I’ve never felt comfortable with props as a student dancer.
Maybe it was the influence of one of my favorite teachers, a nightclub dancer in the 80s and 90s. The most we did was tuck a veil into the back straps of our costumes and let it hang like a cape while walking onstage for our student performance. Maybe it was because learning to dance was hard enough, and adding a prop just made it harder. When I registered for Loaya Iris’s 3-week fan veil workshop, I knew that learning to dance with a new prop wasn’t going to be easy or pretty.
As we made our way to the floor of the workshop studio, Loaya introduced herself and gave some background on the prop. The fan veil is a prop you can have some freedom with as bellydancers, she told us. Why? Because it’s not folklore. It’s fusion.
Fan dances originated in China and Japan around 1000 BCE, and much later, were imported into the European upper class and then into flamenco dancing around 1500 CE. In the US, fan dancing was used in burlesque in the early 1930s and fan veils as we know them today in bellydance didn’t gain popularity until the 1990s.
With fan veil, there is no history of the prop used in belly dance before the modern era. That means we can study typical ways the fan veils have been used in bellydance and incorporate those movements because we like the way they look, but we can also experiment a little, while staying within the bellydance movement vocabulary.
There are a lot of great teachers in Austin, and we are lucky to have Loaya Iris, who moved here in 2018 from Puerto Rico. She is a great and generous teacher, preparing for class, using different examples to explain the movement, and providing individual feedback and correction to her students. She also has great musicality, appreciation of Egyptian dance history, and boundless energy! It’s important to her that we not only learn the technique and have a basic understanding of the cultural context, but also that we hear the music, understand how the move fits into it, and try to add a piece of ourselves into the dance.
After the first half hour my wrists and arms were sore. The wood piece of the fan veil dug into the soft spot next to my thumb. My hands couldn’t flutter fast enough and the veils sagged to the floor. "Look at this," Loaya showed me later, holding out her hand. I felt the small knobby knot under the skin between her thumb and second finger. The thing about good art is you almost always have to make it appear effortless, which takes a lot of practice.
Throughout the 3-week series we gradually added in new technique, went over previous technique and added on combinations to the song "Habibi Ya Eini" until we had a completed piece of choreography. Loaya chose this song because she didn't want us to think about counting and what came next.
1, 2, 3, pull back; 1, 2, 3 pull back. She had us in a row walking forward while pulling each fan veil up and to the side so it made a pretty arc over our heads. Think of the ocean, she said. There is a rhythm.
I’m immediately taken to summers in Ocean City, Maryland. The seagulls, the way everything gets quiet in the wind and crashing of waves, the way you look out on the horizon at sunset, a plane flies overhead, the sun peels orange from the sky, the faint bits of laughter and seagulls blocked out by the pounding sea. Like an impressionist painting, everything broken down into sunstrokes of color, movement and wave.
These are just earrings, she says.
They’re a prop. It’s the dance that’s important. Don’t forget to dance.
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