I have yet to meet a belly dancer who, for many years after beginning the dance, didn’t feel like they were playing a role. Between the stereotypes associated with belly dancing and the fact that even instructors continue to study for decades after they learn the dance, it can be very hard to tell people that you are a belly dancer and keep a straight face.
In the eye of the public, looking like a belly dancer is akin to being a belly dancer. Your costume is all-important; not only does it help others see you as what you are, but it helps get you psyched up and ready for your dance. Even in class or in front of your tv with an instructional tape playing, you should wear something suitably “exotic”. It helps you learn the moves better, since you are wearing the right clothing, and it simply makes you feel more like the goddess you are.
The basic pieces
The three “must-haves” for your belly dance costume are simple enough; a skirt, a shirt, and a coin belt or coin and fringe hip scarf.
The Skirt – There are many types of skirts suitable for belly dance. Whether you choose to go with a straight-line skirt or a full-circle one, the skirt should be long enough to touch your ankles and allow enough room that you can move without any discomfort or restriction of belly, hips, or feet.
When you first start looking for the skirt to use, think about the type of belly dance that you are doing. Specific styles of belly dance use specific looks of clothing. Take some time to look around; if you are in a class, what are the other women wearing? If you are using a home video to learn, what kinds of costumes does your instructor wear on that video? Most important of all, though, is that you feel comfortable in the skirt you choose. Belly dance is about many things, but one of the more important ones is the idea that the dancer feels exotic, purely feminine.
In beginning belly dance, you will probably want to look at purchasing a skirt that is not specifically for belly dance. This might sound silly, until you take a look at the costs of a traditional or professional belly dance costume. The craftier among us can purchase patterns to sew their own costumes, but even these lack a bit of the flair, in general, that the professional costumes have. So to make a long story short, it is generally more wise to just get a nice skirt in colors that you want to carry throughout your costume.
The Shirt – Most belly dance shirts are very small. They show off the breasts, the upper chest, and the belly because they are tiny, tight, and fitting. I have yet to find a shirt that mimics belly dance costuming without actually purchasing the “real thing”. Again, if you have the skills necessary to create your own, you might want to just find a pattern and do it yourself. For the rest of us, I highly suggest visiting an online auction site like ebay and performing a search for “bellydance”.
Finding the perfect shirt can be a bit more difficult. You will want to keep in mind the colors of the costume you envision, and must also match the skirt in both tone and texture. Wearing a velvet choli, for instance, with a cotton skirt just isn’t going to look right. When you move, the material will move differently from each other and cause the viewer’s eye to focus on your clothing rather than your dance.
The right bellydance shirt should have sleeves that are shorter than your elbows (or no sleeves at all), should fit snugly but comfortably around your breasts, and should expose the long line of your tummy and waist. Think long about the material you choose – I love the look of velvet cholis, but have to retire mine at the end of each winter because if I wear it any other time of the year I practically give myself heat stroke. Your arms, waist, and shoulders should have extremely easy, free movement. Look for fabrics that are stretchy or loose by nature.
The belt – If you decide that you don’t want to worry about anything else, at least get a hip belt. I don’t care if you’re in blue jeans; a hip belt makes a lot of noise and helps you learn your hip movements much more quickly than anything else…. with the possible exception of a full-length mirror. The jingling sounds will immediately alert you to the moment that you lose the smoothness that is so important in belly dance.
Metallic sounds are important beyond their instructional value. They are a traditional part of belly dance, dating back to the earliest dancers who were paid only in coin and used this pay as a display of their skill. They are fun; there is little more enjoyable than shimmying your way across the room to the sound of clanging, jingling coins ringing from your hips. Along the lines of look, these metallic baubles also give you that distinctive belly dancer appearance that will make you feel much more a part of the role you’re playing.
A Step Further: Accessories
Outside of a performance, many newcomers to belly dance overlook accessories as being non-essential. To an extent, this is true; accessories aren’t an integral part of learning belly dance, like the hip belt and proper clothing. However, there is nothing more important than “getting into” the dance you are learning.
An analogy, perhaps? Most of us learned a second language in high school. Much more than the sheets of plural and singular, feminine and masculine forms of words were taught; we were immersed in a culture through foods, music, and movies. The reasoning behind this is simple: to appreciate a new thing, you must understand the underlying beauty of what it resides inside.
Accessories provide a very good taste of the underlying culture of belly dance. Whether you choose to go with “bindi” jewels, henna art, or the gorgeous pieces of ornamental jewelry, you are adding a dimension to yourself that makes you feel more exotic, and that feeling always shines through in both your performance and learning.
The right amount of jewelry and other accessories is a judgment call. You will want to think long about the overall “theme” of your costume, the type of belly dance you are learning, and the look that you want to have in your own dancing. Most newcomers make the mistake of wearing little-to-no jewelry; this is a newcomer’s mistake, resulting in a bare and unfinished look.
On the reverse, too many accessories or really overly elaborate jewelry will make your costume look cluttered and distract from your performance.
Again, I cannot stress enough the need to look to your instructor for advice. If you are using a video tape to learn, this can be more difficult. Try to discern what style of belly dance you are learning in your video tape. Style is important to the use of accessories. New Age, or modern, belly dance calls for very little in the way of ornamentation beyond the basic 3 pieces of costuming and perhaps some skin adornments. Cabaret style belly dance needs a theatrical, polished dazzle. Tribal style calls for heavy use of adornments to transform the dancer into a piece of traditional history, reflecting the ethnic influence of their dance.
To decide on the accessories you want to invest in, take some time to look online or in books at pictures of belly dancers. Lay your basic 3 costume pieces out and try sketching out the look of your outfit, filling in the blanks with accessory ideas. Your hair frames your face, so a nice hair style and some sort of ornamentation (a head band, veil, or metallic hair piece) is important. Your neck and upper chest area is another area to be filled in. If the neckline of your shirt is low, you will want a shorter necklace that doesn’t plunge into cleavage. Shirts with a higher neckline should have longer necklaces to add visual interest. Arms are another area; bare arms can give the feeling of a belly dance costume being not much more than expensive lingerie. A sleeve, armband, or bracelet cuffs high on the arm transforms your costume into a polished piece.
Since much of the accessories you will wear are metal, you will need to look carefully to find jewelry that matches the coins on your hip belt. How disappointing to have your jewelry arrive, only to remember that your scarf coins are gold and your jewelry is silver. Believe me, I’ve done it more than once, and the frustration is something you want to try and avoid.
One last time, I just want to stress the idea that in whatever you choose to create your costume, you should be comfortable. The costume is what transforms you from every-day working woman, mother, or wife into an exotic, sensual goddess worthy of the notice you generate when you dance. Have fun with your costuming, and your dance will show it!