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The Veil and Dancewear

As Dancers, if you are like me, you will feel drawn to the various uses of a veil. I remember my Mother wearing fancy hats with little veils that came half way down her face, never to be seen in Church without one. We go from that to the complete cover up of the Chador and Burqa. Then we have the adaptation of Oscar Wildes 7 veils done to death, often beautifully by so many performers. What really is the origin of the veil dancing we use today? There seems to be little reference to the ancient Egyptians using veils to dance with.

It is very difficult to trace historically, there are quite a lot of art works that depict dancers actually using veils, dating back to the 1600 century and one or two before that. However the archivists would have us believe that many of these pictures are posed. I personally am in two minds. I cannot imagine any dancer holding a beautiful piece of fabric and not wanting to use it to enhance her dancing. For me as an artist, it is like having paint, canvas and suddenly being given the brushes to create my masterpiece.  Nowadays there are many performers who use their clothing to enhance their performance.  There is even dance wear for children which portrays the same ideas.

Another association the veil has is with the strut and strip brigade that emerged after the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair. Many Dance historians believe all modern veil work developed from the burlesque and striptease that became rife in America at that time. However we then look again at the paintings from the Harems of the 17th century and find that what we are doing today ‘bares’ much more resemblance to that than any strippers I have ever seen. Still some feel that we are in using a veil simulating striptease. What ‘Saddo’s’ I say. (Word my neighbours your son uses) Unfortunately this unwarranted reputation has left many modern Arabs with the view that veil dancing is unveiling ones self, or stripping.

It would appear that ‘Salome’ was created by Oscar Wilde. We seem to have cast in this role the daughter of Herodias. The 7 veils were never mentioned in the Bible. In reality the name of the daughter was never revealed except by Oscar. She has however been the most portrayed dancer in history. Usually performed by someone who doesn’t know one single correct bellydance move. However she usually has a fabulous body and face to go with it! This has given bellydance and the veil rather a strange historical background. It could say bellydancing is in the Bible and it is OK to take off your clothes to get what you want. Or we must remember the reason why ‘Salome’ was doing the dance. To claim the head of John the Baptist!

salome dance

Many women today wear the full Arabic veil, either the Chador or in extreme cases the Burqa. I am very interested in this as many of you already know. I am sure many women are imprisoned within their veils through the society in which they live, again many feel they are secure as we see nowadays in the ‘new’ Afghanistan arising from the ashes of the Taliban. Many are being beaten in the street for not wearing the burqa. The brave are putting up with it in an attempt to support women’s rights.

I have spoken to quite a lot of Arabic men about their feelings on women wearing the veil and have been astonished by their responses. One guy from the Lebanon told me he had been in a shop in the UK and seen a lot of girls in mini skirts which left nothing to the imagination, he was not turned on by them at all, however he finds a beautiful woman in a veil very sexy, even though he can’t see her face at all. He could tell by the way she moved that she was beautiful and he liked the mystery of her being covered.

I personally do not like the idea of a woman having to be covered when men are dressed however they please for us all to look at and admire if we wish. Women must be given the choice. Perhaps we should insist on all the good looking men being covered up, out of temptations way! There are one or two exceptions like the nomadic Tuareg of North East Africa, they cover up to keep out the sand, as would the women. (If you ever saw them). The Koran simply asks women to observe modesty in their dress. What about the guys Mohammed?

We can all make veils for ourselves within our lives, we can hide our true feelings, we can use these cloaks of invisibility to get through our days doing boring and mundane jobs, when we would all much prefer to be bellydancing with our friends and real veils at a workshop, class or hafla.

Today the use of the veil is widespread in most East and Western countries where bellydancing is now practised. We all have our own interpretations as to how we like to use it. It was in recent Egyptian history (according to Morocco) only used to make a flamboyant entrance. This is still happening and the same in Turkey. However I do not hold with the view that it is used as a prop to cover up a lack of variety by the dancer. To do a complete interpretation of a piece of music using a veil is a modern innovation. However one that we hope will certainly have earned it’s place in history forever.

john the baptist

To sum up there are many varieties of veil and dance clothing we can use to depict artistry in our dancing. You will see quite small ones, some with fringes and tassels, many with elaborate beadwork. Some that are extended by poles to give an enormous flourish. For an entrance these can be perfumed. There are double veils or you can use two together. You can have a semi circular veil. You can have extra long veils, however I would not recommend that for beginners.

When asked how big a veil to buy I tell my students ‘tits to toes’ in width and at least a foot longer at either side at full arms stretch. That way you should avoid treading on your veil as you dance and still have enough fabric to make a decent wrap. Your veil fabric should float billowing down when you throw it aloft. Silk and chiffon make lovely veils. However there are some very pretty shimmery organza fabrics about now. They are not as floaty, you very soon get used to them.

There is a great deal you can look up about veil work and the wearing of veils. This is just the edge of the subject. I hope it has interested you enough to want to follow it up.

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