After a career as a flamenco dancer, Marisa turned to belly dance in her retirement and loves sharing her knowledge of the art form.
Props are an essential part of belly dancing, but remember—you're a belly dancer, not a magician or a rhythmic gymnast.
One veil looks lovely, so ten must be better! One cane is nice, I need flaming ones! I also enjoy quilting, so I had better tie myself up with artistic shreds of fabric to express myself! I collect dragon figurines so I'm inventing dragonwingsofisis!
Just because you can, does not mean you should."
Thanks to Jane for the above quote, which sums up the dangers of props! Props can add an extra dimension to a belly dance performance when their use is kept in proportion.
As a dancer, you express the music through your eyes, your face, your body, your gestures, and your focus is on connecting with the audience. All props get in the way of that to some extent: they affect how freely you can move, they affect where your gaze is, and the extra concentration can affect your facial expression. So it takes a lot of skill to keep dancing properly while manipulating a prop. Below is another quote from Walladah.
Wings and veils are the props which are the most revealing about the dancer's skill and imagination: Most people when they use them, just walk doing things with them, as if they are saying "look, this is the new veil I bought yesterday".
Every dancer should try putting their prop down and dancing their choreography without it—they might get a shock at how boring their routine is! This sword routine by Sydney belly dancer Rachel is a good example of how an experienced dancer can do it right. Take away the sword in this routine, and sure, it would be obvious that something is missing. But even without the sword, Rachel's routine has plenty of interesting movement, light and shade.
Teachers can be guilty, too. I understand instructors wanting to keep their students engaged by adding variety to their classes—but when you hand a student a sword or a pair of wings, you're giving them the message, "you know how to belly dance now, it's time to move on to props".
That has to be the wrong message to give a beginner or intermediate student! There is so much to learn in belly dance, more than enough to keep a student interested for years without even touching a prop—I wish more teachers would have the confidence in the dance's ability to fascinate on its own.
I also understand why props are an essential element of professional performances. Whether you're dancing or not doesn't matter to some non-belly-dancing audiences—they're just blown away by the overall sensory experience, the colour, movement and drama created by fan veils, wings or swords. And at a restaurant or wedding, where you're fighting with many other distractions, you need to make a big statement to get their attention.
But at a hafla, it's different—because you're dancing to an audience that's there because they love the dance. Why hide behind props? Don't you believe your dancing is strong enough to impress the audience? If not, what are you doing on that stage?
Fan veils are, without doubt, the worst when it comes to "non-dancing". Belly dance fan veils have been borrowed lock, stock and barrel from Asian dances, first by tribal belly dancers in the 1990s, but now by the mainstream as well. (Read this article for a fascinating insight into the history of fan veils.)
The trouble with fan veils is that you can't simply let them drop if you want to include a more complex dance sequence—you'll trip over them, for one thing—so you really have to keep the silk tails moving most of the time. The result is that a belly dancer with fan veils spends a lot of time wafting or spinning around.
Yes, I know it looks visually exciting—but the performance becomes all about admiring the movement of the fabric, not the movement of the performer. The routine displays the dancer's ability to control the prop and not her ability to dance.
And that's why I dislike them.
- If the dancer is an experienced professional, I feel I'm not getting to see her beautiful dancing.
- If it's a student troupe, I'm left with the suspicion they're covering up their lack of talent by using such distracting props.
- If I'm the one holding the fans, I keep thinking I'd rather express the music properly, instead of running around flapping my arms.
Fan veils make a striking entrance to a cabaret performance—it's a great way to drag the audience's attention away from their meals (as are more traditional props like isis wings or sword). And as part of a longer show, they can provide a dramatic highlight. But the increasing tendency to use them for stand-alone routines just leaves me yawning!
If you're a "fan veil fan" (sorry, couldn't resist!), and you're spluttering in indignation, can I ask you to try something? Try dancing your choreography without the fan veils and see if it still works. Dancing is about the body in motion, not material in motion.
© 2020 Marisa Wright