Monday, 21 July 2014

The Bling's The Thing

I'm terribly excited to have a performance group again, after a little lull. We were quite active a couple of years ago, and started to discuss troupe costumes.  Then most of the dancers disappeared from class due to pregnancy, illness, shift and other work changes, new love interests, etc.

I'm so proud of 'my' dancers, including a couple of ladies who have really only been dancing anything from a  few weeks to a  few months. Having done a beginner's choreography last term, this one to Nourhanne's Habibi Ya Eini is pretty cute (even if I say so myself) but not very easy. They are working so hard and they are up for the challenge, although nerves are starting to kick in as the show comes closer. It is part of the Imago ethos that performance is optional and open to all abilities. This is a hafla-style show, so it's a safe place to perform for the first time.

Preparing for a performance can be scary and for your first performance, a little bit terrifying. Apart from doubts about whether you can learn and rehearse the choreography in time for the performance, the other big question is, What Shall I Wear? This is always a tricky one for beginners and casual dancers, and especially problematic for anyone not under UK size 16 and/or with body issues such as scars, flabby bits you want to keep hidden, unusual proportions and feeling so self-conscious that you may want to dance with everyone else, but blend into the background so that no-one can see you, and would fight to be at the back. Oh yes, I have all those issues, except for the last two which I'm over now, unless I have to watch myself in a mirror or on video.

Another issue is cost. If you are slim (up to a UK size 14, max!) with perhaps only A-B cups, and happy to show some tummy then it's quite easy to get a cheap, basic, far-east import costume of georgette/chiffon circular skirt, belt and bra for under £40 excluding post and packing. There are some fun, colourful costume pieces, if you can fit them.  They are marketed as One Size (don't get me started ...). They are also marketed as 'professional' and although they can look good, you should expect to pay £250 to £450 for a truly 'professional' full costume. At Raqs Britannia a few years ago, I overheard a couple of other teachers discussing how they don't let their students perform until they are at least 'intermediate' (in their book, dancing for a couple of years, not the JWAAD intermediate standard) and only then if they are prepared to buy their own 'professional' costume in the troupe colours. Not that all dancers are intermediate (whatever that means!) after a couple of years, and all very well if it's for paid, professional bookings or stage shows, but overkill if we're talking the local festival or street carnival. There's more to dancing well and being professional than the costume. A beautiful costume will certainly help you to look and feel the part, but it's what you do and how you do it that really counts!

Then there is the question of how to approach costuming a troupe. If everyone wears the same thing, the troupe can look very smart and can also help the self-conscious to feel that they are blending in. On the other hand, if you don't feel the costume suits you, it can make you feel worse and you might not dance your best, either. I was in a troupe where the requirement was for all white and I felt like a belly dancing meringue, conspicuous and uncomfortable.

Most costume decisions are about style, colour and cost, so for troupe costumes, it's a matter of finding a combination that works for everyone.

Style should be appropriate for the type of dance and choreography.  Doing ATS in a sparkly galabeya looks and feels too strange; I know, because I have done it. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, and next time I shall make sure I have a big skirt and choli in my costume case! However, you can think of  'style' in very broad terms, such as everyone in dresses/galabeyas, or in a skirt and top, or wearing one or two unifying pieces which are the same style, such as harem pants and a glitterdot tie top.

Colour can be a difficult call.  It's hard to find a single colour/shade which suits everyone and everyone has their favourites in which they feel happy. It wasn't until I was loading a couple of photos onto my website that I realised how much stage lighting can alter colour, so that it can become almost insignificant. I may have felt like a meringue in my white costume, but under stage lights it became changing pastel shades, light and ethereal.

I usually advise against black for stage costumes, because it's not necessarily as flattering as you'd think and you can disappear against a black backdrop or in dim lighting. It's often chosen by people who want to appear slimmer and not be noticeable against the backdrop but beware! Your audience may look at you more closely if you're difficult to see! That said, sometimes black is the only option.  I have seen a very effective use of various separates - skirt or pants with some sort of top plus a coin belt - all in black and silver. Still, the whole troupe need to be okay with the colour choice.  I tried on a black and silver cabaret dress and it made me feel as though I was going to dance at a funeral.

With a unifying style, a troupe could be in all different colours, or could select a contrasting or toning colour range. This has the advantage that dancers get a choice (e.g. pink or turquoise, or any shades of blue and green) and might be able to use pieces they already have, keeping costs to a minimum.
Photo Credit Kathryn Goddard, Capture This Moment Photography
Here's a shot of Imago Dancers performing a couple of years ago in Cardiff, in whatever we had or could lend each other of black and royal blue, with the dancer's choice of silver or gold, unified by our masks and white boas.

My first 'troupe' costume was a double layer skirt with a top which I'd used for a contemporary dance piece, years before. A couple of years later, I was due to dance in a show for Hossam and Serena Ramzy, when all the other dancers in the troupe backed out at less than a week's notice.  I had four days to select music, choreograph what would be my first solo, and put together a costume.
Melanie peforming at the Merlin Theatre, March 2008

I made a panne velvet overdress and polysilk harem pants, and wore both a fringe belt and a coin belt.  It was comfortable, covered a multitude of sins and it's still something I wear for more casual events.

However, after a couple of haflas and other performances,  I wondered why I was still feeling much too self-conscious and realised that it was because I felt too plain. Yes, the textures were nice and I was wearing jewellery and a coin belt, but I felt like a sparrow amongst peacocks. Unless you are being seriously folkloric, it's possible that for a local hafla, there's no such thing as too much bling!

Many 'larger ladies' are told to avoid lycra and this may be true in a figure-hugging, day-to-day fashion sense. I believed it, and since many belly dance costumes use lycra, I wasn't sure what to do.  Then I found a galabeya by Hanan in my size and was encouraged to try it on.  As I came out of the changing area, the other ladies in the souk all went 'OOooooh!'. It clung to some bits of me and skimmed the rest, and the bead and sequin work around the neck with the sparkly lycra made me feel elegant and dripping with style. Also, it was very comfortable to move and dance in, and some leggings underneath would deal with my dislike of flashing my legs. (It's the black and gold galabeya I'm wearing in the troupe photo, above.)

Since then, I've become a fan of dance galabeyas, treating myself to a turquoise and gold Hanan sparkly when I saw one in my size, and made an exception to my own black and silver rules to bag a second-hand Assuit galabeya when one came up at a reasonable price on eBay. I'm now planning to make a few. How many galabeyas does a dancer need?

In the end, I am reluctant to dictate when it comes to costuming for casual dancers; it's the dancers' money, and they should have a choice, including borrowing costume or going with what they have.  However, I encourage the maximum use of sparkle. Whatever you wear, if you want to feel fabulous and sparkly instead of frumpy and self-conscious, then the bling's the thing!

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