Dancing was an essential part of Jewish life in Bible times. According to
Ecclesiastes 3:4, there is “a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” Dances were performed on both sacred and secular occasions, though the Hebrew mind would not likely have thought in these terms.
The Old Testament employs eleven terms to describe the act of dance. This suggests something about the Hebrew interest in the subject. The basic Hebrew term translated “dance” means to twist or to whirl about in circular motions. Other terms for dance mean “to spring about,” “to jump,” “to leap,” “to skip.” One term seems to have been used of processional marches or dances at feasts and holidays.
The Greek terms for dance mean “row” or “ring.” The two terms are used five times in the New Testament (Matthew 11:17;
Luke 15:25). Dances were performed for different purposes. The mood behind the dance was one of celebration and praise.
Dances celebrated military victories. Women sang and danced, accompanied by musical instruments. Miriam and other Israelite women sang and danced in celebration of the victory at the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20-21). Jephthah's daughter danced before her victorious father (Judges 11:34) as did the Israelite women when David returned from having defeated the Philistines (1 Samuel 18:6). Men also danced to celebrate military victory (1 Samuel 30:16).
Dances were customary at weddings. On some occasions young ladies, dressed in their best clothing, danced in a bride-choosing ceremony (Judges 21:1). Marriage processions involved dancing with timbrels and other musical instruments (Psalms 45:14-15). Dances were performed in honor of the bride (Song of Solomon 6:13).
Some dances were performed for the sheer entertainment of guests. Salome danced before the princes and politicans gathered to celebrate her father's birthday (Matthew 14:6;
Mark 6:22). Children played games of “dance” (Job 21:11), often with the accompaniment of a musical instrument (Matthew 11:17;
Luke 7:32). The return of a long lost son was cause for celebration and dancing (Luke 15:25).
Religious celebration was most often the occasion for dancing. David danced before the ark as it was brought into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:14,2 Samuel 6:16;
1 Chronicles 15:29). The psalmist exhorted others to praise God with music and dancing (Psalms 149:3;
Psalms 150:4). Also pagans used the dance as a means of honoring their gods (1 Kings 18:26).
In summary, the dance of the Jewish people was similar to what we today call the folk dance. It was performed by both males and females, though apparently not in mixed groups. Both group and individual dances were performed.