Veils have played and integral role Middle Eastern dance from the beginning of this art form. From Solome and the infamous “dance of the seven veils,” to modern times. Historians differ as the origins of the veil in dance. Some say it is unrelated to Muslim culture and that Solome was a myth. The use of the veil, though, can be documented to the 20th Century as a dance prop. Widespread use of the veil began in the 1950’s and 1960’s as a way to capture the attention of audiences. Veil technique evolved from there.
The veil plays a major role in the American cabaret style of dance where the dancer “unveils,” revealing her beaded and bangle costume. This “unveiling” is not to be confused with stripping. The dancer enters with the veil draped about her, covering her costume. As the music commences, she slowly removes the veil, using various techniques, dance movements and trurns. The veil is a prop used to accent the dance and add to its mystery. It adds a soft, sensuous mood to the dance, in contrast to the rapid hip-gyrating aspects of a dance routine. As the slow music ends, the veil is discarded and the dancer continues her routine “unveiled.”
Veil work is generally performed to slow music. The veil is used to highlight and emphasize dance movements/technique. The veil flows continuously and seamlessly from one movement to the next, rarely touching the floor. It swirls about the dance and floats in the air.
Veils may come in various styles and fabrics. A dance veil is usually 3 yards of lightweight chiffon fabric, 45-inches wide. It can be smaller for a petite dancer or larger for a taller dancer. Personal preference may also play a role as to size. Chiffon offers an ethereal look. Silk can be lovely as well but is not as sheer and is heavier to work with. Heavy fabrics like organza or any fabric that clings should be avoided. A dancing veil should be easy to “play with.” Most cabaret costumes come with a matching veil. Additional veils can be easily made from fabric or even curtain panels (to be covered in a future article). Multiple veils and unique styles of veils may be used during the dance as well.
Some veils are ornately decorated and may be smaller in size and heavier in weight. These are often used for effect. In Egypt, the veil is used as an entrance prop, used sparingly and discarded quickly. Thus, the veil may be showy to make a statement. The idea of entering with a veil began in Egypt in the 1930’s by famed dancer Samya Gamal and copied ever since.*
In the Gypsy style of dance the veil may not be a veil at all. Fringed shawls are utilized in much the same way, with drama, accenting the dance and adding interest.
The popular prop of Wings of Isis may also be used as a veil of sorts, though a separate prop.
Veils are a fun form of expression in Middle Eastern dance. Veils add variety to the dance routine while entrancing the audience. They can also keep the sand out of your face!