Of all the belly dance props, the dance veil would seem like the least complicated item. As usual in the belly dance world, it gets complicated when you look a little closer. Here is a little information about the background of belly dance veils and some considerations for selecting and using them.
First off, the history is probably not what you’d expect. There is good evidence for the long use of handkerchiefs in folk dances around the Mediterranian, and dancing with fringed scarves or the trains from head-dresses, but the ‘good old-fashioned belly dance veil’, several yards of sheer flat fabric, was not used in the dance until the 1940’s. A Russian ballarina named Ivanova, hired by King Farouk of Egypt to teach his daughters, suggested using one to Samia Gamal to improve her arm carriage.
Samia must have liked it, because she carried it into her movies. Hollywood and the western world picked up the romantic image of the chiffon veil and considered it a standard piece of dance equipment. However, in the Middle East, veils are usually only used during an entrance and then quickly discarded. They are not referred to as a ‘veil’ (that’s a piece of clothing required for modesty) but as ‘fabric’. Consequently, the act of unwrapping the dance veil from around the body to then dance with it is not considered in good taste- too much like stripping.
These days, belly dancing with a length of sheer fabric is pretty much standard practice around the world. Chiffon fabric, to match the skirt, has a nice weight and lift and is not expensive. However, feather weight silks billow wonderfully while the silk’s sheen catches the light, so silk veils are prized, although they’re more expensive. Veils may be dyed, embroidered, edged in beads or sequins, or otherwise embellished to add sparkle and interest.
Generally, a veil is a rectangular piece of fabric at least three yards long and about 50 inches wide. Semi-circular veils are used, too. Here are some things to consider when choosing a veil.
Your veil must extend at LEAST three inches past both hands when you hold your arms out (note the veil is not held at the corners and is not held taut, but allowed to drape a bit in the back.) How much more free cloth ends you have depends on the look you want and the weight of the fabric. Some dancers want closer to two feet of extension to use for flipping and swirling, but the more you have, the harder it can be to dance with. Dancing with four feet of heavier fabric can be quite a workout, and the veil may not float as it should.
The width of the veil depends again on the type of fabric and the dancer’s height. Lightest weight fabrics need more width to give them the weight required to control them. However, too wide a veil on a shorter dancer will have the wrong proportions and make her look like she’s wrestling with a bed sheet!
Even for a simple prop like a veil, there are things you must consider when dancing with one. They can be a fire hazard if dancing near candles. Ceiling fans are treacherous! Of course, the ceiling has to be high enough so that it won’t get caught. Dancing with one outdoors can be iffy during windy or gusty days- the veil won’t be where you expect it to be. I’ve seen several dancers step on a discarded veil and slide or fall hard; watch where yours lands! They can get caught on the prongs of jewelry or in hair clips- expect to have one cover your face at least once in your veil dancing career. However, they add color, movement, and excitement to a dance, they can double as a cover-up, and every dancer needs one or a dozen or more!