Middle Eastern Dance
About Veils
Below you will find some basic history and cultural context of veils and their use in dance.

In modern bellydance in nearly all corners of the world veils are a popular prop.  They are elegant and flowing and can be used to create stunning dances through manipulation of the cloth.  However the veil dance as it's own performance piece in oriental dance is a relatively new invention stemming largely from American and Turkish night club styles of dance.

There are many orientalist images depicting dancers holding veils and seemingly dancing with them but there are no surviving "veil dances" per se.  There is evidence and mention of dances utilizing scarves or kerchiefs and in central Asia dances would manipulate the ends of their veils which were attached to their hats.  The modern veil dance came into being largely in the early to mid 20th century.  In the early 1900's dancers such as Loie Fuller performed a dance in which her specially made costume of swirling skirt and veil captivated audiences.  Her works possibly influenced the veil dances of other dances such as Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis were experimenting with veils as well.  Early plays and operas about Salome and her "dance of the seven veils" probably played some role in the development and popularity of this in the United States too.

In the Middle East the modern use of veils in dance is generally traced to Samia Gamal.  In the 1940's Samia Gamal was training with Russian Ballet dancer, Madam Ivanova.  She expressed that she didn't know what to do with her arms and wanted them to appear more graceful so Ivanova suggested she carry a veil when she entered.  Ivanova continued to train many of Egypt's early "Golden Age" dancers.  The veil as an entrance piece became fairly standard in Egypt.  Egyptian dancers however, rarely do more than enter the stage with veil behind them and then do a few spins.  After this the veil is tossed to the side.  Egypt dominated the media of the Middle East and North Africa from the late 19th century through the later half of the 20th century.  Egyptian music and film were exported throughout the region.  This is probably how it entered Turkey.

In Turkey and the US (American style is highly influenced by Turkish style) dancers further developed this into modern veil dance.  The art of wrapping and unwrapping is possibly an American innovation but can also be seen in Turkish style dances as well.  Eventually veil dancing evolved into even more complex styles such as double veil which seems to have come into fashion in the 1970's when bellydance was experiencing a surge of interest and popularity in the US.  Further development into veil like capes and Isis wings took off in the late 80's and 90's and newer innovations such as veil fans have been increasing in popularity since 2000.

Although wrapping and unwrapping are sometimes a part of Turkish style dance this is generally disliked in the Middle East as it's seen as stripping if you remove an item like a veil.  Because veils are traditionally a garment of modesty worn by Muslim women there have and can be tensions and misunderstandings when removing a veil as part of a performance.  Wraps (or specialty holds) that place the veil as covering the head in a way that mimics hijab (the Islamic headscarf used for modesty) can potentially be a turn off to Muslim audience members.  For a Muslim removing ones head scarf can be akin to taking off one's shirt.
Margo Abdo O'dell. 2003. Pencil Sketch by Cassandra Strand
Two Algerian women under one veil