type in
Egypt among other places. Aristophanes of Byzantium, the third-century
Alexandrian editor, said that the Linus song is sung not only in times of
mourning but also in the “happy dance”, as in Euripides. Referencing a passage
in Euripides’ Heracles where the
chorus joins the ailinos13 with the dance of
prosperity praising the labors of dead Heracles, combining eulogy with
lamentation.14
Hugh Thomas also states a line from Heracles
where the chorus says, “Alas! What groans or wails, what funeral dirge, or
dance of death am I to raise?” mentioning a practice known as ‘the dance of
death’. Thomas points out that this line is significant because it is the only
literary evidence that depicts the role of dancing within a funerary context in
ancient Greece.15
Despite this, it is noted that there are two groups of Athenian funerary pots
that appear to show figures dancing in a funerary context during the laying out
of the body, prothesis, and the funeral procession, ekphora, as well as other
funerary rituals that are believed to occur after burial.16

The
post burial rituals that are indicated through these pots are generally
believed to conclude after 30 days with the tria kostia or “the ritual which
concluded mourning held approximately one month after decease”. However, there
are three other rituals that are known to have taken place within the 30 days,
they are perideipnon, ta trita, and ta enata. The perideipnon consisted of a
feast where the “bereaved wore garlands and delivered eulogies on behalf of the
dead” and took place in the home of the deceased just after burial. The ta
trita was the third day ritual which marked the beginning of the mourning
period. The only indication of what ta trita involved comes from Cicero’s On the Laws where he states, “when they
had cast the earth over the dead, scattered the seeds of vegetables over the
spot” in order to sow the earth with the fruits of its bounty. Lastly, the ta
enata was the ninth day ritual and it is suggested that “food, libations, and
other offerings were placed on the new tomb”.17 These three examples of post
burial rituals along with the practices that took place before and during burial
reflect just how important honoring the dead was to ancient Greece.

During
the Medieval Ages, death became personified as a skeletal figure that lead
people from all levels of society in a round dance to the grave.18 Painted images of this
were created out of the anxiety produced by the bubonic plague.19 Death became a major
theme in all medieval arts and appeared in sculptures such as gargoyles on
churches. Medieval churches housed tombs and graves in their yard making there
the scene for the dance of death to take place. The Dance of Death would be
performed in order to ward off death while symbolizing oblivion and death.
Medieval beliefs centered on the idea that all people were equal when they met
death, so they needed to make the most of their lives. Depictions of the Dance
of Death include the belief that the dead danced and would sing and dance
around as an effort to revisit the joys of living. They believed that the dead
would dance in these churchyards to draw the living into the dance, and those
then would die within the year. Other versions included a mimetic form of the
dance that would be more like a march instead of having the liveliness that
people did when they were alive.20

In
the end, any situation is capable of incorporating dance because “dance has more
power than gesture, more eloquence than word, more richness than writing and
because it expresses the most profound experiences of human beings, dance is a
complete and self-sufficient language. It is the expression of joy, love,
sadness, and hope.”21 The dances of death and mourning
have definitely not been an exception to that in the past and still remain that
way. Even today dance still affects the ritual traditions of funerals and death
in many African cultures. For example, “Dance is an integral part of the
marking of birth and death. At burial ceremonies the Owo Yoruba perform the
igogo, in which young men dance over the grave and pack the earth with stomping
movements”22
exhibiting just how universal the practice of dancing in funeral settings in order
to grieve, really is. “Funeral dances have their own spiritual meaning behind
them, but they all bring people together to grieve by celebrating the life of
the deceased through performing a meaningful dance in their honor.”23

1
Oscar G. Brockett and Franklin J. Hildy, The
History of Theatre, 10th Ed, Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.,
2008, 1.

2 Renee Beck and Sydney Barbara Metrick, The Art of Ritual, Berkeley, CA:
Apocryphile Press, 2009, 5.

3 Beck and Metrick, 27.

4 Editors of Oxford English Dictionary, Dance |
Definition of Dance in English by Oxford Dictionaries, Accessed November 27,
2017, en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/dance.

5 Editors of History World, History of Dance, History World, Accessed August 30, 2017,
http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ab82.

6
Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, s.v. “Dance”.

7 Editors of History World.

8 Gayle Kassing, History of Dance: An Interactive Arts Approach, Champaign, Ill:
Human Kinetics, 2007, 45.

9
Ibid, 45.

10 Steven H. Lonsdale, Dance and Ritual Play in Greek Religion, Baltimore, MD: The Johns

Hopkins University
Press, 2001, 81.

11
Kassing, 55.

12
Lonsdale, 82.

13
An ancient dirge similar to that of the Linus song.

14
Lonsdale, 83.

15 Hugh Thomas, “The Dance of Death: Dancing in
Athenian Funerary Rituals,” Bar International Series 2622
(2014): 59-66, 1.

16 Department of Greek and Roman Art, “Death,
Burial, and the Afterlife in Ancient Greece,” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of
Art History, Accessed December 19, 2017,
https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dbag/hd_dbag.htm.

17
Thomas, 4.

18
Kassing, 74.

19
Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, s.v. “Dance”.

20
Kassing, 74.

21 New World Encyclopedia contributors,
“African Dance,” African dance – New World Encyclopedia, November 2, 2016, Accessed August 30,
2017, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/African_dance.

22
New
World Encyclopedia contributors.

23 Editors
of Frazer Consultants, “Funeral Dances Among Different Cultures,”
Frazer Consultants, January 31, 2017, Accessed September 06, 2017.
https://www.frazerconsultants.com/2017/01/funeral-dances-among-different-cultures/.