After a couple of my bellydance friends and I engaged in a lively conversation on Facebook today about the many perks and caveats of dancing with Isis wings, I thought it would be fun to put together a rough guide to common dance props for my customers.
I know what you’re probably thinking: “You’re the expert. I’m paying you to show up and dance. Why do I need to know about bellydance props?”
Truth is, while you really don’t need to know the intricacies of finger cymbal playing, or the earliest origins of Isis wings, I like to see my customers take an empowered approach to planning their wedding or party entertainment. As much as I adore low-maintenance clients who say, “Just surprise me, Carrara,” I enjoy working with all sorts of input and suggestions from my customers even more.
While no bellydance show should be focused entirely around big, flashy props (more on that later), many performers will use veils, finger cymbals, swords, or more exotic props like wings and fire, to enhance their dance. Hopefully this article will help you de-mystify some of the most common props that belly dancers work with and get some of your creative juices flowing!
Finger Cymbals – OK. They’re technically not a prop, but a musical instrument! Whether you call them zills, sagat, or “those chingy-ching-ching things you wear on your fingers” [insert appropriate zill pantomiming here], finger cymbals are an iconic part of American belly dance as we know it today. While finger cymbals are not as popular among Egyptian-style dancers, they are still a beloved part of traditional Turkish, Greek and American Classic style belly dance performances. The lively, bell-like ring of finger cymbals adds lots of life and energy to a bellydance performance and audibly announces loud and clear: “The belly dancer has arrived! Let’s get this party started.” I never gig without ’em!
Veil – Just like finger cymbals, the veil is another emblem of classic belly dance for many different types of audiences. It can be incredibly mesmerizing to watch a skilled belly dancer manipulate a colorful silk or chiffon veil to frame her movements and create swirls, arcs, waves and ripples in the air around herself. This is usually done to slow, flowing music. Egyptian dancers tend to use their veils for a quick entrance (swoosh, fling, toss!), while full-length veil routines are common in Turkish, Greek and American Classic performances.
Caveat: I find that veil is best appreciated in medium-to-large performance spaces where I can execute showy spins and tosses. While it is possible to perform veil work in tight quarters, movements will be limited to draping, framing and tight turns. The presentation is still beautiful, but different. Also, bear in mind that veils will develop a mind of their own outdoors, unless your party is in a closed tent.
Isis Wings – Isis Wings just may be the Grand Mack Daddy of all belly dance props! They’re giant, shiny, and make for a truly dramatic, Vegas-style entrance that’s sure to elicit lots of ooh’s and ahh’s from the audience. For showgirl potential alone, they’re one of the first props I’ll recommend for weddings.
Caveat: Wings of Isis have a giant wingspan of 9-10 feet and work best for shows in spacious banquet facilities. Also, since wings are a contemporary fusion prop, they may not be the best choice for audiences expecting a very traditional presentation. It’s always best to ask. When I recently asked a bride if wings might interest her, her Turkish mother-in-law replied, “Why on earth would a belly dancer use wings?”
Cane – Also known as raqs al assaya, the cane dance is a staple in the folkloric part of an Egyptian or Lebanese belly dance show. Sassy, spunky and spirited, a traditional raqs assaya dance puts a fun, feminine spin on men’s stick dances from Upper Egypt. While cane can potentially get lost on American audiences (“Isn’t cane for tap dancers?”), it is always a hit at Egyptian and Lebanese weddings. Just make sure the dancer has enough space to swing her cane without hitting anyone or anything!
Sword – Sword is, hands-down, the most widely requested prop in my repetoire. It adds a touch of danger and mystery to a belly dance performance, making it a perfect crowd-pleaser – especially for “boys” of all ages! A sword dance is almost always performed to dramatic slow or mid-tempo music and typically involves the dancer balancing the sword on her dancer’s head, shoulder, hip and wrist while moving sinuously to the music. While sword is a Westernized prop, it goes over beautifully with a variety of audiences and evokes a mysterious mood. Plus, it works great in tight spaces and you don’t need to provide the dancer with a huge performance space to enjoy a captivating sword dance!
Candles or Candelabra – One of the best ways to add drama to a dance performance is with fire. When I dance with fire, I always get an audible gasp from my audiences, and all eyes remain glued to what I’m doing. Some dancers perform with a tray of lit candles balanced on their heads, while others might use a candelabra or shamadan for a traditional presentation. (Egyptian wedding processions, known as a zeffa, are often led by a belly dancer with a shamadan). While each dancer has her own style, the flickering flames and hypnotic slow movements are sure to lend a mystical, ethereal feel to the balancing portion of her show. Candle tray and candelabra are both perfect for weddings, not only because they’re beautiful props, but because I really love the symbolism of bringing love and light to the newlyweds’ future together.
Caveat: Fire isn’t right for every venue, and safety is paramount. Some restaurants and reception halls have strict policies against open flame, so it’s best to check first. Also, it’s smart to discuss and arrange for a Plan B just in case the dancer runs into unforeseen hazards and deems a fire dance unsafe upon arrival, or the venue management changes their minds at the last minute. I always bring my sword or a pack of battery-operated tea lights as backup.
How Much is Too Much?
Props are like spices. Too much will overpower, while just the right amount will create the perfect flavor. While every dancer has her own personal style, most dancers will agree that too many big, shiny, flashy props can create an overwhelming “circus” vibe that detracts from the trademark charm of bellydance. So while it all depends on what type of look you’re going for, a good rule of thumb is to keep it simple. And trust the dancer’s good judgment if she tells you it’s NOT a great idea to balance a fire tray on her head, while spinning with wings, while playing finger cymbals, with a python draped around her shoulders!
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Edited to Add: Every year, somebody comes out with a new fusion prop. For brevity’s sake, I focused this article on the classic props that most dancers know how to use, and that audiences will most likely want to see at their wedding or party. So if you’re wondering why I didn’t cover Thai fingers, silk fans, or veil-poi….there ya go ;)