After a career as a flamenco dancer, Marisa turned to belly dance in her retirement and loves sharing her knowledge of the art form.
What to look for in a student belly dance ensemble:
- Reasonable cost
- Flexibility to mix and match
- Flattering to all shapes, sizes and ages
In this article, I'll look at some options to achieve those goals.
When your belly dance school is ready to form its first dance troupe, it's important to give careful thought to how you'll tackle the question of what to wear. It's understandable that your first thought may be, "I want a slick, professional ensemble to represent my school". However, for amateurs, it's not realistic to insist they have a wardrobe of expensive, revealing cabaret-style outfits.
If all your students are young, slim and toned, you may think this isn't a consideration—but think again. In today's society, even slender women can have body image issues, and may secretly feel very challenged by a revealing costume.
Most teachers will have classes filled with all shapes and sizes. Within the belly dance community, it's usual to dismiss any concerns about displaying less-than-perfect bodies. "It's the dance that matters", we say. "You look beautiful when you dance, who cares if your varicose veins are showing?"
Remember, however you feel about those statements, you can't force your students to think the same way. Also, be aware that for some students, "just wear a body stocking" is not a sufficient solution.
Students may not object if you tell them they must wear a particular costume. Instead, they will quietly drop out rather than perform in a skintight costume which isn't kind to their saggy bits. And you don't want to lose students!
On the other hand, if you go for the budget "non-threatening" option, nothing screams "amateur" quite so much as camisoles, hip scarves and gypsy skirts. And cheap, butterly top/hip scarf combos from eBay look tacky on all but the flat-chested. So what's the answer?
Solution #1: Celebrate the Differences
We're used to the idea of everyone wearing matching outfits because that's how professional dance productions work. But consider—a professional troupe is selected so they're matched not just on talent but also on height and shape (yes, I know, that's probably discrimination—but agents will tell you, that's what's necessary if you want to get professional bookings).
Your students are of different heights, weights and dance ability. No matter how perfectly matched their costumes are, they will never all look the same. In fact, dressing them exactly the same can emphasise their differences because the costume will look great on some dancers and highlight the flaws on others.
That doesn't mean you should let every student do their own thing. A total free-for-all, where everyone wears what they like, is too distracting—the audience is more likely to focus on the best outfit, rather than the best dancer. So you need to define a structure.
Same Colour, Different Designs
A simple answer is to specify a colour but allow each person to choose a design to flatter their shape.
Be specific about the colour. For instance, if you just say, "green", you'll have people turning up in anything from fresh pale peppermint to deep forest jade, and they won't look good together. Buy half a metre of fabric in your preferred shade, cut it up and hand out swatches to your students. Let them know their costume doesn't need to match exactly; they just need to make sure it tones.
You don't want someone wearing a 32-yard skirt while others are in Eman Zaki either, so set some parameters around style too.
Our school went a step further. The school would choose a fabric in a specific color from a local fabric store (e.g., "the holographic lycra in dark blue from Lincraft"), then the students were free to do whatever they liked with that material. They could either make their own costumes or have them made by the school's preferred dressmaker (she was ex-bellydancer who sewed as a hobby and charged very reasonable prices). Some students would get together for sewing bees.
Now that ready-made costumes are available online at more reasonable prices, that option may not be as attractive as it once was. However, it does produce some great-looking results.
Same Bedleh, Different Costumes
If everyone has one striking element in common, the rest of the costume can differ. In belly dance, the easiest way to achieve that is with a bra and belt (or a bra and hip scarf) in a neutral colour. By "neutral", I mean white, black, gold or silver.
I have a bra and belt white sequins with gold trim, which I usually wore with a purple skirt, purple chiffon arm covers and a purple/blue veil. But it worked just as well with my pink skirt and veil, or any other color for that matter.
You can pull the outfit together even better if you're willing to change the shoulder straps to match the costume. Make the straps broad and gathered rather than shoestring so the colour stands out. If you find straps difficult to make, a halter neck strap is child's play to make and can even be pinned, not sewn, on to the cups.
Solution #2: One Design, Modest Coverage
Luckily, belly dance fashion has changed in favour of more modest costumes. The belly dance dress is now popular. A well-designed dress gives the impression that it's revealing because of its cutouts, while not actually revealing very much. Unlike a bra and skirt, which dig in and highlight fat rolls, a dress skims smoothly over the whole body.
A dress is not a budget solution. However, it's worth asking your students how they feel. You may find they're excited about owning a "real belly dance outfit" and they are willing to invest in one good dress.
The negative of a dress is that you can't do much, if anything, to change the look from one performance to the next.
Wrap Top and Skirt
The wrap top and flowing skirt are the go-to costume for many schools. You'll find plenty of options on eBay or Ali Baba (just check sizing, as they often don't cater for plus sizes). My personal favorite is a lace version from Bellydance.com (below). Black may seem like too plain an option, but I've seen it look stunning on a student troupe where each student wore a different brightly-colored hip scarf and matching veil. It's quite easy to add some sequin trim to the top, too. The lace adds an extra "oomph" and reduces the Indian/gypsy flavour these outfits usually have.
The other advantage of this combo is that sizing is fairly relaxed—a wrap top can fit across a range of sizes depending on how tightly it's tied, and the elastic in the skirt's waist can be adjusted too. So if you are considering buying a wardrobe of costumes and hiring them out to students as needed, they are an excellent, flexible choice.
Finally, consider your students' financial situation. It's one thing for a professional belly dancer to spend hundreds of dollars on a costume because she will wear it several times. How often will your troupe perform? Will you be happy for them to appear in the same thing at every single performance for the next few years to justify the cost?
Don't be afraid to ask your class how they feel before making a decision. It's probably best to do this by email, so each student can reply privately rather than feeling peer pressure to conform.
Who Should Own the Costumes?
In this article, I've assumed that each student will buy their own costume because that's the most usual process these days.
However, in some belly dance schools, the school director makes or purchases a supply of costumes in a variety of sizes, and hires them to troupe members for shows. This can be a good approach if you want to maintain continuity in your school's "look".
If you choose this option, consider:
- how you will store quantities of costumes,
- how much you will charge,
- whether you'll require a deposit,
- who will clean the costumes after use—you or the student, and
- whether you will charge for damage.
In many troupes, members buy their costumes from the pool when they arrive, and they are allowed to keep it if they leave (or sell it back if it's still in good condition. This is better for cash flow. But consider—if you've chosen to costume the whole troupe in identical outfits, will you be able to source another exactly matching costume if you get a new troupe member?
© 2020 Marisa Wright