The word “dancing” doesn’t appear in the earliest archaeological evidence that anyone can find. And what was the role played by dancing in the lives of the Mesopotamian gods? Dancing was most certainly part and parcel of Mesopotamian society, but it was neither a ritual nor a profession. Indeed, the earliest accounts of dancing (as well as of dancing in general) are from ancient Mesopotamia, not as a specific, ritualistic activity. Nor did the early Mesopotamian king, Ashurbanipal (Ashar-Ra-Ba-Ba, about 674 B.C.), even have a personal dance. Rather than dancing “in” or among gods and men, Ashurbanipal’s dancing seems most likely to have been among his courtiers and nobles. In later Babylonian and Akkadian texts, dancing in general is referred to as “dancing.”
What does it mean to be “danced” in the ancient world? The meaning of “dancing” was quite variable over the course of the ancient world. Sometimes, the word seems to have been applied to some sort of dance. For example, a Sumerian text (about 800 B.C.) says that a person can dance on the “diamond head” (tawara) with “shemne” (she) on whom the person is “dancing” — a description of the practice that seems much more likely to have belonged to a dancing practice than to have been an indication that the phrase “dancing on the head” was a formal or exclusive term for dancing. However, in some cases, the word “dancing” is used to refer to something less formal or atypical than dances. In one instance, the ancient Egyptians called a dance “dance” but not “dancing-on-the-head,” while the Babylonians called a dance “dance.” This lack of specificity is one reason why the ancient Egyptians never referred to any kind of dancing practice by its name.
In many ancient cultures, no one would have been allowed to dance outside the confines of his social group. And the ancient Greeks did not have the concept of a society without organized groups of dancers, since organized groups of athletes also existed in antiquity. (For example, in the classical games played in Greece, athletes who won their games could keep their athletic honors, like the Olympics, when they died, but could not keep their dancing honors because they had already been formally designated as members of
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