When you are just about managing (and especially when you are actually not managing but determined to have some belly dance space-time), it can be really difficult to justify money spent on costume for a performance, especially if your time and money is so short that this may be once a year. The temptation is to go for something cheap, preferably something which will do double duty as everyday clothing, perhaps something you already have in your wardrobe. This can be really difficult; costume should ideally look like costume. There are few instances where you can get away with everyday wear, unless your everyday wear is somewhat bohemian and full of rich fabrics, colours, textures and bling! So, bearing in mind that I'm considering amateur performances in relatively 'safe' spaces, such as local haflas, here are some tips on what you might look for, what you might get away with, and how not to waste your money.
First, bear in mind that your costume should:
- Suit the dance style. Think about the dance - is it more cabaret or folkloric? A distinct style, or fusion? You might get away with jeans and a T shirt for Shaabi, or summer skirts for something folky or fusion, but not for something more classical.
- Fit you. Not so loose that the movements can't be seen or that it slips around or down, not so tight that it looks like you might spill out or it rides up, not so long that you trip over it, nor too short.
- Flatter you. Maximise your assets, minimise your faults, cover up anything distracting, such as large, scarred tummies and bingo wings, and look as though you are wearing the costume and not the other way around.
- Provide some visual interest and look like a unified group. I'm all for individuality, but if everyone just wears what they have or like, you can end up with every style of costume in every colour (which is what happened for the Imago dancers' first show piece. Ah well, it's all experience!). Costumes don't have to be identical, but should have some sort of richness, either in their decoration or the blend of colours and perhaps textures or fabrics, and if not all the same, then a limited set of styles can bring a group look together.)
The first thing is to assess what you have, or can borrow.
- Skirts. A skirt should be long and move nicely. Long means down to your ankles, or onto the instep of your foot, rather than calf length. Try turning in the skirt and twisting your hips to see how it moves. Ideally, you should have a skirt with a hem at least 3-4 metres long. A circular skirt will have a hem 6-7 metres long. A half circle skirt with godets (triangular inserts) can also work well. Tiered skirts used for folkloric or tribal style dance often have hems at least 9.5 metres long, roughly equivalent to a circle and a half, but if the top tier is too long, onto the thigh, it may not move well. This is often the case with tiered 'broomstick' skirts sold as summer skirts, which often do not have enough fabric gathered into the tiers to move well.
- Tops. A good basic is a close-fitting vest top or strappy camisole of fine cotton, poly-cotton, polyester or viscose jersey. This can be paired with a cropped-length tie-top of some sort, in a matching or toning colour. Make sure the tie top is big enough so that it does not ride up over the bust, and you can get a sleeker look with a top which has ties long enough to cross in front and tie at the back. Any T shirt should be close-fitting, with a deep and preferably decorated neckline. The only time I would suggest something 'blousy' would be a folk top with a gathered neckline, full sleeves and some embroidery.
- Trousers. I've seen a lot of trousers described as 'harem pants' recently, but they are really just pull-on trousers with pleating at the waist and a narrow ankle. These can work if they are made in a drapey fabric, otherwise choose some made from a decorative fabric (and more of it!), with elastic at the ankles (and long enough to cover the ankle bone). For tribal fusion, flared jazz pants, perhaps with a small over-skirt, can work well.
- Dresses. Depending on the cut and decoration, an evening gown could double as a cabaret dress. (And a dress galabeya could double as an evening gown.) A simple column or A-line summer dress with a beaded neckline might also work when worn with a matching coin belt.
- Think ahead; the earlier you start to plan and put a costume together, the better.
- Be prepared to spend some money at some point. Start a costume fund. It is possible to get a dress galabeya, which could see you through several styles of dance, for around £50.00 (although the way the currency is going at the moment, not for very much longer!).
- Be prepared to have more than one costume if you are going to continue!
- Know your size/measurements and look carefully at descriptions and pictures when buying online.
- Resist buying the first thing which catches your eye because it's cheap and looks like it will do.
- Support your local dance events and buy from souk/bazaar vendors. You get to handle costumes and try them on, and you are often effectively supporting small businesses. If the vendor travels to Cairo (for example), have a chat about the sort of thing you're looking for, what you can afford, size and colour preferences.
- Have a look at internet sites selling professional costumes. With the change in exchange rates, these are far more expensive now, but you might get lucky with a sale, and it will give you ideas.
- Keep an eye on eBay, there are bargains to be had, especially if you happen to be the right size for another dancer's second hand, quality costumes.
- Keep an eye open in charity shops for evening dresses, skirts and tops which could be adapted, and outrageous bling in terms of jewellery, providing it suits the costume you are putting together.
- Reality check. If you sew or can have someone sew for you, re-purposing clothing can work out cheaper, but there is a lot of work in a belly dance costume and you may spend more on the beads and sequins than you'd planned. Have an idea of the cost of fabrics per metre and how much you would need to make a garment from scratch, which is sometimes quicker than making alterations. You might be able to buy a lot of sequins more cheaply than salvaging them off another charity garment. Blingy jewellery which could be used as costume decoration needs either to be removable or in a mount which won't rust.
- Remember that even professional quality costumes often need some adjustment to fit your unique body!
- Harem pants, skirts or dresses with metal coins on as part of the decoration; they will be difficult to wash.
- Costumes which claim to be 'professional' but do not look like anything which, say, Eman or Hoda Zaki, Hanan or Bella would produce.
- Anything marked as one size fits all, unless it really can fit you.
- Anything which seems to have an identity crisis. A quick look through eBay this evening resulted in a lot of yoga, Bollywood and ballroom costumes tagged as belly dance.
- Anything which looks like lingerie/underwear. This includes bras with a decorated front, but still with the stretch straps at the back. (You might get away with it peeping out the front of a tie-top or deep-fronted galabeya, but don't spend money on one unless you are sure it will fit!)
- Go for Carnival, Halloween or other dress-up costumes - they're not usually designed to be danced in. Yes, that includes that set of 'endless wave' style harem pants with small clusters of beads on the points, halter top and belt smothered in coins and sequins, all for under £18.00. What a bargain, so difficult to resist, even when you suspect that the halter top will not fit (as they even point out that it won't provide full coverage for a B or C cup bust). Shown on a tiny model, it looks lovely. I know someone who bought the pants, and the loosely woven chiffon tore under the weight of the bead clusters (not that they were heavy!) and kept on tearing, before she'd even started dancing. The same goes for cheap 'tourist tat' costumes, especially if the bra cups are shaped like cones or as two circles joined half-way up by a short strap. These often also have some sort of flower, target shape or a tassel on the nipple. Just don't go there.
- Start with accessories. However tempting it is because they are cheap, little elasticated wristlets with coins or a jingly ankle bracelet are the least of your needs and may not suit the style of the costume you're putting together. If anyone wants to buy these for you, encourage them to put a few quid into your costume fund instead!
Happy costume hunting!
You might want to look at a previous post when I was thinking about costuming a couple of years ago.
Shira's website is full of superb information, indispensable reading!