Dance of the Seven Veils

by Shira

One of those frequently asked questions that pops up when I tell people I'm an Oriental dance artist (ie, belly dancer) is: "Do you do the dance of the seven veils?" Typically, whoever asks me this has just a bit of a leer and is clearly imagining a striptease.

The first time I ever heard this question, it caught me by surprise and I think my articulate answer went along the lines of "Huh?????????" I've heard this question many more times since then, so obviously the story of Salomé has become deeply entangled in the U.S. perception of Middle Eastern dance. I guess we shouldn't be surprised - the legend features a young woman who was beautiful, talented, and deadly. She could have been a villainess in a modern-day James Bond movie!

I eventually decided to arm myself with information about the Salomé story, so I did a little research. In this article, I'll share what I learned.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman, San Jose, California.

Shira Performing With 2 Veils

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The Legend

Here is what most people "know" about the story of Salomé:

After an adulterous affair between Herodias and her uncle (or brother-in-law) Herod Antipas, each of them divorced their spouses so they could marry each other. John the Baptist spoke out publicly against this marriage, partly because both of them discarded their spouses and partly because marrying her ex-husband's brother was viewed as incestuous.

Herod Antipas imprisoned John the Baptist to silence his public condemnations, but did not put him to death because he feared reprisals from the masses who believed John was a prophet. Herodias detested John because he publicly condemned what he called her adulterous marriage.

Herodias had a daughter Salomé from her first marriage, who lived with her and her new husband at his palace.

At a celebration of Herod's birthday, the young and beautiful Salomé danced for Herod, his lords, commanders, and leading men of the estate, peeling off each of seven veils in turn until she was wearing little or nothing. Herod was so pleased by her dance that he made a solemn oath in front of all his guests to give her whatever she desired. At her mother's prompting, Salomé asked for John the Baptist's head on a plate. Although Herod didn't want to do this, he felt he needed to make good on the oath he had made in front of everyone, so he had John the Baptist beheaded and the head delivered to Salomé.

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What the Bible Says

Here is what the Bible says about the story of Salomé and John the Baptist. All quotes below are from The Living Bible, published in 1971 by Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois 60187:

Matthew 14:6-11

But at a birthday party for Herod, Herodias' daughter performed a dance that greatly pleased him, so he vowed to give her anything she wanted. Consequently, at her mother's urging, the girl asked for John the Baptist's head on a tray.

The king was grieved, but because of his oath, and because he didn't want to back down in front of his guests, he issued the necessary orders.

Mark 6:21-28

Herodias' chance finally came. It was Herod's birthday and he gave a stag party for his palace aides, army officers, and the leading citizens of Galilee. Then Herodias' daughter came in and danced before them and greatly pleased them all.

"Ask me for anything you like," the king vowed, "even half of my kingdom, and I will give it to you!"

She went out and consulted her mother, who told her, "Ask for John the Baptist's head!"

So she hurried back to the king and told him, "I want the head of John the Baptist -- right now -- on a tray!"

Then the king was sorry, but he was embarrassed to break his oath in front of his guests. So he sent one of his bodyguards to the prison to cut off John's head and bring it to him. The soldier killed John in the prison, and brought back his head on a tray, and gave it to the girl and she took it to her mother.

In reading the actual Biblical description of these events, there are a couple of things worth noting:

  • The Bible does not say that the name of Herodias' daughter was Salomé. That came from the writings of Josephus.
  • The Bible does not specify what kind of dance she did. It does not claim that her dance involved veils, or the removal of clothing, or seduction. Those interpretations of the story came from other sources.

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The Original Text in the Bible

According to an article on The Gilded Serpent web site by Qan-Tuppim titled "God Belly Danced, Part III", the original Greek word used in the New Testament account used to refer to Salomé as a korasion, meaning a little girl not yet old enough to have breasts or menstruate. Also, the word used for the dancing done by Salomé in the original Greek is orxeomai, which not only means dance, but playful goofing off of young children. Based on this, Qan-Tuppim concludes that Salomé was probably just an adorable small child, the Shirley Temple of her day. See her article on the Gilded Serpent for more analysis.

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So Where Did the Seven Veils Come From?

So if the Bible didn't link the death of John the Baptist to a seductive striptease involving seven veils, where did these notions come from? And how did they become linked to Oriental dance?

In the late 1890's and the first part of the 20th century, the writers and painters of the European art movement known as Orientalism became fascinated with the Middle East. These individuals seized on the story of John the Baptist as having all the elements that make for good public interest: sexual overtones (the dance, which they chose to interpret as being seductive), murder, politics, adultery, and the Biblical tie-in that made it somehow acceptable to tell this story in their sexually repressed society.

Some people think the concept of a dance of the seven veils originated from the myth that tells of Ishtar's descent to the underworld. I'm not convinced this is true. In the book Myths from Mesopotamia by Stephanie Dalley which contains the translations of the Akkadian version of the story, the items that Ishtar must surrender are all pieces of jewelry: crown, earrings, bracelets, etc. In the book Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth by Samuel Noah Kramer and Diane Wolkstein, which contains the Sumerian version of the story, Inanna must surrender items that symbolize the power of kingship, such as crown, beads, measuring rod and line, breastplate, and royal robe.

In her book Serpent of the Nile, Wendy Buonaventura asserts that the story of Salomé is actually a Biblical retelling of the myth of Ishtar. This doesn't make sense to me. It's possible there's a translation of this story that indeed tells of leaving garments behind rather than leaving jewelry behind or symbols of power, but if so, I haven't found it yet in my own research. The Salomé tale in the Bible doesn't use the number seven at all, and it doesn't talk about any sort of Ishtar-like initiation or descent. Instead, it's the tale of someone dancing for her father which concludes with her claiming a gruesome reward. I just don't see the parallel.

In all my reading of Near Eastern myths (a subject which fascinates me), I have never come across any kind of document describing a "dance of the seven veils of Ishtar". I'm wondering if this dance came from Buonaventura's fertile imagination.

So far as I can tell, the earliest known translation into a European language of the myth of Ishtar was created in 1872. As I describe below, Oscar Wilde wrote his play Salomé in 1891. It's possible Wilde may have known about the myth of Ishtar, and maybe his creative artistic mind used the idea of Ishtar discarding seven items as a source of inspiration for Salomé's dance in his play. So, maybe there's a link, but maybe that link was formed by Wilde's fertile imagination, and not by any true historical scholarship.

All in all, comparing what I know of Near Eastern Inanna/Ishtar myths to the Biblical tale of Salomé, I just don't see an ancient origin for the dance of the seven veils. I find Qan-Tuppim's analysis (see above, "The Original Text of the Bible") which likens Salomé to Shirley Temple to be much more convincing.

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Oscar Wilde's Play

In the fall of 1891, the Irish dramatist Oscar Wilde penned his play titled Salomé while living in France. In 1892, he showed it to Sarah Bernhardt, who immediately wanted to stage it and play the title role. They went into rehearsal, but were forced to drop the project when the British government denied it a license. The reason: it violated an old law from the Puritan era that prohibited public portrayal of Biblical characters.

Eventually, in 1896 the play was produced in France which had no such laws. In 1902 it was produced in Berlin, with great success.

Wilde's play portrays Salomé as a bizaare and somewhat evil character who becomes obsessed with John the Baptist.

Here is the dance scene as it appears in the play:

HERODIAS. Let us go within. The voice of that man (John the Baptist) maddens me. I will not have my daughter dance while he is constantly crying out. I will not have her dance while you look at her in this fashion. In a word, I will not have her dance.
HEROD. Do not rise, my wife, my queen, it will avail thee nothing. I will not go within till she hath danced. Dance, Salomé, dance for me.
HERODIAS. Do not dance, my daughter.
SALOME. I am ready Tetrarch. (Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils.)

From here, there is much lengthy dialogue in which Herod offers her a reward, she requests the head, Herod tries to talk her out of it, and eventually gives in. Upon receiving it, she waxes eloquent about her love for this man that she had barely met, then kisses the corpse's lips.

As you can see, this script does not specify in the text that the dance must be seductive, or that it must consist of removal of veils one after another. Although I have not yet read historical records describing how it was actually staged in the 1896 and 1902 productions, it's possible that Wilde may have instructed the director to interpret his script that way.

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Richard Strauss's Opera

Inspired by Wilde's play and its enormous success in its 1902 debut in Berlin, Richard Strauss created an opera based on the story. Much of the libretto (song lyrics) for the opera are a faithful translation into German of Wilde's original script. In 1905, the opera made its highly successful premiere performance in Dresden.

The opera further popularized Wilde's version of the story, and provided a sort of appeal to prurient interest during a sexually-repressed era when "art" was the only publicly acceptable vehicle for portraying nudity. The seven-veil striptease of Salomé and the Orientalist paintings depicting nude or nearly-nude Middle Eastern women were the pornography of their time.

Today, when Strauss' opera is performed, many opera companies choose to clothe Salomé solely in her veils, leaving her completely naked when she removes the final one. However, it is still common for the vocalist portraying Salomé to wear a body stocking.

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Meanwhile, In the U.S....

In 1893, Middle Eastern dance stirred up a scandal of its own at the Columbia Exposition in Chicago (World's Fair), as shocked Americans watched fully-clad dancers move their torsos in ways that the fashionable corsets worn by U.S. women of the time would never have permitted. A promoter named Sol Bloom advertised this scandalous dance form as "belly" dancing, and that's how Oriental dance came to be known by that name in the U.S. and Europe even today.

The Vaudeville circuit gleefully embraced the public interest aroused by the scandal and created their own interpretation of Oriental dance called the "hoochy coochy". Over the ensuing decades, this eventually evolved into the modern-day striptease.

In parallel, Hollywood picked up on the inspiration created by Wilde's play and Strauss's opera. Maude Allen made her acting and dancing debut in "Vision Of Salomé" in 1903.

Soon, follow-on movies did their own interpretations of Salomé and stage productions of Wilde's play and Strauss's opera made their own contributions to the awareness of the "dance of the seven veils".

At around the same time, Isadora Duncan was experimenting with Middle Eastern motifs as she created modern dance. Fond of swirling fabric, she frequently incorporated flowing dresses and scarves into her choreography.

All of this together linked "Middle Eastern dance" and "multiple veils" in the minds of European and North American theater-goers.

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So, Did Anyone Actually Dance With Veils in the Middle East?

In the Middle East, a "veil" was (and still is) a modesty garment which was worn to shield a respectable Muslim woman from the prying eyes of male strangers. It would be unthinkable to use a "veil" as a prop in a dance performance, and even more unthinkable for such a dance performance to incorporate removal of seven veils until the dancer stands on stage totally nude.

Before the 20th century, women in the Middle East performed Oriental dance fully clothed in normal, everyday garb. There was no such concept as a dance "costume". The dancers who performed at weddings, saints' day festivals, and other events simply wore the same type of clothing as everyone else.

Nightclubs arose in Egypt and Lebanon in the first part of the 20th century to satisfy the hunger that British, French, and other European visitors had to see the local dancers. Catering to their expectations, dancers began to adopt the type of costuming that Hollywood had invented: the bra/belt/skirt ensemble. But still the dancers did not do any kind of "veil" dancing.

According to research performed by the dancer Morocco, in the 1940's (nearly half a century after Oscar Wilde hatched his notion of the "dance of the seven veils"), Samia Gamal whisked on stage carrying a large piece of fabric. This was the first known occurrence of a "real" Oriental dance artist using a length of fabric as a dance prop. She did it because she was taking dance lessons from Anna Ivanova (a famous Russian ballerina), and Ivanova had instructed her to use the fabric as a way of improving her arm carriage.

It's important to emphasize that neither Samia Gamal nor the Egyptian dancers who later followed her example have ever referred to their pieces of fabric as "veils", and they have never worn them as a garment to be removed. Instead, Egyptian dancers hold the fabric in their hands as they enter, swirl it around to the music, and quickly discard it before moving into the main content of their performance.

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The Seven Veils Today

Today, the public generally believes that the "dance of the seven veils" was indeed the dance performed by Herodias' daughter for Herod, even though the Bible never says it was. Thanks to Wilde's play, Strauss' opera, and the various Hollywood movies depicting Salomé, that belief is probably here to stay.

Egyptian and Lebanese dancers never have incorporated any sort of "dance of the seven veils" into their performances, and an audience member from an Arab country would be puzzled to see such a thing done in an Oriental dance performance.

In the 1950's and early 1960's, American Oriental dance artists invented their own variation of swishing sheer fabric around on stage as a way of adding interest and variety to their performances for American audiences. Not even aware of the Egyptian practice of entering with a piece of fabric, these American dancers came on-stage for their shows with their fabric draped around themselves to cover their upper bodies. After completing their opening song, they would gracefully remove these pieces of fabric and use them as a prop to soft, flowing music. American dancers came to call this "veil work" even though their sheer fabric props did not resemble real veils worn as modesty coverings by Middle Eastern women.

Over the decades that followed, American dancers have experimented with a number of creative interpretations of "veil work", and naturally various individuals over the years have been inspired by the story of Salomé and experimented with their own "dance of the seven veils" ideas.

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In Conclusion

The "dance of the seven veils" has never been a part of Middle Eastern dance traditions, and is not performed in the Middle East today. It was invented by European minds, and has been preserved by the entertainment industry.

Many modern-day Oriental dance artists, especially in North America, have experimented with their own seven-veils interpretations. My friend Luceen has threatened to do a dance of the seven army blankets.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with using our artistic license as dancers to do our own seven-veil dances. The creative process of looking for ways to make a seven-veil dance come across as artistic expression rather than striptease or boring repetition can be satisfying for a dancer to explore.

I too have experimented with seven-veil dancing, and I have several ideas that I plan to try in the future. Even though it's not an authentic Middle Eastern structure, I can appreciate the creative opportunities it presents to me as an artist.

I'm glad I know the historical context of where it came from. Knowing this history helps me make informed decisions about what type of audience might respond well to a seven-veils dance versus which might find it weird. Thanks to learning about this history, I wouldn't do a seven-veils dance for an Arabic wedding, but I would consider doing one in a performing arts showcase.

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For Further Information

There are several additional sources I would recommend if you'd like to learn more about the dance of the seven veils.

  • Really Bad Girls of the Bible. A book written by Liz Curtis Higgs. The chapter on Herodias talks about the evidence suggesting that Salomé was probably a cute young girl like Shirley Temple rather than a sexy young woman.
  • Oscar Wilde's Play Titled Salomé. I found it in a book titled The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays By Oscar Wilde. It's a short play which took me about an hour and a half to read.
  • The Opera Salomé. You may be able to borrow a video of the opera from your local library, or buy it from one of the online bookstores.
  • The 1950's Movie Salomé. A guilty pleasure starring Rita Hayworth. The script is trite and the acting is frequently wooden, but I enjoyed it anyway. Watch it when your brain is mushy after an intense dance workshop.
  • Isn't That Like Stripping? An article I've written that explores in more depth the reasons why the American public links belly dancing with stripping and scandal.
  • Public Perceptions: A Double Standard. An article I wrote that questions why it's okay for Broadway shows to feature sleazy dancing but not belly dancers.

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Acknowledgements

This article originally appeared on the Suite101 web site, in the Middle Eastern Dance category, on March 31, 2002.

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