What all is in a belly dance costume anyway?
My first belly dance performance, October 2013
When most people think of belly dance, they picture a woman in a bedazzled bra and skirt. While this image of costumery is correct, it is not the only acceptable attire for the genre. Dancers can wear pants, dresses, vests, and more with a wide variety of accessories. Fortunately, one only needs at most three items to meet the criteria of an appropriate belly dance costume.
Here are the bare bones of belly dance costumery:
A belly dance costume can really be as simple as one piece??? Yup! In fact, dancing in a full dress has been a thing since the dawn of belly dance time, for both men AND women.
Women will most typically wear a form-fitting Assuit dress (I’ve also heard dancers use the term “Baladi dress”) which is ankle-length and has long sleeves and a low-cut front. Also, dresses are typically used for older, more traditional styles of belly dance such as Saidi(1) and Baladi(2), but I have seen a dancer wear a dress in a Modern Fusion piece(3).
Although I am uncertain as to whether public chest exposure was acceptable in belly dance’s early years, I do know that today’s men (in the United States, at least) can get away with leaving their chests bare, meaning that belly dance costumery for men can be as simple as an ankle-length skirt, harem pants, or tribal pants.
Going back to costumes that are typically only appropriate for old-fashioned belly dance styles, males AND females can both wear a galabeya, a loose-fitting, ankle-length, long-sleeved “dress” that is typically made of cotton and dyed in pale colors(1).
Once a belly dance costume graduates to being two or more pieces, all you’re looking for are a piece to cover the upper torso (from above the nipple line to just below the bust) and a piece to cover the crotch and legs. Most commonly for women, you will see a bra and skirt, as this was the first traditional two-piece style, born as a part of the Raqs Sharqi style(4).
Oh my heavens, do you have a million options for tops! The most traditional are bras and choli tops for women and Turkish vests for men. Other options include butterfly tops, tube tops, and crop tops.
Please note that, when I say “bras”, I do not mean women can just go onstage wearing their underwear; bra tops for belly dance distinguish themselves by offering much more secure straps as well as having the breast cups stitched closer together to really squeeze the girls into place. Bra tops are also usually quite bedazzled in such a way that wearing them beneath a shirt would look ridiculous.
Also note that, since tube tops and crop tops are designed for modern wear, one will likely need extra coverage beneath those garments if using them for dance costumery.
All of the items that men can wear as one-piece costumes can serve as a woman’s second costume piece, so ankle-length skirts, harem pants, and tribal pants are acceptable.
When it comes to skirts, make sure to select one that allows for a lot of leg movement. Skirts can cling to the hips (like mermaid skirts) so long as you can take long steps without getting hung up on yourself.
About the pants styles, I’ll quickly detail their differences here. Harem pants are typically a bell shape, fitting very loosely on the legs, whereas tribal pants cling to the thighs and flare out at the lower leg. It is common for either style of pants to have long slits in the outside of the legs.
The only thing that differentiates a three-piece from a two-piece costume is an extra garment on the hips. That garment can be a bedleh belt, a hip scarf/coin belt, or just a regular old scarf.
Bedlehs are matching bra-and-belt combos and are considered very traditional in belly dance. The belt part of a bedleh is wide and fits around the hips, covering the top part of your skirt or pants. Hip scarves, also known as coin belts, are wide strips of fabric (sometimes triangle-shaped) with several rows of coins or palettes, and these, too, are very traditional.
Using just a regular scarf tied around the hips is actually more traditional, even, than the two aforementioned options, but because it is associated with Saidi and Baladi styles of belly dance(1,2), you don’t see that particular accessory very much in modern belly dance.
In Conclusion: You should have what it takes to belly dance.
As a poor millennial who has been belly dancing for five years, I can assure you that, no matter where you are in life, you can afford a belly dance costume. After all, you don’t need more than three pieces to make one!
For more specifics on how to get stage-ready, Catlina and I wrote another article about the differences between making vs buying a bellydance costume. We talk about several ways to get bellydance costumes affordably without sacrificing quality!
Then, when you’re ready to upgrade the costume you have, follow our guides on jewelry and props (coming soon)!