Searching for Biblical Roots of Belly Dance
Do Jewish women belly dance? Of course Jewish women belly dance! Jews have lived in many “belly dance” cultures of the Middle Eastern and Islamic world, and based on historical records and present practices, Jewish women danced in a manner similar to women of these cultures.
To the surprise of and delight of many, belly dance also has biblical roots. This is an important consideration, as it raises issues of the significance and meaning of women in religion, as well as the power of dance to embody and enact ultimate beliefs.
In this article I will discuss some relevant biblical passages to illustrate this point. I will then also consider some issues involving the history of the Goddess in the development of Judaism as it relates to the dance of women.
Women, the Bible and Dance
It may seem strange to consider belly dance as having roots in the Bible. It is not that the connection between the Bible and Middle Eastern culture is a strain, since the Bible sprouted from Middle Eastern soil. Rather the association of indigenous dance forms that include shaking hips and stomach rolls is a stretch for many. There are also arguments that the patriarchy of Judaism would not find such dancing acceptable.
One proponent of this idea is Wendy Buonaventura, author, performer and teacher of Middle Eastern dance. In Serpent of the Nile, she delivers harsh comments toward the religion, suggesting that goddess worship was destroyed by Jewish religious hierarchy. She states, “It was the ancient Semites who first set about dethroning the old female-centered, or pagan faiths…the Hebrew tribes allowed not priestesses to take part in their religion.” (p. 33) Since she connects belly dance with worship of the Goddess, Buonaventura’s assumption is that it was prohibited in developing Jewish practice. In support of this theory, Buonaventura comments on what she considers to be “a rare biblical reference to a woman dancing,” when discussing the dance of Salome (p. 35).
Buonaventura overlooks the many references to women dancing in the Bible. She does not acknowledge that Jewish spiritual practices have traditionally held dance in high regard, and she does not account for the diversity within Judaism. She does, however, acknowledge elsewhere that dance did exist in that era: in her earlier Belly Dance, she includes a refreshing analysis of passages from Shir Ha Shirim: The Song of Songs. Here, she notes that commentator Carlos Suares identifies the movements of the “Shulamite” women with common movements of belly dance.
As Raphael Patai demonstrates in The Hebrew Goddess, the adoration of the divine feminine was not eliminated in Judaism. Mounting evidence uncovered in the past ten years supports the conclusion that Goddess worship continued in forms in keeping with the concept of the oneness of God, and that dances associated with the Goddess maintained a place within Jewish practice over the centuries.
To accept a patriarchal reading of the biblical text also assumes there was a winner take all mentality, and that hip-shaking Hebrew women passively accepted subservience. The biblical text, however, contains many images of strong women who led dances common to Middle Eastern culture. It wasn’t just David dancing before the ark. Remember, at least, Miriam, called a prophetess (Exodus 15.20). A sister of Moses, she led the women in victory dances after the Israelites escaped the Egyptians by walking through the sea.
There are several other passages that directly state that dance was done by women, and often there are specific words for dance involved that have been deciphered to mean leap, spin, limp, jump, encircle and whirl. There is no reason to assume that these movements were not done by women. Research tends to indicate that, like her neighbors, biblical Israel had an active dance culture that was integrated into the daily existence of men and women. Devorah Lapson, Meyer Gruber and others have cited numerous passages in the Bible and post-biblical rabbinic writings which evidence that dance was an integral part of life in the Jewish culture.
Machol — To Whirl the Body
Meyer Gruber is a scholar whose extensive research provides critical insight into the terms for dance in the Bible. There seem to have been many types and styles of dance used for worship, celebration, festivities, and mourning in ancient Israel, with some dances that involved “contractions” or writhing like those of child birth. The word used for this is machol, stemming from hul, and it indicates a circling motion. Given the association between circling and contraction, my suggestion is that the whirling could involve any part of the body. The most common suggestion by scholars, though, avoids the writhing element and concentrates on the body spinning like a top.
Gruber discusses the etymology of machol and the many associations involved with this term in his article on “Ten Dance Derived Expressions in the Hebrew Bible” (in Apostalos-Cappadona, Dance as Religious Studies). He points out that this was the term used in some of the better known biblical references to dance. They are dances of rejoicing, associated with the playing of flute and drums, and in many cases the dancing of women. This includes the dance of the judge Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11.34), and the women greeting David after the defeat of Goliath (I Samuel 18.6-7). Both examples are considered victory dances.
The Bible also uses machol in reference to dances done by women as part of what are apparently mating or fertility rituals. In Shir Ha Shirim, the word machol is used to describe the greeting dance the “Shulamite” woman does for her bridegroom. There is a strong possibility that the dance is being described by the voice of the groom as he notes her feet, thighs, navel , belly, breasts, neck, face, and hair as she “moves between the line of dancers.” (7.1-9).
The other passage involving machol concerns the daughters of Shiloh going out into the vineyards to dance. According to this passage, women danced in the vineyards during the time of the autumnal pilgrimage to the city. The post-biblical Jewish book, The Talmud, describes such an event, usually performed on the “fifteenth of Av,” or the “day of Atonement,” which is during the harvest season. The writing notes how, dressed in white, the “daughters of Jerusalem went forth and danced in a circle in the vineyards,” chanting, “Youth, lift up thine eyes and behold her whom though wouldst choose.” (Ta’anit 4:8)
The word used for dance in the passage is again machol. It suggests a joyful performance that included the use of hand drums such as a tar, and motion involving circling the body or some parts of it. Interesting contextual clues include reports from the post-biblical Mishnah indicating that these young women called out to the men to choose a bride as they performed.
Whether these young women were spinning like a dervish, or circling around isolated parts of their body, or doing some combination, we can not be sure. As previously mentioned, scholars have noted that circling and writhing motions are associated with the term machol. Gruber points out it could mean a specific dance step, but he stops just short of stating that the circling could have been done with any part of the body, or that the writhing motions might be connected with the undulations of a belly dance. His concentration is on what he calls the “multimedia” quality involved. Yet it is hard to miss the possibilities, considering the types of motion that might be described by machol, the nature of the passages involved, and, importantly, the association with women dancing. This certainly would not be true of every instance where the term is used, but clearly in these last two cases the possibility seems strong.
Although many biblical commentators have missed parallels between biblical terms for dance and actual dances of women and men in the Middle East, there are some commentators who have realized the connection. The aforementioned commentary on the passage in Shir HaShirim by Carlos Suares, and Buonaventura’s analysis of his commentary, are clear examples. Basing his interpretation on the Jewish mystical Kabbalistic tradition, Suares reads the Hebrew word “hhalaeem” in the second verse of chapter seven as “tremble” or “writhe,” associating it with the machol of the previous verse. He translates, “The curves of your hips seem to torment themselves.” Buonaventura notes how he connects the “writhing” with the body parts mentioned. From his reading of the passage, Buonaventura concludes, “Taking ‘curves’ as circular movements…we now have a picture of the Shulamite making skillful circular rotations of the hips, which may also involve trembling or writhing; all movements basic to belly dance.”
The traditional reading of the term hhalaeem is “jewels.” But the art of Hebrew poetry trends to play with words of similar sounds and parallel meaning. The verses following provide descriptions that suggest a body in quivering motion. In context, then, there is credibility to the Suares reading.
At least in terms of recognizing a dance word, Gruber and other modern scholars might agree with Suares in making the connection between hhalaeem in verse two and machol in verse one. And even Alfred Sendry’s classic Music in Ancient Israel contains a reading of this section as dealing with a dancer and parts of her body moving. He refers to her breasts swaying, which is again something you might expect for a belly dance. Over all, however, biblical scholars seem to have been reluctant to admit this connection.
Dancing in Worship of the Biblical Goddess
A word for “whirling” was described by Ann Kilmer in her study of the languages of ancient Mesopotamia in Music and Dance in Ancient Western Asia. She states that “at the annual feast for the goddess Inanna/Ishtar/Gushea/Agushaya, whirling dances were done in her honor,” though perhaps by men. In describing their spinning dances she says to “think of the whirling dervishes.” Of women’s dances to the Goddess, though, her information is uncertain.
In her article “Of Drums and Damsels: The Drum-Dance-Song Ensemble,” scholar Carol Meyers deals with Hebrew women’s song and dance groups. She discusses specifically the term machol, and examines the idea of a female chorus leading performances of ritual celebration through drumming and dance. Meyers refers to several places in the biblical text where there are groups of women who beat hand drums, sing, and dance (Exodus 15, Judges 4, 11.34). Again, there is no reference to specific types of dance.
While they may have been “huling” about like whirling dervishes or writhing, there is no clear biblical evidence that these drum-dance ensembles were “belly dancing.” When the story line does include marriage and fertility rites, though, the possibility becomes great. This is where the biblical connection between the Goddess and dance emerges.
Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess presents research indicating that the divine feminine was worshiped in Israel through Asherah, the divine consort of Jahweh, and the Cherubim, a winged creature associated with the feminine aspects of the divine. Both are associated with fertility, and perhaps fertility rituals. The harvest celebration of Sukkot is an astounding example of the connection of the Goddess with fertility and dance rituals. This is the time of the year when the Hebrew calendar is set to the moon in fullness and the solar cycle of completion. In temple times, the post-biblical Talmud reports of joyous dance and music for Sukkot, with a water pouring ritual, torches blazing, rabbis juggling, and men and women dancing together. According to Patai, these activities constituted an incorporation of old fertility rituals into Jewish Temple practices, and that “on the seventh day of the festival the two sexes used to mingle and commit what is euphamistically referred to as ‘light-headedness’” when they were shown female and male representations of the cherubim in sexual embrace (p. 85). According to Patai the “light-headedness” implies “orgiastic behavior,” which also suggests ecstatic movement. This “ecstatic movement” could have been belly dance, especially when viewed in the context of the research presented earlier which suggests that the dance was a part of Goddess and fertility worship in the Ancient Near East.
Although it may be a controversial claim that this ecstatic movement could have been belly dance, I maintain that it is legitimate. First, the whirling, writhing machol dance is associated with rejoicing. Sukkot is the time of rejoicing, especially through dance. Secondly, biblical evidence suggests belly dance was a part of fertility rituals, which is a strong factor in Sukkot celebration. Finally, there is the ritual shaking of branches for the holiday. There were associations between trees, fertility, and the Goddess in this part of the world, and the shaking of branches was a means of inducing a future harvest. Could it be that bodies were shaken as well as branches? Later Jewish mystical texts do say that the branches used at Sukkot represent the body.
Women, Power, and Dance
Jewish feminist author Judith Plaskow asserts that the Goddess symbol affirms woman’s bodily existence and the “life cycle expressed in it.” This includes the ability to create “all the arts of civilization.” (Christ and Plaskow, Womanspirit Rising, pgs. 279-282). Dance has been a powerful activity displaying feminine strength and energy to create, especially those dances associated with fertility and birth. To identify dance of the Bible with belly dance is a way of reclaiming the importance of women and the power of dance. Ultimately, then, the “body” of evidence for the biblical roots of belly dance resides in the bodies of women who continue to whirl, writhe, and spin in celebration of life.
Apostalos-Cappadona, Diane, and Adams, Doug, eds. Dance as Religious Studies. New York: Crossroads, 1990.
Christ, Carol P. and Plaskow, Judith. Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.
Buonaventura, Wendy. Belly Dancing. Virago Press London, 1983.
Buonaventura, Wendy. Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World. London: Saqi Books, 1989.
Gruber, Meyer. Aspects of Non verbal Communication in the Ancient Near East. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1980.
Hanna, Judith Lynne. Dance, Sex and Gender; Signs of Identity, Dominance, and Desire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Lapson, Dvora. “Dance,” in The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Universal Jewish Encyclopedia Co., 1939.
Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn. “Music and Dance in Ancient Western Asia,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, vol. 4, Sasson, et. al. eds. Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Meyers, Carol. “Of Drums and Damsels; The Drum-Dance-Song Ensemble,” in Rediscovering the Muses: Women’s Musical Traditions, Kimberly Marshall, ed. Northwestern University Press, 1993.
Oesterley, W.O.E. The Sacred Dance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1923
Patai, Raphael. The Hebrew Goddess, 3rd ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990.
Schwartz, Howard Eilberg, ed. People of the Body: Jews and Judaism from an Embodied Perspective. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992
Sendrey, Alfred. Music in Ancient Israel. New York: Philosophical Society, 1969.
Cia (Cynthia Sautter) is a dancer and Ph.D. Student in Religion and the Arts at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Her main dance focus has been flamenco, while learning more about belly dance for her exploration of the history of Jewish Women’s spiritual traditions. Her current projects include a concert of dances from the Islamic world, from Persia to Spain, and continuing work in ecstatic dance.