Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Costume Does Not Make the Dancer

Part of the reason I started this blog is to force myself to open up to all of you in a way that pushes my comfort zone.

I have insecurities about my dance. We all do. One of mine is that I don't have enough costumes. Or, at least, I used to feel like I don't have enough costumes. I wear the same things over and over again, mostly because I don't have a lot of time to make new bras or belts. Inspiration to make new pieces doesn't hit me often, either. It's taken me a while to accept that my lack of new wearables shouldn't detract from my skill as a dancer or performer.

I used to feel pressured to make a new costume item for each big performance of which I was a part, particularly stage shows. I'd see other dancers in the area sporting new creations at each event: beautiful belts, creative costume bras, and other innovative designs. I look at the costuming I wear and realize that I haven't made a new costume bra in a year. I haven't made a new belt in at least 9 months. In the spare time that I have, I'd rather spend it working on my dancing or looking for new music.... let alone relaxing or taking care of daily chores.

Thankfully, there are seamstresses out there (such as Christina of Black Lotus and Tempest of MedDevi Ink) who make amazing and beautiful costuming so that I can buy much more of my costuming than I could several years ago. But this presents a dilemma... the more pretty things that are out there, the more we are tempted to spend money on them rather than our training. I remain frugal in my costume purchases in relation to my spending on training.

It's easy to get wrapped up in the excitement and glitter of wearing a beautiful costume. Many of us dancers are attracted to tribal and fusion dance forms because of their aesthetics, and a key element of those aesthetics is the costuming. Believe me, I want to look my best on stage, and that requires appropriate and professional costuming.

When we first start dancing, we're more likely to get caught up in the "dress-up" element of the dance. We want to wear that flashy hip scarf to class, regardless of how annoying the coins sound or feel under your feet when the threads break. We want to stock up on our stash of shiny things, like magpies building their nests. Believe me, I went through that phase when I first started dancing.

But then I heard this question: Do you spend more money on costuming than you do your training?

Whoa. Reality check!

I remember that being a turning point for me and my approach to this dance. Sure, we want to look good on stage when we perform (and by all means, we should!), but the only way we'll truly look good is if we dance well. The best dancer could go on stage in nothing more than a t-shirt and sweat pants and still blow the crowd away with her skill and projection. (Of course, I'm not suggesting that we all ditch our bedlahs, bras, belts, and hair falls to perform in our pajamas.) A mediocre dancer can wear the most elaborate couture costuming money can buy, but it won't hide her poor technique or stage presence.

So, consider this: the next time you are tempted to buy a hot new costuming item, think about the last time you splurged on a workshop that would improve your technique or projection? A costume is only material, but training will last you a lifetime.


Zee Wylder said...

I do not own a costume. I have hipscarves from my earlier days. Maybe three cholis I had picked up along the way. But my 'costumes' were mostly thrown together. My money really has gone into learning the dance. It's embarrassing that I don't have what I would call a 'real' costume to wear to perform. Which is one of the reasons that I don't perform. But I am saving up money so that I can get back to classes, so still no costume.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you totally. I live in Hong Kong and unfortunately belly dance isn't popular here. The dilemma is - when the audience cannot tell whether you are good at what you are doing, they tend to appreciate belly dance in the form of entertainment value hence - do you have a great body? do you have great customes? can you work the crowds? can you bring in $$ for the venue? These are all part of the equation and performers are drawn to provide alternatives.

Amy said...

I've been thinking lately of how to streamline my costuming while still getting a good look, i.e. I really do not like taking 2 hours to get ready, to dance for 5 minutes. So things are repeating a bit, but that's because I know that hairstyle A works, as does belt and skirt combo B, etc. I do need a new bra, because my coin one is heavy. And I need some non-basic -stretch-choli tops, because thought they are great for practice they are not the most flattering performance wear.

I actually feel, when costumed, that my dancing can be easier. I think in part it's because putting on the outfit helps me unconsciously get into the right posture, and how the costume elements are designed to emphasis what you've been training. Example: I've been working on the twisting hips in the ATS Egyptian, and dancing the other night with a full tassel belt I could feel that training making those tassels move. It all falls together when each element is working.

Anonymous said...

I admit, I push both in my company.

Training comes first. No doubt. And we spend a ridiculous amount of money going to workshops, we drill, we take class, we rehearse, we have a personal practice, we tear ourselves down and rebuild.


I've been a big believer in having a polished and cohesive aesthetic in my company from the beginning (we're a professional level company, so my comments are directed to this level). I figure it's kind of like a job interview. You can have the most amazing resume in the history of the world, but if you show up to your interview in jeans and a t-shirt, the company is likely to question your professionalism and may pass you over. I think bellydance on the professional level is the same way. So I do emphasize having a polished and pulled together "look" in my company, head to toe, makeup and hair included. It's helped us get our foot in the door in establishing ourselves as respectable professionals in our town, and to show to the general layman public that we are an honest to god artform and we care about our presentation.

That said, we do it strategically. We stick to the basics, add new stuff rarely, and do so strategically so we can mix and match and get new looks out of old pieces.

It's a quality more than quantity kind of thing. No amount of brand new specialty Melodia pants in your closet are going to save you if you're not getting your ass in the studio. :)

Amy said...

Natalie -

I totally agree with you. And I'd rather see a person/troupe that is costumed simply but well, and with quality items (I'm thinking of some of the simple outfits from "San Francisco Beledi"), than to see something just tossed together that looks totally random. And I'd rather see simple costumes and kick ass dancing over fancy outfits and no skills.

Admittedly, there is a learning curve too. I feel like lately I'm just starting to hit my stride with my make up/hair. We were talking the other day about how a good head band can be the costuming life saver - takes time off the styling and adds to your outfit.

Anonymous said...

i find costuming-- especially tribal costuming-- incredibly frustrating, because i've always been most comfortable in "simple" costuming. hair up, pants, top, hipbelt. done. in my student troupe, the "aunties" always wanted me to pile on more "stuff" so i'd match them- more hair, more jewelry, more stuff around my hips. i'm doing my first fusion piece, and i'm a wreck about costuming. i can't afford to buy all the pretties, and i don't really know if i want to, but i still want to look appropriate as a 'serious' dancer. i figure all dancers have to find their aesthetic, or groove, but lordy, do i not like the task! ...and i don't think i contributed at all to the conversation, but it's nice to know that i'm not the only one that stresses about this.

cindy said...

i found this blog recently. i love it! so many insightful posts and comments! costuming is my weakness...i am a seamstress and i love sewing costumes, so of course i have a lot. recently i noticed that one of my favorite dancers usually appeared in the same costume, and i realised the costume is nice, but the dance is always more important. so i will be putting more emphasis on the lessons from now on.

Amber said...

I've definitely been guilty of this as a newer dancer. Shiny things are fun! But I will say I've never picked costumes over lessons. I've made a few things, which is fun, but as I go, I've been picking practicing or reviewing over working on a project, which just feels like the right direction. I've got a long way to go :)

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. I'm currently going to a very well-respected teacher who is constantly telling us that we need to "express the feminine" by being "properly dressed" for class.

Unfortunately I can't help feeling cynical when, in the next breath, she tells us her boutique will be open after the class!

I do feel that it creates unnecessary pressure on students who, for all she knows, may be struggling to afford the classes let alone the costume.

Anonymous said...

Well Said!

One of my favorite performances was Suhaila at the Niger Benefit a couple of years ago in SF. She was wearing a t-shirt and yoga pants. She did a drum solo that brought down the house!