The veil, in Orientale dance, is not worn as a garment, nor over the face. It is not meant to imitate the niqab or hijab, or at least it shouldn’t. Veiling in that sense has important religious and cultural connotations that most of us try to respect when we dance.
On occasion, you can find album cover art and other images that play into cultural stereotypes and fantasies about the Middle East, but these should be regarded as either tourist bait or simply cheesy.
The dance veil as a prop is a large piece of fabric, usually chiffon or silk. In American-style dance, it is often tucked into the costume, and the process of unveiling becomes part of the dance. This unveiling happens in slow, subtle, and surprising ways, conveying a mood of playfulness, mystery, introspection, or whatever suits the dancer. The veil is then twirled, flipped, draped and posed with to create shapes and lines (while in motion) or used to frame for the body (when still). Veil dance can be a very personal expression of emotion and style, and is an extension of your energy. Other dancers fall into very formulaic, tricks-based routines that work as crowd-pleasers.
In Middle Eastern regional or classical styles, there are few indigenous uses of the dance veil. Many historians believe the bellydance veil was introduced in the 1920’s, at the beginning of the “Golden Age” of great Egyptian musicals, to encourage dancers to improve their posture, extend their arms, and create more visual interest.
In the raks sharqi routine, the veil is typically treated like a cape, or a backdrop for the dancer, and held behind the body as she promenades during the entrance portion of her dance. She then drops the veil and continues with the next rhythm. There is also the playful Melayya Leff, the coquettish, going-to-find-a-husband folkloric dance that celebrates the sometimes eager, sometimes demure energy of young, unmarried women. This dance evolved on the theatrical stage as a storytelling dance. The heavy, black “modesty” wrap (leff or luf) is twirled, flipped, wrapped and unwrapped in charming and lovely ways. Modern, commercial lef often have a central section of crocheted, decorated trim that bisects the line of the dancer, from hip to hip so that even when fully wrapped, her hips are the focus. Many dancers now perform this regularly — wonderful examples may be seen on Hadia’s and Sahra’s videos and DVDs. Denise Enan performs an adorable version captured in Embrace of Egypt, a show taped in Winnipeg in 2000.