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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature


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The character of the ancient dance was very different from that of ours, as appears from the conduct of Miriam, who 'took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.' Precisely similar is the Oriental dance of the present day, which, accompanied of course with music, is led by the principal person of the company, the rest imitating the steps. The evolutions, as well as the songs, are extemporaneous—not confined to a fixed rule, but varied at the pleasure of the leading dancer; and yet they are generally executed with so much grace, and the time so well kept with the simple notes of the music, that the group of attendants show wonderful address and propriety in following the variations of the leader's feet.

At a very early period dancing was enlisted into the service of religion among the heathen; the dance, enlivened by vocal and instrumental music, was a usual accompaniment in all the processions and festivals of the gods; and, indeed, so indispensable was this species of violent merriment, that no ceremonial was considered duly accomplished—no triumph rightly celebrated, without the aid of dancing. The Hebrews, in common with other nations, had their sacred dances, which were performed on their solemn anniversaries, and other occasions of commemorating some special token of the divine goodness and favor, as means of drawing forth, in the liveliest manner, their expressions of joy and thanksgiving. The performers were usually a band of females, who, in cases of public rejoicing, volunteered their services (; ), and who, in the case of religious observances, composed the regular chorus of the temple (; ), although there are not wanting instances of men also joining in the dance on these seasons of religious festivity. Thus David deemed it no way derogatory to his royal dignity to dance on the auspicious occasion of the ark being brought up to Jerusalem. His conduct was imitated by the later Jews, and the dance incorporated among their favorite usages as an appropriate close of the joyous occasion of the Feast of Tabernacles.

From being exclusively, or at least principally, reserved for occasions of religious worship and festivity, dancing came gradually to be practiced in common life on any remarkable seasons of mirth and rejoicing (; ). In early times, indeed, those who perverted the exercise from a sacred use to purposes of amusement were considered profane and infamous; and hence Job introduces it as a distinguishing feature in the character of the ungodly rich, that they encouraged a taste for dancing in their families (). During the classic ages of Greece and Rome society underwent a complete revolution of sentiment on this subject; insomuch that not only at Rome, but through all the provinces of the empire, it was a favorite pastime, resorted to not only to enliven feasts, but in the celebration of domestic joy (; ). Notwithstanding, however, the strong partiality cherished for this inspiriting amusement, it was considered beneath the dignity of persons of rank and character to practice it. The well known words of Cicero, that 'no one dances unless he is either drunk or mad,' express the prevailing sense as to the impropriety of respectable individuals taking part in it; and hence the gay circles of Rome and its provinces derived all their entertainment, as is done in the East to this day, from the exhibitions of professional dancers.

Amateur dancing in high life was by no means uncommon in the voluptuous times of the later emperors. But in the age of Herod it was exceedingly rare and almost unheard of; and therefore the condescension of Salome, who volunteered, in honor of the anniversary of that monarch's birthday, to exhibit her handsome person as she led the mazy dance in the saloons of Machaerus—for though she was a child at this time, as some suppose, she was still a princess—was felt to be a compliment that merited the highest reward. The folly and rashness of Herod in giving her an unlimited promise, great as they were, have been equaled and even surpassed by the munificence which many other Eastern monarchs have lavished upon favorite dancers.

It remains to notice further that the Jewish dance was performed by the sexes separately. There is no evidence from sacred history that the diversion was promiscuously enjoyed, except it might be at the erection of the deified calf, when, in imitation of the Egyptian festival of Apis, all classes of the Hebrews intermingled in the frantic revelry. In the sacred dances, although both sexes seem to have frequently borne a part in the procession or chorus, they remained in distinct and separate companies (; ).





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Dance'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature".

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