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Tribal Bellydance Costuming 101

I teach costuming workshops now and again, specifically for tribal and fusion bellydancers. I used to be a professional costumer, so I have spent quite a lot of time considering all the elements that go into this style–what makes it so rich, without being gaudy? It’s also so very personal–there is not real “uniform”–so it is open to wide interpretation. I have addressed the topic in brief in a previous blog post, but for a deeper look into successful costuming I offer this new post. This was developed off of a handout I have given at past workshops, which addresses some key considerations for American Tribal Style, ITS, tribal, and tribal fusion bellydance.

Tribal Bellydance Costuming

With Shay Moore

 DO be fearless with color combinations.
 DON’T be too matchy-matchy. Harmony is more important.
 DO experiment with textures and layers.
 DON’T completely sacrifice comfort – ya gotta dance in this thing!
 DO balance your look with regard to color, tone, weight.
 DON’T perform in a costume you have not rehearsed in.
 DO flatter your size and shape when choosing a look.
 DON’T forget your make-up, including fingers, and toes.
 DO find inspiration in those you admire.
 DON’T spend more in a year on costuming than training.
 DO use the ideas of others thoughtfully and ethically – credit where it is due!
 DO play often with new ideas.
 DO what feels good for you and your evolving style.

Consider The Four Elements (not the ones you think)

Four Key elements:
Color      Texture       Movement       Sparkle

For maximum impact, take care that each of these key elements are incorporated in your combination of pieces. Consider a healthy balance, and keep in mind that for most dancers new to costuming, it is easier to underdo it than overdo it. Lushness and layers my friends. Consider the costume above as it compares to the elements found in the painting to the left as you read on.

For color, think of creative and harmonious colors, not too matchy or “crayon box”. A great place to start is to look at old Orientalist paintings. If you look overall, you will see a lot of oranges, browns, and yellows. Look closer and you see lots of china blues, greens, and teals.  Accented with vivid golds!  These are great images to draw from.  If you can get a color print, or put them on your phone so you can have them near at hand, you will be able to reference one or two when out shopping.

For texture, think of patterns or prints as well as three dimensional elements such as brocades, embroidery, fringes, appliques, beadwork, etc. If in doubt, take a photo of your costume and use a simple editing program to make it black and white. If you can still read a lot of visual interest with the color stripped away, you have a lot of texture.

The element of movement comes from full swishy loons, fluffy flying skirts, jingling coins and dangling fringe. Your costume will ideally react and interact with your movement in a complimentary way, making your twisting hips even twistier.

Finally, you can’t forget the sparkle. Sequins, coins, bindis, glitter, jewels all bring the bling and are a joy to see under stage lights. Depending on your style or persona, you may wish for more earthy elements such as stones and metals. For a more glam effect, glittery scarves and rhinestones are the order of the day. Always in balance–you don’t want to be so blinged out it distracts from your dancing!

Shay’s Costuming Tips for Tribal Bellydance

Learn to Sew
You don’t need to be a pro seamstress to get a lot of mileage out of a needle and thread. Nor do you even need to own a sewing machine (but it helps).  Being able to tack fabric and coins on to a bra with a simple running stitch, running a zig zag stitch along a shredding hem, making a pair of ‘loons up to finish off an outfit, and much more are frequent activities in a dancer’s life. Fancy sewing machines and sergers are great, no doubt, but just a machine with a few simple stitches can serve your needs for many years to come, and save you hundreds, even thousands of dollars in pre-fab costuming costs.

LDM (Long-Distance Mistake)
Keep in mind that what looks good  in your mirror is different than what looks good onstage.  Just like make-up, you need to be bigger, bolder, and brighter than you might be used to up-close for your look to translate well to a stage.  Putting on your costume is putting on a character, a persona.  That knob goes to 11, use it!

So, too, that distance can be very forgiving.  Every detail need not be perfect. You’d be surprised what little flaws can blend in to the overall texture of a costume (lemmie tell you!).

Costuming vs. Costumey
One of the most difficult things to learn (and to teach) is the fine line between what makes a costume look fantastical without it looking too “made up”.  At our best, our costumes can be complex and exotic, and at worst it can read cheesy or garish.  Particularly in tribal bellydance, we are trying to evoke that “village” look and feel, but with a theatricalized slant.  We don’t want to appear too commercial or “done”.  It is only through a lot of practice and trial and error that we learn to develop and eye for, and hone our creative instincts and costume collection to achieve, this delicate balance.  Look to the pros for inspiration, and build from those successes to find your own great look.

Consider Your Audience, Venue, Music, Story
When choosing a costume for performance, consider the context in which you will be performing it. Overly dark, gothic looks can seem out at place at a sunny daytime event. More revealing or provocative costumes could easily offend your audience at some restaurants or festivals.  Wearing a very Bollywood-inspired costume and doing a hip-hop fusion number can be  a jarring disconnect.  A polished dancer knows how to choose her costuming to support the dance she wants to present to her audience.

When To Stop
This is a hard thing to know, and ties in with developing an instinct and an eye as discussed above.  Pile it on. Walk away from the mirror to rest your eye. Walk back in front and give a quick scan over your entire look. If something glaringly sticks out, it probably needs to go. Remember: balance!

Building Your Dowry

Bellydance is an investment–your costumes are no exception.  One of the great things about tribal bellydance costuming is that we can build our “dowry” over time. We can buy and create bits and pieces over time as our funds and time allow, and mix and match them for tons of possibilities!

Begin with your foundation pieces. For an ATS-based dancer it is often:
 – pantaloons
 – choli or similar crop top
 –  a hip scarf or two is vital, for both class and performance
 ~ a skirt (pantaloons with no skirt is common, too, however)

If you begin with great foundation pieces, in high quality materials and in colors you tend to gravitate toward in other parts of your life, these elements will be versatile and last a lifetime.  I have skirts, scarves, and accessories I have had since the first year I was dancing–I cherish them as precious pieces of my personal dowry.

Building on the foundation pieces,we can purchase or create:
 – coin bras/decorated bras
 – vests/cholis/wrap tops
 – hip scarves/fringe/wraps
 – mirror or coin belts, other hip belt options
 – jewelry! jewelry! jewelry!

Finishing Touches
 – veil or kaftan cover-up
 – dance shoes

I have so much more I could say on the subject (this is why I teach it as a workshop!), but hopefully this has given you a lot to think about as you assemble your future costumes. Happy dancing!

Follow Shay:

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.

One Response

  1. Avatar
    Alicia Foodycat
    | Reply

    This is a great post! One tip I would add (to don’t spend more in a year on costuming than training), is RESIST THE URGE. So many of us are drawn to the dance because of the costuming, so then we buy ALL THE THINGS without having an eye to editing. And, particularly for ATS/troupe dancers, it’s probably more important to discuss with our troupe mates what we are going to do with costuming. I’ve had a couple of skirts that I’ve never worn because no one I dance with had anything that could coordinate with them, and at the same time I’ve had to borrow items because the majority of my troupemates had that style skirt and I didn’t.

    Also, along with the point on dressing to flatter your size and shape, dancers need to be aware that not everything fashionable is flattering! One woman I dance with is incredibly petite – if she tries to wear multiple 25 yard skirts, all you see is skirt, and no dancer. She’s much better off wearing 15 yard skirts even if 25 are the “must have”.

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