After a career as a flamenco dancer, Marisa turned to belly dance in her retirement and loves sharing her knowledge of the art form.
Across the Western world, the belly dance community is very welcoming of older dancers. I'd go so far as to say that the majority of people in belly dance classes are women over 40. And I know several who still do a weekly class in their 60s and 70s.
The atmosphere in class is welcoming and non-judgmental. But belly dance is an entertainment. What happens when the teacher decides to stage a performance?
It may be un-PC to say it, but I do think older belly dancers need to modify their costume, hair and makeup to suit their age when performing in public. To illustrate what I mean, I want to share a story.
I was at a festival, enjoying a performance by a belly dance troupe made up entirely of older dancers. I was thinking how great it was to see a slick troupe of dancers my age (60+)—and made that comment to my (non-belly dancer) friend, who's 30.
"They're not your age! They look like a bunch of geriatrics," she said.
I tried to look at them with her young eyes—and noticed how the bare midriffs highlighted sagging abs, and the way the heavy makeup settled into wrinkles, making their faces look old. Suddenly the fake blonde ringlets looked slightly ridiculous against the lined faces, and the long tresses emphasised the turkey necks.
I shook off the impression—after all, this was a belly dance festival, and most belly dancers wouldn't look at those things. Anyway, they were enjoying themselves, what did it matter?
Then a few weeks later, I bumped into Jackie, one of the troupe members, and asked if she enjoyed the festival.
"I did until I saw the photos," she said. "I looked bloody awful."
And there's my point. Within the belly dance community, we gladly accept our flaws. We celebrate the opportunity to dress outrageously and let it all hang out. But when the excitement of the event is over, we're left with the videos and photos—and in the cold light of day, we sometimes don't look as good as we think we did!
There's no point saying, “But the audience shouldn't be judgmental!” It's not just the audience we have to think about—it's our own feelings that really matter.
Those photos ruined the memory of the festival for Jackie and really dented her confidence. It would've been a real shame if Jackie had given up belly dance because she's a lovely dancer. Luckily she didn't—it took a few months for her to get up the courage to perform in public again after adjusting her costume, hair, makeup, and choreography to highlight her assets instead of emphasizing her age.
As Jackie discovered, the warm glow of belly dance approval can make us feel our flaws don't matter—but when we see ourselves in the photos, we may bitterly regret having been so blind!
There are plenty of things you can do to avoid looking like mutton dressed as lamb. It partly depends on how kind (or otherwise) life has been to your various bits.
If you've had children, the legacy will show in the tummy area. And even childless women can find themselves laying down fat on the abdomen after menopause.
Many dancers try to hide a less-than-perfect stomach with long fringing or a narrow piece of material connecting the bra with the skirt. If you think one of these disguises work for you, record yourself actually dancing, especially from the side view—you may be in for an unpleasant surprise!
A good, firm body stocking is a sensible solution for the midriff. You can get flesh-coloured body stockings—but they're not always the best solution. The ones which really hold you in are thick and opaque, like old-fashioned support hose for varicose veins. Not the most flattering.
A fishnet body stocking looks as though you're adding interest rather than trying to cover up your flaws, and for that reason, I feel they're often a better choice. Look for the words "power mesh" in the description as they offer a stronger hold.
Another option is a body stocking to match your costume. For the vertically-challenged (like me), this has the advantage of making you look taller.
Belly Dance Dresses
By far, the most effective option is to forget the two-piece costume altogether and buy dresses instead. The smooth lines, with no waist- or hip-line to cut in, are kind to less-than-perfect figures. If you have one custom-made, you can choose your cut-outs strategically to highlight your best features. You can choose to make the sleeves elbow-length, have a thigh split (or not), etc.
Mature women often have good legs, even if they're overweight. If that applies to you, show them off with a split skirt. The new fashion is for a high split with shorts underneath.
If the shape is good, but the varicose veins aren't, add a chiffon insert in the split.
Many older women have a bountiful cleavage (even if it needs industrial-strength support to counter the sag!). Draw attention to it with a low-cut neckline and lots of embellishment—a beaded bra is an obvious choice, but check for back overflow! If that's an issue, a tie-front midriff top is a good choice. You can always wear a beaded bra underneath—just tuck the ties under the bra at the sides, instead of crossing them in front, so the beading is visible.
You can also find choli tops designed to sit under the bust, specifically to show off a jewelled or coin bra.
Tip: If you're buying a tie-front top not made for belly dancing, just make sure you can lift your arms above your head without pulling the front up over your boobs. High street tops often don't have enough stretch.
Perhaps the biggest source of angst for mature dancers is their upper arms—what Australians call tuckshop arms, and the Americans call bingo wings or bat wings.
If your arms still look all right but jiggle when you move, a narrow band of stretch sequins may be all you need to arrest the wobble. But if your bat wings are really starting to flap, a narrow armband will draw unwanted attention to the droop. In that case, the best camouflage is a sleeved top or a shrug.
However, there are times when you may have no option—for instance, when you're dancing in a troupe and have to wear what they're wearing. In that case, larger armbands may be the solution.
Chances are at least some of the troupe will be wearing armbands anyway, on the forearms or over the elbow. Never wear armbands in that position—it will only emphasise jello upper arms. But it won't look too out of place if you wear similar armbands higher up.
Don't make the mistake of making them small—they need to reach from elbow to armpit, or your bingo wings will just sneak out above or below. You could even make them cover the whole arm (which looks good in lace). Use a lycra material with the stretch width-wise—it will hug your arms so you don't need elastic to hold them up (which would cut in and cause more bulges). Always test-drive your armbands before performing in them: you don't want them falling down mid-performance. Some Hollywood tape is good insurance!
Floaty chiffon sleeves can also be effective. However, most patterns have elastic at the top and bottom - and I find the top elastic cuts in and highlights my upper arm flab. I prefer to attach a fabric tie to the top of the sleeve and attach it to my bra strap.
Makeup Tips for Mature Dancers
Theatrical makeup is exaggerated. Traditionally, dancers wear colourful eye-shadow, thick eyeliner, tons of mascara and bright lipstick, so their features can be seen from the audience. Unfortunately, this kind of makeup can look tarty on a mature woman, and can also add years to her face because powder or heavy foundation will settle into wrinkles and make them glaringly obvious.
Before deciding on your makeup, consider how far away the spectators will be. If you're up on a stage, then by all means "go for broke". But often, belly dancers perform close to their audience. If that's the case, then stick closer to what you'd wear for a special night out, or you'll risk looking like a drag queen.
Even under bright stage lights, there are things you should do to avoid looking like a clown.
Older eyes tend to be more hooded than young ones. Your eyebrows have dropped, so there's less space between the eyebrow and the eye. You may have dark circles around the eyes, too.
That makes belly dance eye makeup problematic because the traditional belly dance eye is generously eyeshadowed and heavily outlined in dark smokey liner, as demonstrated in this video.
Unfortunately, the makeup that looks so exotic in this clip can overwhelm older eyes, because all the dark lines close up the eye slightly—and if your eyes are already not as wide as they used to be, you can look decidedly piggy-eyed.
I don't advise using dark eyeliner under your eye for performance makeup, especially not inside the lower lid. Although it looks good on TV or in photos, it doesn't work well on stage, even on young dancers. It makes the eyes look smaller, not bigger. Instead, use a white highlighter pencil inside the lower lash line and on the outer corner of the eye. The white highlighter has a brightening, widening effect.
Use an angled brush and add a line of your eyeshadow color under the lower lashes on the outer half of the eye only.
On the subject of eyeshadow color—did you know that dark blue and dark purple turn black under stage lights?
I always remember seeing Maina Gielgud dance with the Royal Festival Ballet many years ago. I can barely remember a step—I was so fascinated by her enormous false eyelashes, which were so big I couldn't see her eyes! It looked like she had two big fat caterpillars crawling towards her nose (and Maina would be the first to admit, she doesn't need anything to draw attention to her nose).
False eyelashes can have the same effect on mature eyes—if you're dancing under stage lights, big false lashes will cast a shadow over your eyes and make you look all lash and no peepers.
If you want to wear falsies, go for half lashes. Because you only put them on the outer corner of your eye, they help to give you that exotic cat's eye look, too—or help lift the outer corners if your eyes are starting to droop.
We all think of bright red lipstick as the only thing to wear on stage—but as we age, our lips get thinner, and we may have lines which lipstick "bleeds" into. Bright red lipstick can emphasise those negative features and can make us look clownish.
Stop thinking of lips as having to be "bright" and think instead of making them "strong". Perhaps a mulberry or warm brown tone would work for you better than red?
Always use a lip pencil before applying your lipstick—and apply it all over your lips as well as outlining. It will make your lippie last much longer. A primer helps, too.
Practice—and Double Check!
Have at least one practice session before the event. Don't just put your face on and clean it straight off again—leave your makeup on and check it again in half an hour. Ideally, dance in it too. That way, you'll discover whether anything is going to settle into the creases (or slide off if you sweat).
Finally, always check your makeup with a magnifying mirror, in good light, once it's done. Everyone's eye for close work starts to fail after the mid-40s—some more than others. You may not notice how much detail you can't see these days. Brightly coloured eyeshadow looks dreadful if it's not evenly applied, and even worse if you have specks of it scattered over your cheeks.
The popular image of a belly dancer is of a woman with long flowing hair, but many hairdressers advise mature women not to wear their hair down because the droopy strands around the face emphasize the effect of gravity. If you have the kind of face shape that can wear long hair in your mature years, I'm envious—I know I look awful because it emphasizes my saggy jawline.
So, I'm faced with a dilemma that I'm sure faces many other older belly dancers. If I wear my hair long for dancing, I have to put up with a haircut that's unflattering in my daily life, unless I wear it up all the time - but I have very thick, heavy hair and that become a lot of work as well as a literal headache.
Tribal dancers are lucky because their costume includes complex hair decorations that can conceal short hair. However, thanks to that wonderful Brazilian dancer, Esmeralda Colarbone (below), turbans are becoming more acceptable in mainstream belly dancing, too.
Notice, too, how her costume covers her upper arms and her midriff, and yet she manages to look effortlessly sexy.
If you can, get yourself to a wig shop or good hairdresser which sells hair switches. Try on a few options and see what suits you. I don't recommend hair extensions—they're very expensive, and you probably need to put your hair up (at least partially) anyway, so what's the point? You may as well go straight for a fake ponytail or half wig.
If you have mid-length hair, a ponytail or half wig means you can pull your hair back more softly and still get a secure finish. The video below shows how you would normally attach a drawstring switch—but for dancing, don't rely on the drawstring alone! Use plenty of pins, too, and always test it by wearing it for practice or rehearsal.
Tip: One of my hairdressing friends makes two ponytails side by side and pins them together—she feels it makes a stronger base for the hairpiece. Worth a try to see if it works for you—and it can mean you don't have to pull your hair back so tightly, so it can help with softness, too.
© 2020 Marisa Wright