Skip to content

CAM Dancers? Not Just Degas Ballerinas

by Cole Rodgers, Marketing Project Manager


Dance , Egyptian Art , Japanese Art , African Art , American Art

Dance has been represented in visual art for roughly 10,000 years when our early ancestors first celebrated the importance of dance rituals by creating cave paintings like those in El Cogul, Spain. For many a modern-day art lover, however, the first artistic imagery of dance that comes to mind is often the famed pastel drawings and oil paintings of ballerinas by Edgar Degas (French, 1834– 917). These expressive artworks offer an intimate glimpse into the lives of the young dancers of the Paris Opera in the late-nineteenth century. CAM is lucky to possess many such sketches and paintings by Degas, but these artworks represent only a very specific slice of the pie that makes up the art of dance. Below are some of the less expected ways that dance is woven into the CAM collection.


In the Tombs of Ancient Egyptian Royalty

The attendants in this ancient Egyptian tomb relief have been frozen in time for more than 4,000 years clapping their hands—a staple of social dancing even to this day. Because music was so integral to ancient Egyptian religious worship, snapping, clicking, clapping, and dancing naturally followed.

Tomb Relief: Female Attendants Clapping Their Hands, Egypt (Thebes), circa 2046–1998 BCE, limestone with polychrome decoration, Gift of Joan L. Stark in memory of Louise J. Roth, 1998.54


Onstage in Sixteenth-Century Japan

During classical Japanese performances of the Nō theater, dramatic masks, such as this 500-year-old example, are compellingly combined with slow dance movements, mime, costumes, and chanted music. Nō theater practices go hand-in-hand with Zen Buddhist aesthetics, with masks usually grouped into broad categories like gods, men, women, ghosts, and demons.

Nō Mask, Japan, Edo period, 16th century, carved wood, gesso, and pigment, Gift of William J. Baer, 1921.251


In West-African Community Celebrations

Intricately carved masks, such as this early-twentieth century example representing the wise guardian D’mba, add significant height (and drama) to celebration dancers in Guinea. Donned for a spectrum of events including marriages, births, memorials, plantings, and harvests, these masks add a layer of storied symbolism to the dancers’ performances.

Head and Shoulder Mask (D’mba), Western Guinea, early 20th century, wood, originally with raffia attachment, Gift of Charles and Harriet Edwards and Museum Purchase with funds from the Lawrence Archer Wachs Fund, 1998.43


In Hindu Devotional Practices

This small, bronze statue of Shiva portrayed as Nataraja, Lord of Dance, represents the not-so-small relationship that rhythm and dance shares with Hindu beliefs. Shiva is one of the most reproduced forms in Indian art. In this representation, Shiva Nataraja holds the power of the extinction and recreation of the entire universe in balance with his cosmic dance!

Processional Image of Shiva Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, India, 1900s, bronze, Gift of George Warrington in memory of Elsie Holmes Warrington, 1940.1079


In American Folk Art

Mose Tolliver (American, circa 1915–2006), a prolific American folk artist, began regularly painting to cure boredom after a workplace accident left him bedridden and struggling to walk. Despite this melancholy start to Tolliver’s career, the vibrant dancers in Four Figures (1980s) dance straight off the plywood. These special circumstances make the chosen subject of the artwork even more meaningful.

Mose Tolliver (American, b. circa 1915, d. 2006), Four Figures, 1980s, latex paint on plywood, Gift of Robert Alan Lewis, 2013.162


Each of these artworks reinforces the important place that dance occupies throughout history and continues to hold today; Degas’ ballerinas are iconic, but not even close to the whole picture. With this frame of reference, CAM guests can unlock new, unexpected ways to appreciate how dance thrives at the museum!

Does this blog post make you want to get up and move? Get your groove on at Art After Dark: All Ways Welcome or our summer fundraiser A Happening: Press Play!