Archive for the Props Category

Meanings, Origins & Stories Surrounding Props | Veil & Zills

August 29th, 2013

Various props have been used by bellydancers to enhance their dance and give it new quality through decades. I investigated two of the most popular ones, veil and zills. The meanings, origins & stories surrounding props are completely different, yet all colourful, fascinating and giving lots of field for discussion.

Veils and zills

Swirl, swoosh and wrap around a colourful silk veil!

It’s fascinating how different, sometimes conflicting, stories about veil in bellydancing and it’s history I found online! I completely sank while digging into stories and discussion and the question “Is the veil dance actually ancient or contemporary?” still can’t be answered with one sure and simple sentence.

From Elizabeth Artemis Mourat’s article “Veil Dancing In North Africa and Middle East” I found out that in ancient Greek and Roman periods women used to dance with a beautiful piece of fabric which at that time wasn’t known as a veil as we use this term referring to a bellydancing prop nowadays. It could be various sizes shawls and scarves, or one or two handkerchiefs, used to introduce some elements of storytelling and make the dance more interesting. Various scarves and veils were used in old dances among some North African, Caucasian and Gypsy tribes. For example flamenco dancers are still using large scarves called “mantons”

However, what Artemis Mourat emphasizes is that there’s no documentation on veil dance after ancient Greek and Roman period until late 1800′s. This might be connected with veil being worn by Muslim women for modesty and/ or with a culture not allowing usual women to be photographed. In late 1800′s with the Orientalist movement pictures depicting Arabic women using veils to emphasizes their beauty came to Europe. However, nowadays we know that these photos were rather creation of French Orientalists than a documentation of real Arabic world.

In contemporary veil dance history I have to mention Oscar Wilde and his play “Salomé”, in which the title character is performing the infamous seven veil dance, and also Samia Gamal, an Egyptian dancer walking on the stage with a veil to hold beautiful arms posture. Samia was trained by Russian ballet instructor Anna Ivanova in 1940′s who introduced this prop to make dancer’s arms stronger and posture more elegant.

Wilde’s play however brings some controversy and provokes lots of discussion around veil dancing. The main character, Salomé is performing there a very sensual dance, wearing nothing but the seven veils which she removes one after another. And here it comes, a veil worn for modesty can be used for striptease! Although the Bible, where the story about Salomé and John the Baptist comes from, doesn’t specify the dance she performed, nor even mentions the girl’s name, the play and its adaptations created quite a controversial context for veil dance.

In addition to this in discussion with Lindsey, she has found through her research that “there appears to be a correlation between the advent of air travel and the fascination of golden era hollywood with the middle east. Early Hollywood movies indulged audiences with the idea of the exotic veiled woman, in parallel with the two piece costume set, the west in part influenced the east. Audiences then expected to see a flowing veil as a belly dance prop and early tourism sought to please”

Colourful, beautiful and mysterious veils have become very popular in the West, in particular in American Cabaret, but not only. Belly dancers around the world enjoy swirling and swooshing a beautiful piece of silk or chiffon and whatever the stories are I can just say that a veil dance is so pretty and so fun!

Let’s grab zills and play the rhythm while dancing!

“Zills” in Turkish and “Sagats” in Arabic are the names for finger cymbals used by bellydancers around the world. They have ancient origin. Similarly to other percussion instruments have been used as an extension of stomping feet and clapping hands to express the rhythm and became popularised in the advent of the Bronze Age. The name “cymbal” comes from the Greek word “kymbala”

In ancient times, it is believed that, finger cymbals were used by dancers mainly in ritual and religious ceremonies. They could play rhythms to express the atmosphere of both celebration and mourning.

An important figure in zills history is undoubtedly Avedis Zildjan, an Armenian alchemist from 17th century, who while trying to create gold out of base metals, discovered that an alloy of copper, tin, and traces of silver had unique sound qualities. And that’s how he started making zills and other percussion instruments, which shortly became very popular in Turkey. The Zildjan cymbals were first used in Turkish military bands in Ottoman times and nowadays are very popular among modern rock bands. Zildjan Company is now based in America and is one of the family businesses with the oldest tradition.

Another famous contemporary zills producer is Harry Saroyan, so popular within bellydancers communities around the world. Very recently, in January 2013 sad news arrived to the Bellydance Community – Harry Saroyan is going to retire and his company won’t continue. Dancers started searching for distributors to grab the last sets of Saroyans. Luckily, Harry Saroyan announced that after 50 years of serving Bellydance Communinty he’s planning to sell his business and in the meantime will continue on a smaller scale.

Although there’s not so much controversy around zills comparing to veil, there are still news and stories like the one above bringing zills as a topic of discussion. And zills themselves are such a beautiful and expressive addition to bellydance!

Love and shimmies