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Performance makeup

Applying dance makeup is part necessity, and part ritual. The necessity is in making sure that our entire look is effective for performance–the expression in our eyes can be seen, the balance of our colorful costume with our hair and makeup is considered, etc. But while there are practical concerns with makeup, there is an emotional component as well. The act of getting “made up” is part of putting ourselves “into character”, if you will. Even if we feel we are entirely ourselves in performance, there is still a different aspect of You that must be drawn out for stage that is different from the everyday grocery-shopping-laundry-doing You, right? Putting on our makeup, and of course costume, is a way to step out of who we are all the time to become the polished performer we wish to present to our audience.

Good performance makeup takes practice! Just like we don’t just go through the motions of dancing, but instead build our skills through regular study and rehearsal, good makeup also takes repetition and experimentation to build our confidence and skill. Performers trained in other forms of dance and theater learn this from very early on, but sometimes we bellydancers seem a little behind the curve in understanding the need for strong makeup to create a more powerful performance.

To be fair, we bellydancers tend to be in a unique position when it comes to make-up: we have to have a lot of different looks because our performances are done in so many different venues! One week you will be up close in a dark restaurant, next week you will be outdoors in a sunny festival, the next dancing in a living room for a birthday party, and the next your are on a big stage with full stage lighting. And each requires different considerations when it comes to what we do with our makeup to give the most KAPOW! to our face! For today, let’s consider stage makeup techniques, since much of these elements can be built up or toned down for various venues; but the individual elements are still key components to any performer’s makeup repertoire.

For stage make-up, we have an opportunity to really enhance our face shape and color, and increase our ability to express ourselves by highlighting and boosting our most expressive features–our eyes (including brows and lashes), our lips, and our cheeks.

While I have never tried their products, JAM Cosmetics is a company committed to makeup specifically for dancers! Their web page has some really great resources, with online tutorials, videos, and a dance makeup blog. I recommend popping over and taking a look. It will become quickly apparent that the techniques employed are for traditional stage makeup for western dancers, and is based in their specific product line, but consider each of the elements as a jumping-off point for experimentation of your own. Remember, it should look very intense up close, but will be effective from a distance and with bright stage lights.

Here is a blog post of theirs I found to be really clear and valuable: Top 10 Stage Makeup Mistakes and How to Fix Them. Do you see any mistakes of your own in here?

A couple gems:

MISTAKE: Black pencil eyeliner on the inside of the lower lash line. On stage, it makes the eyes look smaller. This is a great makeup technique for TV, fashion shows, print ads, and in person but not for stage performances.

FIX IT: Use JAM cosmetics White Highlighter Pencil on the inside lower lash line and on the outside corner of the eyes to open and brighten the eyes.


MISTAKE: Not enough makeup. Because of the intensity of the lights and the distance from the performer to the audience, the facial features lose their dimension – they “flatten” out without enough makeup on.

FIX IT: When you go into a new theater/auditorium, do a “makeup rehearsal” before you perform. Have someone go out into the audience and look at you on stage to see if we can see all of the emotion and dimension in your face.

I would also add too dark lipstick! We often imagine that darker is better, but in fact if we choose too brown and dark a lipstick, our lips recede and become a blackish line that looks very severe. Instead, go for a mid-range color: something rich enough to define the lips, and light enough to keep the lips looking lush and plump. It should be brighter and richer than what you might wear everyday, but still be complimentary to your skintone, so there is no one color that is best for all situations.

Your best bet? Go to your local Mac counter, tell them you are a bellydancer and ask for help finding a good all-purpose performance lip color. Better yet, make an appointment for an entire makeover to learn some new tricks, then buy a lipstick and an eyeshadow that you liked from the makeover to take home and play with!

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Shay Moore is the director and primary instructor at Deep Roots Dance in Seattle, WA. She loves writing, movies, costuming, knitting, cooking, and bellydance to the moon and back again; and loves her amazing husband and doggies even more than that.

5 Responses

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    Sharon, another home run baby! I love your blog! Love the pic of the Kathakali too, got to see a live show in southern India. The first hour was watching them put the makeup on, it was just as much a part of the show!
    I made the mistake recently of wearing too heavy make up for a photo shoot. I thought that we would be in front of our vibrant ‘ethnic’ setting for the pics, instead the photographer wanted us more in the natural light.
    During stage performances most of the ladies tend to go too light on the make up and looked washed out.
    For the photo shoot they were perfect! and I was too much.
    SO funny, and great lesson learned!

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    Shay Moore
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    Ahaha! At least you could tone it down if you needed to. Much harder to punch it up if not everyone brought their make-up with them.

    Which is why Renee and I both pack in our performance kits a couple palettes of eye shadows and a lip stick that is kind of universally strong for many different hair and skin color combos, so we can touch up our gals who don’t quite glam up enough!

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    where was this post when I needed it mid-last month? haha

    Make up is really the hardest part (and hair) for me in performance. I’m gonna bookmark this post for future reference – thanks! 🙂

  4. Avatar
    Shay Moore
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    Nielle, approach it from a place of fun and playful experimentation–set aside a Saturday afternoon, collect some makeup around you, a mirror, some makeup remover. Put on some music, light some incense or a candle, and settle in for some girlie time. Finish with a little home pedi to really make it a special day!

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    Best advice I ever got, from Natalie Brown:

    * Do your hair first, so you can make sure your make up is strong enough to suit your fancy hair (I usually wash my face, moisturize, prime and put on foundation. Then I do my hair, then finish my face.

    * Not sure if it’s enough make up for stage? Stand as far back from the mirror as possibly, the further the better, and see if your features disappear. If so, add what’s missing until your face can be read from far away.

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