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This article is an excerpt from Artemis Mourat's manuscript, "The Illusive Veil". In the original manuscript, Artemis details the results of her extensive research into the history of the veil. She discusses its use in ancient times, talks about the practice of veiling by Islamic women, addresses the veiling of sacred objects, and talks about how the veil is used in dance today. This excerpt, which appears here on this web site with her permission, talks about the history of the veil's use in Oriental dance in the Middle East and North Africa.
It is essential to make a distinction between the ancient history of veil dancing and the contemporary history of veil dancing. By "contemporary", I refer to the history of approximately the last one hundred years. Both the ancient and the contemporary history of veil dancing are important, but they seem to be unrelated. There is no mention of veil dancing after the Greek and Roman periods in North Africa. But it seems to have come into existence again in the late 1800's.
It is difficult to properly research this topic because women moving with veils are popular subjects. This topic was enjoyed, explored, and exploited by artists and opportunists from ancient days into the present. Dancing with veils has alternately invoked images of genuine modesty as well as erotic images that accentuate the nudity. Ancient deities were said to ascend, descend, and sometimes fly. This motion is depicted in art with flowing veils but some of the deities also danced. It is difficult to discern if they are simply moving or dancing in these artistic images?
A major hindrance to our understanding of the history of veil dance comes from distorted versions of the dance, misrepresentations by dancers, and romanticized inaccuracies by historians. A prime example of this is Zourna, who was a dancer whose father was a Tunisian Arab and mother was French. She spent her childhood in Tunisia where she learned to dance. When her husband died and her family lost their money, she had to become a professional dancer in cafes. She studied ballet and choreographed "fusion" pieces mixing Tunisian dances with ballet. She added the overacting typical of the theater and early cinema of the day. Zourna was granted undeserved authenticity because what she performed was barely Oriental. Dance historians such as the Kinneys claimed that, "The mission of calling Western attention to that which lies below the surface of Arabic dancing, however, appears to have remained for Zourna." (Kinney, p. 199). She became quite famous. Her beautiful, pantomimic performances and their elaborate and made up "interpretations" created many myths about Oriental dance.
Zourna's "Dance Of Greeting" involved the dancer making an entrance carrying a veil made of assuit which half concealed her body. "Upon reaching her place she extends her arms forward, then slowly moves them, and with them the scarf, to one side until she is revealed. When a nod confirms the command to dance (from her master), she quickly drops the scarf to the floor..." (Kinney, p. 202-203).
Another of her dances was entitled "Handkerchief Dance." This was supposed to be an imitation of the handkerchief dances of North Africa, but similarity only went so far as the use of two scarves. "Of the two handkerchiefs used in this dance one represents the girl herself, the other her soon-to-be-selected lover. She first takes a corner of each handkerchief into her teeth, warming them into life. She lays them parallel on the floor and indifferently dances around them and between them, to state her power to cross the line and return free from entanglements of lover's claims. Into the waistband of her trousers she tucks opposite corners of both handkerchiefs so that they hang as paniers: the hands pushed through show the panniers empty; she would receive gifts. To show, too, that she can give, a flourishing gesture releases a corner of each, to spill the imagined contents. Interest progresses until as a climax she kisses one of the fluttering cloths, slowly passes it downward over heart and body, and throws it in a wad at the elected one. The token is his passport to her; and its return at any later time is announcement that she no longer interests him." (Kinney, p. 205). This dance was her own fabrication and bore no resemblance whatsoever to the dances that really took place in Tunisia. Her dancing and the folklore that surrounded it did nothing for our understanding of the true nature of ethnic Oriental dance. But historians cited her dancing as representative of that culture.
There are several potential sources for the introduction of veil dancing into contemporary Oriental dance. After the Greek and Roman period, there seems to be no documentation of veil dancing in the Middle East or North Africa in literature or in art. At the end of the 1800's and the beginning of the 1900's, there were numerous photographs taken of women dancing with what looked like shawls and kerchiefs. Many of these photographs were posed pictures which were more reflective of the photographers' prurient taste than the culture which they presumed to document. There was a salacious appetite to be quenched for the English and European buyers of these provocative and sometimes seminude photographs. There was money to be made. The photographs depicted the Orientalists' racist, sexist fantasy of how the forbidden women of the harems were supposed to appear (Morocco). These women were clearly exploited. It is most likely that they were very poor women, prostitutes, dancers, and/or slaves. The families of respectable women did not permit them to be photographed. Hence, the people represented in the photographs were not representative of the population at large.
It is difficult and sometimes impossible to discern whether the subjects were posed women, dancing women, or women who were posing in dance postures. Many women were told to take their head scarves or outer modesty coverings off and frame themselves with them. The photographers were exploiting the romanticized and eroticized images of veiled women who uncovered their charms for the onlooker. These coverings were heavy, opaque cloths, not sheer, fluid fabrics and these women were not dancing with them (Morocco *1).
After carefully screening the pictures to separate the posed from the unposed, there still are many pictures that clearly portray women in the act of dancing. There was a form of veil dancing during this time period in North Africa. It was, however, not the type of veil dancing that was seen later in the Oriental dance theaters. They did not use two or three yards of sheer diaphanous fabric, elegantly carving shapes in space and draping and undraping themselves.
These North African dances may fall into two general categories. One group is the "handkerchief dances" and the other group should more accurately be described as "shawl dances". The dances were similar in nature but some movements differed because of the prop. A handkerchief or a larger scarf allowed for different types of movements. The "handkerchief dance" usually employs two or occasionally one handkerchief. One handkerchief is held in each hand, or one handkerchief is held in both hands. The handkerchief or scarf was flipped around, twirled, rolled, bunched up, or twisted. these dances were quick, "footy", and alternated flipping and swirling of the cloth (Morocco). There are pictures of these dances being performed in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.
PHOTO CREDIT: The picture to the right is from an antique Algerian postcard in the collection of Elizabeth Artemis Mourat which has been colorized. Click on it to see the image in more detail.
There were dances performed that used sheer diaphanous veils or handkerchiefs in other parts of the Middle Eastern world. In Azerbaijan, the people are a Turkic-speaking group from the Caucasus area. In the women's dances they use handkerchiefs, scarves, and veils to accentuate their feminine beauty. During the dances, they delicately reveal the eyes, the nose, the face and the richly costumed breasts. This is different from the veil as it is manipulated in Oriental dance because in the Azeri women's dances, the veil is attached to a hat or a headdress. The freedom of movement is limited because of this, but the variety of gestures is still rich and varied, and there are some gestures that the Azeri women can do because of the attached veil that are different from the Oriental dancer's veil which is not anchored (Gray, p. 9). In this culture there was a bridal dance. A bride-to-be was expected to dance for her husband-to-be or the overlord. The veils were manipulated with "... great delicacy and discretion..." (Kilic & Broussard, p.11).
In some contemporary Uzbek dances, the veil or headscarf is employed and it is attached to a headdress or to the dancer's hair. She may pull the edge of it across her face for her entrance or during some part of the dance.
The Oriental dancers in Turkey were mostly Gypsies and they were known as "çengis." They sometimes danced with the edge of their headscarves in their mouths. They also employed one or two small scarves in some of their dances. Metin And described a wedding party where one of these dances was performed. "They held a handkerchief in one hand, and when a woman wanted to join the dance she took hold of the handkerchief of another, so in this way they did not actually touch each other." (And, p. 279-281). Another "çengi" dance employs the use of scarves in a pantomime of amorous relations. "Holding the two ends of the silken scarf in their fingers they would either play the shy maiden or the flirting courtesan; or they would twist a coloured scarf into a rope and wind it round the head or neck; or else they would hold the scarf in front of their face like a veil, hence the names of the dance which have survived are 'kaytan oyunu' or 'tura oyunu' ('kaytan' and 'tura' meaning silk cord, braid, knotted handkerchief)." (And, p. 143).
There were parts of Europe where women performed a type of shawl dance. Russian Gypsies perform a dance where they manipulate their shawls much the same way as Oriental dancers (Gray). Gypsy flamenco dancers in Spain sometimes dance with their very large shawls called "mantons."
Veil dancing similar to what we see today did not make its way into the formal Oriental dance theaters until the 1940's. The historian Morocco describes a conversation she had almost 30 years ago with the famous Egyptian Oriental dancers Samia Gamal and Tahiya Carioca. Morocco asked why she had not seen veil dancing in her extensive travels to North Africa and the Middle East. They said that until recently they had never seen it or heard of it.
However, they said there was a famous Russian ballerina and ballet teacher who King Farouk of Egypt hired to teach his daughters. Her name was Ivanova, and in the 1940's, she taught Samia Gamal how to carry a veil for her entrance and to improve her arm carriage. Ms. Ivanova adopted this practice from a Caucasian dance perhaps from Azerbaijan (Morocco). She taught other famous Oriental dancers such as the Jamal Twins (Gray, p.17).
This image represents a still of a scene of Samia Gamal dancing with a veil in a 1955 Egyptian motion picture titled Sigarah wa Kass (A Glass and a Cigarette).
Samia Gamal made veil dancing popular in the Egyptian theaters and performed it in the United States and in a French movie entitled Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves which was then exported to other countries. This became popular and was incorporated by other Oriental dancers in their repertoires (Gray, p. 17).
This image represents a still of a scene from the 1954 French film Ali Baba et les Quarante Voleurs (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves).
The Ballet Russe added the veil to some of their choreographies, perhaps borrowing the idea from the Caucasus and/or perhaps borrowing the idea from Oscar Wilde's Salome. Ballet dancers depicted Salome or Cleopatra, and the corps de ballet performed dances carrying veils (Gray, p. 9).
Veil dancing in the United States had several early roots in "The Dance Of The Seven Veils" of Oscar Wilde, the famous skirt dancers Kate Vaughan and Loïe Fuller, and in Hollywood visions of the ancient Orient (see the section on the Dance Of The Seven Veils [in the full manuscript]). It is quite possible that Hollywood was influenced by the posed women who were undraping themselves on the postcards from the turn of the century.
Kate Vaughan popularized a dance form in the 1870's. She swirled her full skirts in the music halls of England (Morris, p. 37). This was known as "skirt dancing." Loïe Fuller was inspired by this and created her own version of skirt dancing in the early twentieth century. Fuller was a pioneer in the use of color, stage lighting, mangificent costuming, and color photography. She did extensive experiments with the new invention of electrical lights. She soon expanded her costuming and dancing beyond simply manipulating her skirts. An innovator in special effects, Fuller created remarkable illusions with yards and yards of diaphanous fabric. She created images of imaginary wings which flowed into wind and fiery flames. Sometimes she attached the fabric to long poles which extended far beyond her body. Thus, she created illusions with sound, light, color, form, costume designs, and motion (Morris, p. 37-39).
Loïe Fuller (1863-1928) traveled extensively for her performances to such places as Europe, Egypt, Morocco, and Monte Carlo, but her home was in Paris. Her dancing was based on the broad and natural movements of running, turning, twisting the torso, and natural posing. She was noted for her genius and generosity. She guarded her veils very closely and each of her seamstresses knew only part of their construction (Kinney, p. 237). She only allowed herself and very few trusted people to fold, pack, and unfold them backstage. Fuller created dances that she called Fire, Orchid, Butterfly, the Lily, Serpentine Dance, Violet, and White Dance. She became each object through the illusions that she created.
One of Loïe Fuller's performances was described as "...undulating and luminous, full of weird grace and originality, a veritable revelation! By means of a novel contrivance, the gauzy iridescent draperies in which Loïe Fuller swathes herself are waved about her, now to form huge wings, now to surge in great clouds of gold, blue, or crimson, under the coloured rays of the electric light. And in the flood of this dazzling or pallid light the form of the dancer suddenly became incandescent, or moved slowly and spectrally in the diaphanous and ever-changing coloration cast upon it. The spectator never wearied of watching the transformations of these tissues of living light, which showed in successive visions the dreamy dancer, moving languidly in a chaos of figured draperies--in a rainbow of brilliant colours, or a sea of vivid flames. And after having roused us to a pitch of enthusiasm by this luminous choreography, she appeared triumphant in the pantomime-ballet 'Salome,' reproducing the gloomy episode of the death of John The Baptist. The stage of the Folies Bergères, where Loïe Fuller performed this weird and graceful Serpentine Dance, is famous..." (Vuillier, p. 378-379).
This picture comes from the private collection of Elizabeth Artemis Mourat. Click on it to see more detail.
Ruth St. Denis between 1900 and 1902 saw Fuller and learned from her swirling skirts and veils. She created her own version of skirt dancing.
It is easy to see why veil dancing was very popular in the vaudevillian and pre-vaudevillian theaters. It was colorful, creative, and sensuous at its best, and dull but sensuous at its worst. The sensuous removal of clothing or any other drape is not a new phenomenon. That scene can easily be envisioned in the homes of courtesans for thousands of years. The burlesque theaters have always had their versions of veil dancing in a "now you see it, now you don't" style of exhibitionism. Little Egypt and the women who came with her introduced Oriental dance to this country [the United States] at the Chicago World's Fair. Hoochie-koochie dancers and strippers used those Oriental themes and added the seductive allure of covering and uncovering themselves with veils which they borrowed from the seedy American theaters. Oriental dance was degraded in that venue.
In the 1950's there were very few legitimate Oriental dancers in the United States. They were almost exclusively found in the ethnic night clubs. If they did veil dancing, it was most likely a result of the influences of Hollywood or the influence that Samia Gamal had on the Oriental dance, rather than a custom that they brought over from "the old country" (Morocco).
People from North Africa and the Middle East do not understand veil dancing today. They cannot transcend their first impression of it: that it is a strip-tease. That is why their Oriental dancers dance very briefly with their veils (if at all) and then abandon them. They do not spend time unveiling in their dance because they and their audiences find this distasteful (Morocco).
It seems as though veil dancing lost its significance as it lost its link with the ancient past. It was re-introduced into contemporary Oriental dance history by folk dancers, Oriental dancers, and prostitutes at the end of the nineteenth century. Later, it became a beautiful addition to the Oriental repertoire through Samia Gamal via the Caucasus. Then it became a playful and innovative addition to other dance forms. It has been utilized in modern dance and ballet. Its appeal caught on and it was adopted into the contemporary renditions of ancient and Oriental dance. Perhaps, at this point we can say that it has been reinstated rather than created anew. Does its lack of continuous roots not make it a legitimate art form? Hardly, because it is part of the evolution of this dance. If we see exquisite paintings of harem scenes and we learn that they were painted by men who never saw harems, does that make the paintings not artistic or beautiful? They are still artistic but not historically accurate. There is a lack of historic continuity to the history of veil dancing. It appeared, disappeared, only to reappear again. Veil dancing has fallen out of fashion in Egypt. It still is sometimes performed in Turkey.
But to see the most interesting and elaborate use of the veil in dance, one must observe Oriental dancers in the United States, England, or Europe. They seem to be "carrying the torch" and are adding innovations to the Oriental dance repertoire with multiple veils, using veils and swords, veils and fire, and dancing with capes (*2).
This photograph depicts the author, Elizabeth Artemis Mourat, dancing with a veil. Click on it to see more detail.
The veil has enjoyed a secure place in the more recent evolution of Oriental dance, especially in the United States. But let us be very clear about what we are doing and what we are not doing. A definition is in order. It is fairly safe to define contemporary veil dancing as the deliberate removal and manipulation of a veil, using dance technique. That is what it is and now that the history is more clear, future historians have a springboard from which to start. It is beautiful to watch, evocative, and colorful.
* 1 I owe special thanks to Morocco for her invaluable assistance with the North African part of this section.
* 2 An example of some of these beautiful and dramatic innovations can be seen in the dancing of Eva Cernik.