Zills, Veils and Swords: Props Used in Belly Dance

Many styles of belly dance incorporate the use of props, whether to emphasize a dancer’s grace, to act as musical accompaniment, to add an exotic element, or lend authenticity to a dance. While props are more often used in solo dances, they can also be incorporated into troupe performances to great effect. Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly used props in belly dance, and what they can do for your performance!

Zills: These vibrant little finger-cymbals are often not considered props, but musical instruments. They can be played in a number of different rhythms to emphasize the beat of the music, and essentially allow the dancer to accompany herself musically as she dances. The bright ringing tone of zills adds energy to the dance, and showcases the dancer’s ability to focus on multiple levels of complexity at once.

Veils: A primarily American dance prop, the veil is a length of usually-sheer fabric that is used to add mystery by alternately concealing and revealing the dancer’s form, and to emphasize arm movements during a dance. While some Egyptian dancers will use a “length of fabric” (not called a veil so as to avoid confusion with the Muslim hijjab worn by women for modesty) as part of their entrance and then discard it, American dancers will tend to use the veil for the full length of a song. The use of the veil is not traditional in the dance, but a modern addition by Western dancers.

Canes and Swords: Cane dancing is popular with both American Tribal and Egyptian style dancers. Male belly dancers will often dance with a cane, using strong martial movements. Women who dance with canes tend to use slimmer canes with lighthearted movements. The women’s cane dance in Egypt is believed to have grown out of women’s playful imitation of the men’s martial cane dances. Sword dances are more often performed by nightclub style dancers, and focus on balancing the sword on the head, the hip, or other parts of the dancer’s body while she performs slow and deliberate undulations and/or floor work. Sword balancing does not appear to be derived from authentic Middle Eastern folk dances, although as with canes, there are men’s dances using swords with more martial movements.

Trays/Baskets/Jugs: Other than swords, a dancer might balance any number of other props on her head while dancing. In most belly dance movements, the goal is to isolate the body part being moved, so that during hip circles (for example) the head will remain still. To emphasize this grace and control, props such as trays, baskets, or jugs may be balanced on the head. Candles, pitchers, or other fragile items might be placed on the tray to enhance the tension of the performance.

Candles: Besides being balanced on a tray, small votive candles can be used as handheld props. They are then swirled about the body with elegant motions of the hands that emphasize the dancer’s grace. When used in concert by a troupe of dancers, these small candles can create a striking impression! Egyptian style dancers will sometimes balance candelabra, called shamadan, on their heads while dancing.

Snakes: While perhaps not one of the most common props used in belly dance, snakes are certainly a stunning addition to a dance! However, as living creatures, snakes should be thought of as dance partners rather than props, and must be well taken care of. Typically it is the larger snakes, such as boas, that are used in belly dance. The dancer allows the snake to wrap itself around her as she dances, its sinuous movements mirroring her own.

This is just a small selection of props that can be used to add excitement and mystery to the always beautiful art of belly dance. Wings of Isis, hand-held fans, tambourines and other instruments provide more options for endless variety. Above all, enjoy the dance!

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