One of the most beautiful and integral props to belly dance is the veil. Although it is lightly used as part of short entrances in Egyptian Cabaret and occasionally in Turkish Cabaret numbers, or in specialty folkloric numbers (malaya leff from northern Egypt or Persian dance) veil work as an central part of a belly dance routine is a largely American Cabaret invention. Belly dance veils lend an aura of mystery and enchantment to the performance and can be used to convey emotion and even invite audience members to get up and dance.
Even the word “veil” is somewhat incorrect; no self-respecting Muslim woman wearing a hijab or head scarf or veil, would choose to “unveil” herself for an audiences or in a public performance. The way a veil is used in belly dance isn’t a tease or used as a way to “uncover” herself to show something intimate; instead in an opening number, a veil is used to carve out space for the dancer, introduce the dancer to the audience, and used as a prop to enhance and showcase her dancing ability.
There has been an explosion in creativity to how veils are used in belly dance, morphing into “voi” or veil poi, fan veils inspired from Chinese fan dancing, and billowing wings. They are used for dramatic effect in different flavors of belly dance, including in gothic belly dance.
The possibilities are endless. There are different types of veils in shapes and materials, usually in half circles or rectangles and come in chiffon to lame to silk. My favorite vendors for top-quality silks, more often found in the tradition of American Cabaret because of its floatiness and different weights and creativity in how the fabric can be dyed, include:
Silkdancer: Known best for her out-of-the-box patterns including butterfly-inspired and peacock eye and evil eye designs, Shaula’s luscious veils are high quality and worth every penny you invest them. She will even dye a veil to match your costume perfectly. She is also introducing new amazingly fluid lame veils and iridescent chiffon veils which change color in the light. Absolutely magical. She regularly vends at major dance festivals on the East Coast, so keep your eyes peeled.
A’Kai Silks: I always envied this woman,who posed with her jewel-like brilliant ombre veils on Hawaii’s beaches, on volcanoes and in temple gardens. Known for her bright and clear colors and seamless shading from one color into another, these veils have become part of a standard professional dancer’s uniform. Many have tried and failed to imitate her ombre veils, and they are distinctive as a fingerprint. She is currently on hiatus until further notice, but check back on her silks soon, because as soon as she starts posting veils, they are gone within hours.
Fairycove Silks: With a massive selection of silk veils in all shapes, sizes, colors, and weights, Fairy Cove is a reliable silk veil vendor. They tend to make veils in softer hues, not quite as brilliant as A’Kai or Silkdancer’s veils, but they have an interesting selection of veils in patterns of clouds and tiger stripes.
Veils can be an exquisite, expensive addiction, since many of the veils from the three vendors above go for well north of $60. If you need some basic veils to practice with, I recommend Moondance Belly Dance, Dahlal, and Belly Dance Digs.
The care and maintenance of veils are very important, especially silk: don’t stuff them into bags, but either roll them or drape them on hangers to avoid hangers and hang in the bathroom during a steamy shower to get out the wrinkles. If you must iron, do so with an iron on low heat. If you get a stain, blot gently with a cloth wetted with warm water. If you veil is truly disgusting, particularly after outdoors or restaurant gigs, give them a bath in your bathtub with lukewarm water and a touch of Woolite or other gentle laundry detergent, swirl with a wooden cooking spoon and repeat, followed by a rinse with cool water and roll in dry cotton towels (preferably dark, because the dye may stain!) and evenly hung to dry. Expect your veils to bleed, but it is important to ensure that there are no suds left before drying because any detergent left on the silk will damage the fibers.
How do you become better with a veil? Practice, practice, practice. Sandralis, a dancer from Bellyqueen once gave me a good piece of advice–put your veil into your purse or out on the coffee table in your living room. Pull it out when you have a free moment and practice. There are many terms for the same movement, and there are plenty of YouTube videos and DVDs on veil instruction, but the best instruction you can get is in person. Watching a grainy video and trying to imitate the angle of the arms, the speed of the turns, and the pause before the flick can be difficult. Get thee to a veil workshop!
Meanwhile, here is my latest video playing with a beautiful peacock veil borrowed from Silkdancer in Pittsburgh: