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On Veils, Drums and Cymbals

There are number of aspects typical to bellydance today that are not traditional to authentic raqs
sharqi. Rather they have been implemented to appeal to the imagination of western audiences.

These variations include the various fusion forms of bellydance, as well as use of implements
such as isis wings and different kinds of veils and capes.

Some implements as crazy as they seem, are actually authentic to the dance, such as the
morrocan tea tray and saidi cane. The boundaries of fact and fantasy become heavily blurred in
our dance because our human nature is such that seeing is believing.
For example, our experience of the fancy sailor in Trinidad and Tobago makes it difficult to accept
bellydance with a stick as authentic, but it is - it's called raks tahtib or raks assaya and comes
from the saidi region of Upper Egypt.

Conversely, Hollywood images of half-naked women wrapped in transparent veils and dancing
provocatively has been emblazoned in our minds as an authentic aspect of middle-eastern
culture. In truth, it’s an aspect of Middle-Eastern dance that was borrowed from the West. In the
1920’s, vintage Hollywood movies displayed glamorous women, performing in stunning costumes
that revealed cleavage, legs and an hourglass figure. The image was so effective that to this day
the heavily sequined evening gown or bathing suit remains a staple of the diva wardrobe in every
culture, from Carnival in Rio, to the MTV Video Music Awards, and yes, oriental dance.

Veils, it seems have historically occupied the work of western artists. Many pieces of classical art
depict women partially draped in a veil. The veil hardly appears a garment in itself, but rather a
clever accessory that blurs the lines between modesty and eroticism. The elaborate use of veils
likely entered the western bellydance vernacular on the heels of successful works by artists such
as Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller.

In the middle east, dancers would typically enter the stage using the veil as a costume garment
for modesty, like a shawl. Once onstage they'd swish it around a few times, then discard it to
begin the performance. Tricks such as peeking out from behind the veil, creating elaborate clouds
of swirling fabric, artfully wrapping and unwrapping the cloth around the body were all developed
in the west. To this day, only the most modern of dancers in the middle-east and north africa
incorporate veilwork into their routine, and even then it is in no way nearly as complex and
intricate as European and American performances. (Nejla Ates, Naima Akef, Shoshanna, Petite
Jamilla, Didem)

The techniques of bellydance with a veil have been so beautifully crafted that it now forms a basic
part of any bellydance repertoire outside the orient.


Arabic music is intricate, decadent and sometimes confusing to the untrained ear. Locally, many
dancers avoid the use of traditional arabic music for bellydance. Some believe that the audience
will not like it, because it 'sounds too indian'. Others think that indian and arabic music 'sound
similar' so they can be used interchangeably. However, until a dancer understands arabic music,
and appreciates it herself, she can never utilise it effectively with her audience.

The first step to understanding the music, is to separate melody from rhythm. Arabic rhythm is the
heartbeat of both the music and the dance. Many of the most common rhythms in bellydance
music are surprisingly simple. The difficulty comes from our ears being used to listening for the
tune or melody of a song rather than the beat. The arabic music scale, called a maqam, has
many more notes than the western scale of music. We are not used to the progression of the
notes, and our vocal chords have not been trained to make many of the sounds. This makes it
very difficult to hum along. The absence of that comfort factor of being able to instantly recognise
the tune is very offputting to most. The language barrier can also be limiting. However, you can
always anticipate the swells and lulls in the melody, the soft and loud bits, the lively and the
melancholy. Likewise you can vary the quality of your hipwork and shimmies - large and
unrestrained, small and refined, sharp and unpredictable or sustained and rolling. Learning to
interpret the dynamics of the music with your body, will get you off to a good start.

With arabic music, the melody guides the feeling of the movement. The drums on the other hand
are the tempo. Even with the most complex melody, with all kinds of dynamic changes, dancing
to the rhythm will save you from dragging on too slowly or racing to keep up. Managing the
rhythm gives your dance power, because it looks as though you control the music. The effect on
the audience is that this beautiful woman has tamed a wild, crazy (or dull droning) noise and
turned it into incredible music that just oozes from her pores. With drums you don't have to dance
every beat of the rhythm. You can give a fantastic performance just by keeping a basic tempo
going in the feet, and every once in a while, catch the accents with the hips or some other body

By keeping your feet and hip movements in time with the rhythm, you create a heartbeat in your
dance. That heartbeat is part of what keeps arabic dance looking arabic. The secret is that you
have to recognise the rhythm in the song.

Finger Cymbals

Finger cymbals (also known as zills or sagat) used to be a staple in the bellydance repertoire.
They were commonly used by the 19th-century street dancers of Egypt, the Ghawazee. In the
typical Ghawazee performance there would usually be a drummer and perhaps a fiddler, and the
dancer would play the finger cymbals. Her dance was characterized by lively shimmies and spins,
with the feet and hips carrying the rhythm of the zills.

In the early days of American bellydance, finger cymbals were also quite common. Today it is
somewhat rare, especially among young dancers. The decline is probably in part because of the
advent of recorded music, and in part because zills are a difficult skill to learn. It is one of those
skills that just can’t be self-taught. For example, if your teacher doesn’t use props like veils, sword
or shamadan, you could still acquire your own and figure out how to use it – but someone has to
teach you how to dance with finger cymbals because basically, it’s a musical instrument.

I would compare it to beating a drum while jogging. You would either have to adjust your steps to
match the beat, or keep a simple open rhythm that naturally picks up a few of your steps. It’s
tricky, but you have the advantage of already knowing how to jog and beat things as separate