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The Veil in Belly Dance

vestal virgin

In ancient times, in both eastern and western societies, wearing a veil was a part of everyday dressing for both men and women. A veil signified social status, communal membership and it provided a barrier between the veiled and unveiled. Veiling was also a religious act, covering the body and head for modesty.

Vestal Virgins in Rome who served the Goddess, wore a large white cloth edged in purple, which covered their heads when performing sacrifices.

Jewish and Muslim women wear robes and veils in public to protect them from prying eyes. Christian women wear veils on their heads when in church. The idea is that the head of a woman is a man and the head of a man is God.

Facial veiling is not sanctioned in Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. However, since the 1st century B.C. some sections of these societies advocated the use of the veil for married women, which came to be known as ghoonghat. It has been both romanticized and criticized in religious and folk literature.


In Tuareg society women do not traditionally wear the veil, but the men do. Tuareg men (also known as Mulatthamin or “the veiled ones”), wear blue turbans and robes to cover their heads and faces, both for modesty, as well as to protect their heads and faces form the brutal Saharan desert, where they live.

Tuareg men: Mulatthamin or “the veiled ones”
Artist's representation of Tin Hinan, an ancient queen of the Hoggar and founding matriarch of the Tuareg

Fast forward to the twentieth century, to belly dance. Dancers in the east have worn scarves and donned veils to dance at different times, but, nowhere is the veil more prevalent than in the US, where the Veil dance became a formal segment of the standard American Cabaret. I am always asked, where did this come from?

Mysterious Roots

Oscar Wilde's Salome

There is no one answer and what we do know is pretty speculative. One myth is that it was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome. In his depiction of the story, Salome dances “The Dance of the Seven Veils” for Herod who has John the Baptists head cut off for her. During the Victorian era, this blatant display of sexuality was shocking and, like all shocking events, became embedded in the minds of people forever. Was this an artist taking license to add spice?

Another idea is that the dancer, Loie Fuller, who created a routine with skirts and veils, influenced belly dancers who adopted her use of veils in their routines.

Loie Fuller

Belly Dance

Perhaps the most relevant

reason is through the story told by Morocco of NYC in which she shares a conversation she had with

Samia Gamal. Gamal tells the story of King Farouk of Egypt who hired the Russian dance instructor, Ivanova to teach his daughters to dance. Ivanova also taught Samia to improve her carriage and posture by carrying a veil on her arms in her entrance. Gamal goes on to explains that the veil is too close to stripping in Egyptian culture, so, it never became popular beyond Samia’s tool to improve her carriage.

Samia Gamal with veil

In Turkey the veil is a common costume piece used almost entirely as a décor and not as a prop to dance with.

Princess Banu of Turkey

The Veil, like the sword, the cane, candles and baskets is a standard prop dance in the US and has spread to other countries as a dance prop. We also added a half circle veil and double half circles. Later an easier, but just as dramatic prop– the wings and the fan veils came into the repertoire of American belly dancers.

Delayed Line in Dance

Dance, like architecture, is about line and design. In choreography a delayed line is an inanimate object used to make air designs Whether moving or still, the lines of the body create form and are infused with meaning through music. Indeed, dance is music in movement.The beauty of the veil in dance is the delayed lines which flow and move even after the body has stopped. Examples in dance are the bata de cola - the long skirt in flamenco; the veil in belly dance and the “Echigo-Jishi” or sleeves of the Japanese dances depicting rippling waters. These props add an element of movement that brings greater movement and drama to dance. While the dancers halts briefly, the prop continues moving. In the American cabaret style, the veil is a prominently featured prop adding breadth, depth and drama to the dance. (For more on delayed lines, join the class on Choreography coming up this summer).

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