After a career as a flamenco dancer, Marisa turned to belly dance in her retirement and loves sharing her knowledge of the art form.
Origin of Isis Wings
Purists look down on Isis wings because they are not Middle Eastern. So where do Isis wings come from?
It's possible they were inspired by the Serpentine Dance, made famous by Loie Fuller way back in the 1920s. Chorus girls in the Las Vegas shows and dancers at Caribbean Carnivals were using versions in the 1950s and 1960s, so that's another possible source. Whatever the source, it certainly wasn't Egypt, and they are still not used in the Middle East today.
However, if you are a Western dancer performing in a restaurant or at a function, Isis wings can be a Godsend! So often during a meal, the audience can be too busy chatting and eating to notice you. Make your entrance with a pair of huge rainbow wings shimmering around you, and see how quickly they sit up and take notice!
Many dancers are intimidated by the size of Isis wings, but there's no need to be. They can be effectively used in the simplest of ways—often, less is more. Look at the video below, for instance. Notice how impressive the opening seconds are, even though the dancer is only just moving the sticks to make the wings vibrate.
How to Choose Your Isis Wings
There are two basic types of Isis wings.
Traditional wings are huge. They're just two wings joined in the middle by a strip of material. The strip of material simply rests on your collarbone and drapes over your shoulders. It sounds insecure, but so long you're holding your sticks with the proper tension, it's not difficult to keep in place. However, you can never let go of the sticks, or your wings will fall off!
Small Wings (With Velcro Attachment)
Because the range of movements you can make with Isis wings is actually quite limited, dancers wanted wings they could pick up or drop at will. This led to the development of Isis wings attached to a Velcro collar.
They're also popular with troupes. It's almost impossible to fit more than two or three dancers on stage with full-size wings, not to mention that the sticks can become lethal weapons.
These wings also have shorter sticks, so the ends don't drag on the ground when the dancer isn't using them.
This next video shows an example of the lighter, smaller wings. They do enable you to add more variety to your choreography, but you can see they are much less dramatic, too.
Caring for Isis Wings
Isis wings will always be creased and wrinkled when you get them—it's simply impossible to transport them without causing some creases. Hang them up as soon as you get them—most of the wrinkles will fall out, and the small ones left won't be noticeable to the audience.
Always store your wings hanging up, not in their bag.
Should I Buy Traditional or Short Isis Wings?
Which type of wing you prefer will depend on your circumstances—what style you dance and where. If you're buying wings online, check the size before you buy!
Note: whether you need short wings has nothing to do with your height. I'm barely 5'2", and I can handle traditional wings easily. Your decision should be based on factors such as your choreography, where you'll be dancing, and who you'll be dancing with.
It is possible, though not necessarily easy, to shorten Isis wings if they're a bit too big.
How to Shorten Isis Wings
There are two methods of shortening Isis wings.
Shortening at the Hem
Cutting at the edge of the wings is a daunting exercise because you have to cut along a huge half-circle, and then you'll have a very long edge to hem—both of which can be hard to do evenly.
Cut one wing first, then use it as a pattern for the other wing. The easiest way to create a new hem is to use an overlocker or serger.
You'll then have to press the pleats back into place.
CAUTION: Isis wings melt! Use a very cool iron, and test a small area first.
Shortening at the Neck
This takes a bit more preparation but is likely to give a more even result because you're cutting a much shorter length.
- First, tack the pleats near the neck to hold them in place.
- Measure how much you need to remove, and do a second set of tacking stitches to mark the new neck.
- Unpick the neckband and cut off the extra material—don't forget to allow for a hem!
- Reattach the neckband in the new position and finish off the raw edges.
Isis Wings Technique
There are a couple of basic secrets to good Isis wing technique.
- Regard the sticks as an extension of your arms. Your teacher has probably told you not to let your hands flop when you're dancing, but to keep the back of your hand in line with your arm. The same applies to your sticks—try to keep a straight line all the way from your shoulder to the tip of the stick. There are exceptions for some movements, of course—but if you start with this rule, you can feel confident your moves will look elegant.
- Move the stick in a figure of eight. Never move the stick (forward, back, up or down) in a straight line. Instead, trace a figure of eight with the point of the stick. That makes all the difference between making beautiful shapes with your wings, and just flapping!
- Vary your speed. The same move can look very different at different speeds because the air catches your wings in different ways.
The dancer in the next video is not a belly dancer, nor is she using Isis wings, nor is this belly dance choreography. I've chosen it purely to illustrate the effect of the "figure eight" action. Notice how straight her arms are.
Remember to Dance!
I have to say I find 90% of dances with wings terminally boring (unless they are used for a brief, spectacular entrance and no more). I go to a belly dance performance to watch a belly dancer channel the music expressively through her body—not to watch her flapping bits of material around.
When choreographing your Isis wings routine, please try not to get so obsessed with the wings that you forget to dance! Put the wings down and try dancing the routine on its own—you may be surprised how little real dancing you're doing. Ask yourself, are you a belly dancer or a windmill?
Isis wings can look absolutely fabulous used properly. This video is an interesting interpretation which tells a story:
It seems that technology is invading belly dance more and more, and as always, fusion dancers are in the vanguard. I have not tried these LED products myself and have my doubts about how gracefully some of the heavily lit ones would move and how easy they'd be to manipulate, but that's hardly the point. As a spectacular opening to a show, they would make a fantastic statement even if you hardly move at all!
© 2020 Marisa Wright