Charlotte Bank Projects



The Seven Veils' Mystery

dance and the traps of history


by Charlotte Bank

published September 2008


Western popular imagination and creativity often reaches incredible heights when it comes to ideas about "The Orient". During my meanderings through the colourful world of the European Oriental dance scene, I have come across many interesting and puzzling ideas and misconceptions that have sometimes been rather painful. Of the more hilarious kind are dance shows called "The Marvels of the Harem" (sultan choosing new wife) or "Fatima's Dream (veiled and oppressed Arab women dream about love and freedom at a village well). The latter was even part of the official program of the "Images of the Middle East" festival in Copenhagen in 2006. I have written more extensively on the concept of that festival elsewhere.

However, not all of the mentioned misconceptions belong to this blatantly unintelligent Pop-Orientalism of "harem" shows that actually does not deserve any comment at all. Many Western dancers are quite sincere in their efforts to inform themselves and their students about the history of Oriental dance, but since dance history in general is a very difficult study and serious and reliable research results scarce, some amusing ideas seem to hang around rather stubbornly. They might have a certain romantic appeal, but that does not make them less wrong. The most striking of this are the different explanations offered for the origin of veil dance. Its roots are sought in the Ancient Near East, the farther back in history the better, it seems.

In fact, we know of several kinds of dances of Antiquity that used floating textiles for effects, be it scarves or wide sleeves or dresses. These dances are known from classical Greek-Roman Antiquity and from Ancient Persia. Depictions of such dances are known from art and are usually linked to cults of Dionysos, the god of wine and fertility, where ecstatic dances formed an important part of the rituals. In early Islamic art, particularly where the pre-Islamic influence was still prominent, but also later, we find similar motifs of dancers with scarves and musical instruments. Fatimid (10th - 12th cent.) art offers many beautiful examples.

Unfortunately it is impossible to tell what these early dances looked like, since dance was never written down like music was. In Europe it was only with the emergence of a "ballet" tradition under Louis XIV (1638 - 1715) that dance began to be considered a serious art form, worthy of study and writing. But we can say as much: Early examples of dances using scarves and floating sleeves should not be confused with modern "Oriental" veil dance. This is an entirely Western fantasy.

When Western dancers want to add some higher historical credibility to their veil dances (why this is necessary is beyond my understanding, good dancing is not a matter of history), they usually draw on two characters: Salome and Ishtar, one a princess, the other a godess. These two frequently get confused or miraculously fused into a result we find constructs like "Ishtar's dance of the seven veils", "Historical dance of the seven veils", and of course the classic "Salome's dance of the seven veils", not an invention of Western "Oriental" dancers but a 19th cent. decadent fantasy, though it remains popular among the mentioned ladies and often is presented as historical fact...

Here, two very different legends are being mixed up. The first is the ancient Mesopotamian epic about Ishtar's journey to the Underworld of which several versions exist. The oldest Sumerian vesion dates back to the 3rd Millenium BC. Ishtar is the Assyrian/Babylonian name of the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war. Her older Sumerian name is Inanna. Her realm was physical love and the pleasures connected with it. She never represented the motherly aspects of love. She was a jealous and quarrelsome creature, a beautiful and sexy woman who changed her lovers as she pleased and punished those cruelly who dared reject her. Her animal was the awe-inspiring lion, she enjoyed wars and called them her playground. She was in fact the exact opposite of a generous, warm and loving mother.

In an attempt to widen her power Ishtar embarks on a journey to the Underworld, the realm of her sister Ereshkigal. Even for a great goddess this was not without danger, dead gods were not an unknown concept in ancient Mesopotamia. Their lives in the Underworld were no better than those of ordinary humans and are described in very bleak terms. Before her journey Ishtar adorns herself with all her godly insignia. She puts on splendid garments, her head dress and her jewellery. On her arrival at the entrance to the Underworld, she has to pass through seven gates and for each gate, she has to leave one of her godly attributes so that she ends up naked and defenceless. But not once the word "veil" is mentioned. Neither does she ever dance. Without her clothes and insignia Ishtar is no longer a powerful and terrifying goddess and she has to rely on the good-hearted Enki, god of wisdom, knowledge and (white) magic to be helped out of her confinement. The demons of the Underworld are unwilling to let her go without a price and so it is decided that Ishtar's lover Dumuzi, god of the shepherds, spend one half of the year in the Underworld. This betrayal of Ishtar's and the sacrifice of her lover functions as an allogory for the seasonal change, the death of all life in winter and the returning fertility in spring.

The Underworld, the realm of the dead in Mesopotamian understanding, is not a continuation of life on earth as it is in ancient Egyptian mythology. It is a grey and sad world of shadows. The dead wander about clad in feathers and eat dust. Their only hope is their living relatives who bring them food and drink and thus hope to escape the wrath of the dead. We are very far from the romantic idea of the Underworld as the fertile womb imagined by Wendy Buonaventura (Serpent of the Nile, London 1989, an otherwise excellent and entertaining book that is also lavishly illustrated).

The other legend is the biblical story of the princess Salome whose dance on the occasion of a celebration leads her stepfather, Herodes Antipas, to promise to fulfil any wish she might have. Following the advice of her mother, she asks for the head of John the Baptist. Salome's name is not mentioned in the new testament, we know it from other sources. And her dance is never described, a veil or even seven of them are not mentionded either. However, this brief biblical episode has given rise to an overwhelming number of fantasies. Salome is a common motif in Western art, usually she is shown with John's head on a plate. Especially in the symbolist-decadent art of the late 19th and early 20th cent. she is very present; in painting, literature, music and film. She epitomized the femme fatale, the woman who brings disaster upon any man who desires her.

The French symbolist painter Gustave Moreau treated the subject in a number of works and shows Salome as a commanding, opulently adorned young woman, but not dancing with veils. This motif occurs in Oscar Wilde's drama "Salome" (first published in French in 1893, a year later in English). Here Salome dances the "dance of the seven veils" for Herodes who then promises to fulfil her wish. She orders John's head brought to her on a silver plate. Inspired by Wilde's play, Richard Strauss composed his opera "Salome" in 1905 and included a seven veils' dance (many singers do not include this dance in their performance of the opera). So, Salome's "dance of the seven veils" is a relatively late invention, a fantasy that occupied the late 19th century. It might be inspiring, but it has very little to do with historical fact.

Now, there is in fact nothing wrong with seeking inspiration for one's art in history or popular legends. Nor in remote cultures for that matter, if it is done in a responsible way to avoid racist stereotyping. But if an artist presents his or her own imagination as historical (or ethnographic) facts, it starts being problematic. The "Oriental" dancer wishing to work with reconstructed dances faces two problems: It is almost impossible to reconstruct historical or antique dances. Selected positions can be modelled on depictions from art, but even these are very likely to be inaccurate since they more probably follow aesthetic principles rather than a correct illustration of the dancer's actual movements. Some might even be anatomically impossible to perform. This problem is well known to choreographers attempting to reconstruct the romantic ballets of Filippo Taglioni's (1777 - 1871) days from contemporary pictures of his daughter Marie.

The advent of the film camera changed all that and improved the dance historian's work conditions enormously. Film and video are heaven's gifts for us and makes it possible to reconstruct dances from the early decades of the 20th century. Early recordings can give us an idea of what slightly older dances might have looked like, but we have to be careful and we cannot move back many generations in time. Dance is a very volatile and dynamic art form that takes its energy from exchange between artists and thrives on the inspiration of the moment of its performance. Changes in style are consequently often smooth and subtle and depend on the surroundings of the dancer.

The second trap to be avoided is to stay clear of the kind of Pop-Orientalism, I mentioned in my introduction to this essay. I do not expect all Western "Oriental" dancers to be professors of history, sociology and art, but presenting a vision of a culture other than one's own bring with it a certain responsibility. And in order to do this, I should say that a basic understanding of the complex relation Europe has had with the "Orient" in the course of the centuries is part of every "Oriental" dancers professional basis. We can expect dancers to "do their homework", as one of the most lovely and interesting German "Oriental" dancers and my own long time teacher, Reyhan, once said.

Dance history is a highly interesting and rich field of study. Humans have always danced. There seems to be a basic human need to express feelings and moods through movement. And depictions of dancers are found in the art of all times and cultures. These can very well be used as a source of inspiration. But to describe anything as "authentic" is very difficult. Any sincere interpretation of a remote dance, whether remote in time or space, is the personal vision of the dancer. And this is what it should be seen as, this is taking dance as an art form seriously. Striving to create a false "autheticity" can only make a dance ridiculous.


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