This summer my students performed in a neighborhood parade, and some newer students had to invest in their first dance costuming to participate. One student asked some great questions, and I wanted to share my thoughts with her, with you!
Q. “How do you manage the colors and patterns and stuff? Do you go for the same color, or complimentary colors? How do you keep things looking put together and elegant and fun instead of looking busy and tacky? I mean, I don’t want to buy a nice hip scarf only to find down the road that it clashes with everything!”
A. “As for how to purchase things so they make sense…well…tribal bellydancers consider their wardrobes their “dowry”–throughout history, a young woman would build her dowry over years, accumulating clothing, jewelry, and other accoutrements that were hers and hers alone. In patriarchal societies, it was important to a woman to have some things which were hers alone and no one could take away from her. It was expensive and took time to build up her dowry, it was never something one would go out and buy in a chunk. Her family and friends would gift her things as well–adding here and there where she needed more pieces to fill out her collection.
Tribal bellydance costuming is like that. Unlike cabaret costuming where bras and belts, skirts and cholis, even accessories often all come together as a matched set, tribal dancers build their costumes from individual bits and pieces over time, mixing and matching as they go along. Most dancers start with a few key pieces in their favorite colors. Like right now one of my favorite color combos is teal and red. So I might buy a teal skirt and red pantaloons, and get a top that compliments the combo, throw a hip scarf and belt on top and VOILA! A few thrift store pieces of jewelry, a hair flower or two or three…voila! Costumed! Then as you grow your costume collection, you add bits and pieces here and there. Another hip scarf, a second pair of pantaloons, maybe a simple thrift store skirt reworked as a colorful overskirt…sometimes they build off of the current color palette (“Oooh! Gold pantaloons would look so good under my teal skirt with my red choli!”), and sometimes you want to move in a new direction to branch out a little and you buy something in a different family of hues. Either way, as you build you start to develop an eye for how much is too much and how much is just right–learning to balance colors and textures to greatest effect takes practice.
While we all want each of our costume pieces to be a good investment, ultimately you can’t worry too much about making sure everything you buy will be perfect for everything for all time. Of course as you build your dowry, you will discover some colors, shapes, fabrics, etc call to you more than others, and they will come together naturally. When you shop, you’ll be able to recognize items which will suit your style (and your dance sisters will also start to see things that are “Oh, that’s so Rebecca! And that is so Sharon.”) and will jump off the rack into your hands to go home with you! But there will always be some duds–ones you thought would be good at the time but never really gets taken off the hanger much in the long run. That’s just a fact of life, and you can always sell them to classmates or on Ebay to make room for more gems to come into your life.
One way to make sure your purchases are good investments is spending really good money on staples–don’t go cheap on your skirts, ‘loons and belts maybe, but seek bargains for your scarves and bracelets. Whatever you consider to be the pieces you will wear the most and will mix and match with other items, invest well. Then build from those pieces, and you will be golden!
Do a little Googling around to look at FatChanceBellydance, Gypsy Caravan, Awalim, and Heavy Hips–these troupes have some of my favorite tribal bellydance costuming out there! Colorful without seeming too Crayola-y or riotous, a little folkloric mixed with modern aesthetics–so there is an exotic appeal without seeming too ‘costume-y’, if you know what I mean. Also look at traditional costuming in Banjara and Rajasthan India to see how they mix patterns and colors with abandon…and somehow it comes out looking so wonderful! It’s hard for some of us Westerners to learn not to be too “matchy matchy”, yet on the other end of the spectrum to not look completely like you fell through a thrift store rack and came out with whatever! Experiment, take inspiration from other dancers, be creative, play, take risks, and you’ll learn!”