Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Though fan dancing is not considered traditional in raqs sharqi, due to the increasing popularity of fusion, many Oriental dancers are exploring blending the many styles of fan dancing and belly dance with stunning results. When used onstage, fans are FAN-ciful, conveying various emotions to an audience, as well as being a spectacular visual treat. They can be dramatic and stately, or coy and flirtatious and are always a crowd pleaser!

About eleven years ago, I became interested in dancing with fans, and when I became proficient in dancing with single and double fans of many types, then began experimenting with incorporating fan use into my belly dance shows. I am not alone: many well-known belly dancers are known for using fan work in their routines.

To get into an overview of history, fans have been used for thousands of years, and have been a part of every culture on the globe. Archeologists have uncovered murals and statues depicting fan use from ancient Egypt, Greece, Assyria, and all over Asia. Fans have been used extensively in everything from traditional and folkloric dances as well as in theatrical, classical, fantasy as well as ritual pieces. They have been used by solo dancers as well as in choreographed group pieces,as well as props in non-performance social group dances, such as the 17th and 18th century court dances of Europe.

Before the days of climate control and air conditioning, men as well as women routinely carried fans and used them to keep cool. The folding fan was invented in Japan, in the 8th century, and later taken to China in the 9th century. Fans used in the Renaissance period of Europe had lavishly decorated handles, which pre-dated hand fans. Folding fans were not introduced to Europe until the 1600’s, and were in high demand among royalty and the upper classes, due to their exquisite craftsmanship.

Flirtatious females always knew the power and allure of fans. In Victorian times, there was even a “language” of gesturing with fans, with various positions (open or closed, held again the face, snapped open or fluttered- etc.) serving as a secret social “code” between women and their suitors these silent movements got the point across in a non-verbal way that also preserved the fan’s owner’s appearance and social status.

Throughout Asia, fans have been used in court dances, ritual presentation and classical and folkloric theatrical shows. In Korea, dating from about the time of the Choson ( sometimes spelled “Joson”) Dynasty (1392-1910 AD) traditional fan dancers pose and move in circles portraying flowers, swaying gracefully. Chinese dancing fans - sometimes known Mulan fans- are unique because they have a ruffle, which extends beyond the bamboo tines of the fan and flutters beautifully when manipulated correctly. Fans are also used in Asian martial arts practices as well- Tai Chi fans have traditional patterns and designs (dragons, phoenix birds, etc.) embroidered or printed on the material, and on authentic fans, the staves are made of steel or some other metal…which I do NOT recommended for stage use in a dance performance!

Traditionally, fans have been used in Spanish Flamenco as well as various other Rom (gypsy) rooted dances from all across Europe. The Flamenco fans, known as pericons, are typically made of lace, sometimes combined with another type of decorative woven material, or light, hand-painted silk, and are used in the Sevillanas style of Flamenco. In North America, folding hand fans are used in Mexican Ballet Folklorico, and flat-feathered fans with rigid handles are sometimes used in traditional sacred dances of various Native American nations.

Perhaps the best known and the showiest use of fans also stems from America. Burlesque legend Sally Rand appeared at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and instantly became an overnight sensation with her fan dance routine, in which she appeared nude (or possibly wearing a full-body stocking) using two gigantic luxurious fans made of ostrich plumes to conceal and reveal her charms. Born in 1903 in Missouri, Sally Rand had been a circus acrobat and performed on the vaudeville and burlesque circuits. She also appeared in over twenty silent films, as well as in talkies, including her famous fan dance sequences in the films “Bolero” and Cecile B. De Mille’s “King Of Kings”. It is said that she “saved” the World’s Fair, attracting a huge crowd with her fan dance…small wonder she attracted such a crowd: she was notorious for her “scandalous” shows and had been arrested a number of times. She performed the very same fan routine almost exclusively in her rich career, which spanned over fifty years. Her legacy lives on even now, and her fan dance has become a part of theatrical history, as well as a burlesque staple. Today, the gigantic, impressive ostrich fans used worldwide are still referred to as “Sally Rand Fans”.

If you would like to start using fans while belly dancing, I would recommend a lot of practice before adding them into a stage routine. Not only are fans a prop, they should function an extension of your bodily movement and expression ( like zills) and cannot be merely flung away, like veils. Practice with smaller fans at first- the constant movement of the arms and shoulders can really take it’s toll on your muscles! See what type of fans you like, or choose those that make sense with your dancing. Experiment with using fan technique from different cultures and traditions: haughty flamenco snaps, coy geisha poses, and dramatic gypsy attitude. Incorporate sweeping turns with the fans aloft, use the burlesque / tease premise of “conceal and reveal”. Use the fan to frame your face or your abdominal technique or hip work, use two fans for full-body poses.

Here are some different fans you may want to play around with:

Made entirely of lace or fabric, and in many cases, a combination of both, these hand fans are strikingly beautiful, often intricately hand-painted and hand-crafted and sturdy, they can be snapped open and shut quite easily.

Fan veils are a modern version of the traditional Mulan Fan has recently become a very popular prop with Cabaret, Fusion and Tribal belly dancers… the fan's tail- sometimes a yard or longer in length- flies through the air dramatically during spins and turns. These fans are usually made of 100% silk because a synthetic blend won’t cause the fan to float and “defy gravity” the way it should.

These large hand fans are made of marabou feathers, often tipped with peacock and pheasant feathers, and though fragile, can look great onstage.

The reigning royalty of stage fans, Sally Rand- style theatrical fans have been a classic staple in burlesque performances for decades. Mounted on strong plastic staves, these fans open and close fairly easily, but still will not snap open because of the bulk of the feathers. These beauties can have a single row of feathers, or can be layered with up to four rows of large ostrich plumes. Because of the relative heaviness of the staves, the large circumference ( or “wing span”) and the potential bulk of the feathers, these fans may be difficult to handle at first, and may take a bit of getting used to. Also good to know: because of the large size of these fans, the slower they sweep through the air, the better they look; but slow movements with such a large, weighty prop will definitely work your muscles, and you may experience some muscle soreness when you first begin to work with Sally Rand fans. These fans are hand-made and don’t come cheaply- expect to pay anywhere from $250.00- $600.00 new per pair, depending on the size, craftsmanship, amount of feathers and even the colors or custom dying of the feathers…and you thought belly dance costumes were expensive!

When using any sort of fans, make sure to do a complete warm-up of the hands, wrists, arm, and shoulders, in addition to your usual warm-up.

SHAMELESS PLUG: I have an instructional DVD called "FAN-TASTIC", which gives instruction for all types of fans... and has tips on fan care and repair, plus performances! You can order it here: http://www.princessfarhana.com/video_fantastic.htm

Photo Credit: Don Spiro


  1. Hi Pleasant

    I remember you & the Sirens very well, still have the vinyl in storage--

    A point: Sally Rand wore body stockings when she thought she was in danger of being arrested or when she had no other choice, but it was never routine. Sally was a very determined nudist, until the day she died. Also she was my aunt. There is footage of her giving an outdoor exhibition at the World's Fair and she is most decidedly in the raw, and since her act was meant to be seen from the front, those folks at the table sitting behind her were given a substantially different perspective on her act, and their delight is apparent.

  2. Pleasant, you're ageless!

    30 years on, you look fabulous.

    More importantly, your scholarly and daring approach to belly dancing is in keeping with how you approach all your interests, educating us all.

    My very best to you,