Poor, Little Woman’s Guide to Belly Dance Costumes

Photo by Brett_Hondow on Pixabay. Pink princes piggy bank.

While the greatest hurdle for a new belly dancer to overcome as she transitions from lessons to her first stage performance is confidence, the second-greatest hurdle might actually be the most frustrating: finding an affordable costume that fits right. Belly dance costumes aren’t exactly mass-produced in the same way standard clothing is, so a vast majority of the time, you’re stuck browsing online through limited—and often quite expensive—options. And if you decide customization is the only way to get what you want, you’ll typically be shelling out a MINIMUM of $400.

I have yet to reach a place in life where I can spend that kind of money, so when I started belly dancing five years ago, I had to get quite creative. Sorted piece by piece, here is a poor, little woman’s guide to belly dance costumes: the tricks I learned in order to come up with belly dance costumery that helped me fit in with other dancers onstage.

Tops

I have never been comfortable with dancing in a belly dance bra top. Even though it’s the most traditional thing a belly dancer can wear, I could never get over the paranoia of my boobs popping out from a bra that failed to secure them into their proper place. Heck, I even feel panicked when another dancer in a bra top goes to bend over. Just—nope—I refuse to wear a bra top until I can get one custom-made…with extra coverage…

Since that hasn’t been an option for me, I went the unique route of wearing crop tops. Luckily, crop tops turned out to be quite cheap, and, with a bra on underneath, they offered adequate coverage of my chest (from above the nipple line to just beneath the bust). I likely would not perform professionally or at a competition wearing a crop top, but for local events and just dancing for fun, they have served me well. Additionally, I have received numerous compliments for my tops, from audience members and dancers alike.

One of my first crop tops came from Forever 21 as a gift from my mom. It likely did not cost more than $25.

My photo. Red lace crop top. Rak the Brazos! Nov. 2014

My photo. Red lace crop top. Rak the Brazos! Nov. 2014

My favorite place to shop for crop tops was Body Central, where they usually cost $15-20. The business itself is no longer open, but multiple secondhand stores still sell their brand.

Photo by Tom Adams. Black and red rose crop top. TAMU Belly Dance Spring Hafla, Apr. 2018

Photo by Tom Adams. Black and red rose crop top. TAMU Belly Dance Spring Hafla, Apr. 2018

Lastly, eBay proved to be another great resource for crop top shopping; I found tops there from $5-10! Summertime is the best season to find them, but you can still find them year-round.

Photo by Tom Adams. Black velvet turtleneck crop top. Rak the Brazos! Nov. 2017

Photo by Tom Adams. Black velvet turtleneck crop top. Rak the Brazos! Nov. 2017

Hips

Although hip-wear isn’t always required, I preferred to include it in most of my costumes. At first, I started out with basic hip scarves/coin belts, which you can find on just about any belly dance costume website for about $10 (see Full Costumes section below for links).

Also, when in a pinch, a regular scarf will do as long as it is long enough to tie around your hips. Then you can either “diaper” it (the “technical” term for tucking a scarf or veil into the sides of your skirt) or tie it (after either folding it lengthwise or into a triangle). Target seems to be the most promising place to find large enough scarves, where you can get them for around $15.

Photo by Tom Adams. “Diaper-ed” scarf. TAMU Belly Dance Spring Hafla, Apr. 2018.

Photo by Tom Adams. “Diaper-ed” scarf. TAMU Belly Dance Spring Hafla, Apr. 2018.

Photo by Tom Adams. Folded scarf. Rev’s Belly Dance Night, Sept. 2018.

The last type of hip accessory I’ve used is an imposter—and a very effective one. Somehow I came across a kid-size shawl in some of my or my mom’s old stuff, and it was just long enough to tie around my hips. The thing was beautiful, all embroidered and bordered with fringe. Although I don’t know the price of that exact one, I browsed on eBay and found that kids’ triangular shawls can be found right around $5 each.

BlueFloralKidShawl_DTTS3.2015

Photo by Michelle Ochoa. Blue floral kids’ shawl. Dancing Through The Sahara, Mar. 2015.

Bottoms

For some bizarre reason I can’t figure out, shopping for pants (or tribal pants, at least) that fit my short-legged, curvy figure is easy (see Full Costumes section below for links), but skirts prove to be a whole ‘nother story.

First of all, you can’t simply buy a maxi skirt in a store that will work for belly dance. Most maxi skirts you’ll find in department stores are made of two panels stitched together at the sides, a design that is restrictive to movement beyond casual walking. Belly dancers typically need full-length circle skirts which are, as the name implies, created from a giant circle of fabric to allow for a great range of leg motion, including the splits.

Second, if you’re short like me, most circle belly dance skirts online won’t fit you. This is because most companies who produce cookie-cutter costumes create skirts with a minimum length of 36”. The longest skirt I can wear as a 5’3” person is 34”.

Some dancers have told me that they will buy the oversized skirts anyway and roll up the waistband several times over, but I can’t stand things that don’t fit right as they are. This leaves me with having to shop online through normal skirts, which leads me to the third problem: most normal skirts are designed to fit at the waist, not at the hips like a belly dancing skirt.

So what on earth are we tiny dancers supposed to do??? Fear not; if you use the following shopping parameters on eBay, you can actually find a decently-priced ($20 or less) skirt you can dance in:

Skirt Shopping Parameters

Bottoms Size: Your Size +3. For example, if you are normally a size S, go up 3 sizes to XL to find a skirt that will sit on your hips. If you’re normally M, go to 2XL, and so on. If you worry this won’t work, go to a store just to try on oversized skirts to test which size fits the best for your hips.

Length: Check “below knee” and “mid-calf”. You’re shopping larger sizes to wear lower, so the skirt length will be longer. But also keep in mind that some eBay sellers will be lazy and just list their skirt as “long”, so you can check that box, too. Regardless of what you check, ALWAYS check the description for an actual measurement of the skirt’s length.

Style: Check “A-line”, “Circle & Skater”, “Flare”, “Trumpet & Mermaid”, and/or “Wrap & Sarong” for best results. These styles of skirts flare out either at the hips or legs, which will prevent unsightly stretching of the fabric during performances.

Here are pictures of two skirts I’ve bought using those search parameters:

My photo. Black gypsy skirt.

My photo. Black gypsy skirt.

My photo. Black velvet skirt.

My photo. Black velvet skirt.

Full Costumes

Believe it or not, reasonably-priced, good-looking belly dance costumes do exist! From experience, I’ve found that costumes on the following websites do run about one size smaller than standard US sizes, so if you’re an M, buy an L, etc. Also be sure to have caution (as I advised before) if you’re shopping for anything with a skirt; these are the kinds of websites whose full-length skirts tend to be a minimum of 36” long. Dress Lily This website doesn’t always sell belly dance costumes, but they’re worth searching every once in a blue moon. I found a lovely red costume here for only $30.
DressLilyRedCostume_FF7.2017

Photo by Tom Adams. DressLily red costume. First Friday, July 2017.

Light In The Box

You do have to search “belly dance costume” on this website, but they have so many options available (including individual pieces like skirts, tribal pants, and hip scarves). I’ve purchased two beautiful, lacey costumes there, one of which had tribal pants which fit great, and the other which had a skirt that luckily wasn’t too long for me! Most of the costumes on this site are between $10 and $30.

Photo by John Trevino. LightInTheBox black lace tribal costume. Rev’s Halloween Belly Dance Night, Oct. 2017.

Photo by John Trevino. LightInTheBox black lace tribal costume. Rev’s Halloween Belly Dance Night, Oct. 2017.

Photo by Ka’ili. LightInTheBox blue lace costume. First Friday, June 2017.

Photo by Ka’ili. LightInTheBox blue lace costume. First Friday, June 2017.

BellyDance.com

Surprisingly, I have not bought anything from this website…yet. But with so many options for $30-$50, I will eventually! Since this website is solely dedicated to belly dance wear, it’s much more organized than the previous two sites and offers dang-near everything you could ever need including bindis, props, music, and more.

Coverups

Last but not least, every belly dancer could use a coverup! For those of you who don’t know, coverups are oversized, draping “dresses” that belly dancers wear over their costumes when they’re not performing. Most dancers think of it as a formality or as a sign of being respectful to other performers, so you could think of it as our version of a business suit. It separates our “business” self from our “performing” self.

So where do we get said coverups for cheap? Ross. That’s right, the best place to get cheap (but beautiful) coverups is Ross in the dress section for a mere $10.

My photo. Blue paisley coverup, One-Size.

My photo. Blue paisley coverup, One-Size.

Well, that's everything; thanks for reading!

This has been a poor, little woman’s guide to belly dance costume shopping! What have been your best costume finds? Share with us on social media or in the comment section below!

Still not quite sure what you’re looking for? Click here to read more about the pieces that make up a belly dance costume!

Want to know more about your costume options? Click here to learn about all the ways to obtain costumes, from making them to buying them!

Starting a Dance Troupe

So, you and your friend are sitting in your room on a Saturday night dancing to music and looking up youtube videos like this one (Who doesn’t love Shakira?) and thinking, “We should start a dance troupe!” Have you ever had that thought? Have you ever wondered what you actually need to start dancing on a real stage? The answer to what all it takes may surprise you.

Here is everything you need to start a dance troupe:

People:

The first thing you need is actual dancers! This is typically the easiest to get since you probably know at least a few people who like to dance. When asking people to join your troupe, especially friends always consider group dynamics. If you’re going to have any type of leadership structure in your troupe, you will want to organize that ASAP. Establishing those roles, expectations, and responsibilities sooner rather than later can cut down on a lot of potential drama. The last thing you need is for your troupe to fall apart over an argument about a guy. (I’ve seen it happen, trust me, it’s ugly)

If you want to attract dancers that you may not personally know then that can be easy as well. In this wonderful world we live in social media makes it easier than ever to find others with similar interests. Post on Facebook, stalk Instagram accounts of local dancers in your area, or post flyers around your college. If you are in high school or college look into your schools already existing organizations. They may already have a belly dancing group established. If not you can look into starting one.

I know when I looked into starting a belly-dancing organization at Texas A&M it was surprisingly easy. They had me sign up for a class online, which gave me all the information I needed. They were also kind enough to offer to to connect me with an adviser to assist with any technical details. See if your school offers a similar service. You can also post a flyer offering auditions at local bars and coffee shops. Or anywhere else you think you may be able to find fellow dancers.


Practice Space:

Dace space is important, but a practice space does not necessarily need to be a dance studio. However, if you have access to one that would be the most ideal. For those of us who don’t live in mansions with a free dance studios in our basements, here’s some alternatives.

The best teacher I ever had taught out of our friend’s garage. She cleaned the garage, hung a few mirrors on the wall, used some curtains to hide the power-tools, and voila! Instant dance studio. The key to turning a garage (or any room) into a dance studio is the mirrors. Mirrors can be found at most large locations like Target or Walmart for only $20

It can be incredibly beneficial to see what you are doing as you practice. You also need space. If you are going to perform on any stage, even a small one, it will typically be at least as large as a standard room if not many times larger. That is why it is important to not practice in your bedroom where you are having to dance around a bed, but rather in a living room with your couch moved out of the way, or even in your backyard (or a friend’s backyard) with some free space that isn’t taken up by a pool (Falling into the pool is generally not recommended).

If you do not have access to any of those spaces, I know of one last option for you. Most gyms will have some sort of dance room or racquet ball court. One with a dedicated dance room that would be ideal, since they should already have mirrors on the wall. Check their class schedule, and see if you can use the room when there are no classes in there. If you cannot find a dance room, try looking for a racquet ball court. These tend to be a bit more spacious, however they do not have mirrors. You can bring some mirrors from home and lean them against the walls.

Just be aware if you do this option your rehearsals may not always be private, and you may get some onlookers or run into issues with the gym staff. Always be polite and respectful and ask before you bring in large pieces of equipment like a stereo or mirror into a gym. The last thing you want is to get kicked out of the middle of your practice by an angry staff member. In my experience though, especially if it is a small group, most gyms don’t mind you using their room as long as you are a member of the gym and don’t mind the lack of privacy.

You can also consider looking at martial arts studios as they typically also have an open space with mirrors on the wall. My troupe was able to work out a deal with a local martial arts studio where we were able to rent the space for only the cost of the lights as long as the owner’s wife could join our troupe. This was a great way to get another excited dancer AND a practice space all in one! This was a no-brainer decision, and she quickly became one of the best dancers in our troupe.

If none of these options are available to you, that is when you may have to look into paying for spaces. If you know where you want to perform, then you can potentially make a deal with the venue to let you practice there, in agreement for bringing in a large crowd on performance day. You can also ask about coming in during non-traditional hours and seeing if they may give you a discount for that. Most venues do not open until later in the day. So if you are your group are willing to come in early especially during the weekday than you may be able to get a better price on using the space. It never hurts to ask for a discount!


Music:

Besides the actual music, you also need a way to play that music. That is where most of the problems come in. While most professional venues will have a sound system, a lot of the smaller or outdoor venues that you may be starting out at will not. You may also want to consider a sound system if your practice space does not have one built in. Your phone will not and should not be able to provide the necessary sound for the large practice space you will need. (Can you imagine accidentally turning up your phone volume loud enough to be heard over an entire large outdoor venue? Ouch!) If your practice space is small enough that you can hear the music through your phone speakers, you need a larger space to practice.

What my troupe did was each chipped in a little bit towards the sound system. Our group collected tips at each performance, and we agreed as a group to not take home our tips, but instead save them to buy the sound system that we wanted. This worked fairly well for us.


Choreography:

Youtube is an excellent resource for choreography. There are countless videos ranging from the most basic how-to tutorial, to incredibly professional and beautiful performances. This can be a great (and free) starting place to begin learning choreography. You can also consider asking some of the local dancers in your area. When I wanted to connect with other dancers I found Victoria Teel. I was lucky enough to work with her when we were both still in college. She later went on to perform on BellyDance SuperStars. Now she teaches belly dance classes online, and sells the fans she uses for her Teel Fan Method. Taking classes with her, or any other professional bellydancer, is a great way to get choreography. The major drawback being that it won’t be free.

Don’t underestimate your own creativity though, you can do so much just by taking the time to practice. I would spend an hour or two before all of my training sessions with Victoria practicing by myself, and if I thought of a great move I wanted to remember I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget it. There were so many times when I would just be playing around and think of some great choreography, but forget to write it down or record it. Your phones video camera can be your best friend when practicing choreography! Don’t underestimate the value of writing down and recording choreo like I did! Trust me my performances got so much better when I started watching my recordings and taking notes. I would suggest you do the same.

You do not need a fancy camera to record choreography, but having a tripod might not be a bad idea. There were many times when our troupe would have to find an innocent bystander to take a video of our practice because we didn’t have a way to prop up a phone properly. Asking a friend works, but man there were times when having a tripod would have really helped us. You can get them for cheap on amazon


Costumes:

We have talked a whole bunch about bellydancing costumes in our previous article “From Bedleh to Baladi”. For learning about all the differences between the different types of costumes definitely check that article out. We also have an article talking about the differences between making and buying a bellydancing costumeSo check out these articles to learn more about costumes.

Tip1

A name and brand for your troupe:

Coming up with names can be the most fun part of starting a dance troupe. There is a reason why people pick out baby names before they are even close to becoming parents. So it is very possible that you have names in mind already.

Your name doesn’t have to be perfect right off the bat though! Names, logos, and styles can all change. But what is most important however, is your brand. If you want to be known as the family friendly middle eastern dancers, rather than the sexy and sensual belly-dancers, that’s important to establish early on when forming your troupe. This will define your brand. Having a dancer who has a more sensual style can be a great thing! If that is what your
troupe wants. However, if they do not want seduction and instead want to be branded as more family friendly than there are now different brands within a troupe, making you look disjointed, and may cause some venues to not want to work with you.

This is not to say that any one brand or style of dance is better than the other. The exact opposite can be said about a troupe wanting to be more seductive, and a dancer in that troupe wanting to be more family- friendly. There should be no discrimination within a dance troupe. I am only offering experience from the perspective of someone who started a troupe in a relatively small town in south Texas, where everything is bigger in Texas including the differences in responses we would get from others about our troupe. We would have performance venues think we were strippers, and were not only okay with the idea but wanted it. (Needless to say- we didn’t work with those places). While other venues would only accept us if we were wearing certain, more conservative outfits.

What we did is have one group of dancers that was more engaged with our performances at bars and music events, and another group of dancers more engaged with our family friendly events. We were all part of the same troupe, we just branded ourselves differently for different events based on the nature of the crowd, venue, and performance. Being aware that venues may ask you about branding, and being prepared for an answer is important. If you are in a large city the style may not be as important as it was in Texas, but differentiating yourself from other troupes they might already know will be.

I would recommend picking one person from your troupe who will be the coordinator for your performances. This person (or people) will be responsible for representing your group. So pick somebody with appropriate social skills, who can ask the questions necessary to find out what type of branding is necessary and what the expectations of the venue are. Having that go to person is part of your brand, they are identified as one of you. So it can be completely appropriate to have one go to person for the bars and music event venues, and another for the community-oriented family-friendly events.

This is what we did and it worked well in part because it took the burden of being the single contact person off of one individual. However, once a venue has made a connection with a member of your troupe, I would not recommend changing this person often. As once venues gets to know a group, if they constantly are interacting with different people within the group they can get confused. They will want one person who is their go to person, so they know who to call.


Places to perform:

Whew! What a lot of work so far! But now that we’ve made it this far we’re finally ready to start talking about WHERE you’re going to perform! Finding venues is a simple matter of networking. Find local bars in your area that have local musicians come and perform. Look for community events, horse races, talent shows, campus-wide student activity events, or anything that you can think of really. The chances to perform are practically endless!

Once you have identified a list of potential places to perform. Spend some time preparing before you pitch to them. Know what dates you can perform on, how long you can perform, what your set list will be, if you will be open to recurring events or not, if you will be asking for tips or not, etc. These will be standard questions asked when starting to work with a performance venue. Just know that not every place that you may want to perform at will be a good fit for you. Be prepared to talk to 5 places, and even if 4 say no and one says yes, this means that you have your first performance venue for your very first dance performance as a troupe!


Drive and Passion:

There can be many logistical issues with starting a dance troupe, but if you have the energy, drive, and passion, there is no reason you can’t start your very own dance troupe. Even if you have 100 hurdles between you starting your troupe, and fail 99 times, just remember what Thomas Edison said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Combine his resilience and the “Just keep swimming” attitude of Dory and you’ll have the winning combination of characteristics necessary to start a dance troupe.

Protein Pirouettes: Part 1

Ezetimibe

How to Dance Like a Protein: Part 1

Ezetimibe
Pirouettes performed by the target protein of the drug ezetimibe, a medication used to lower cholesterol (a).

Proteins—the practically invisible, molecular dancers that serve as the faithful building blocks of me and you. Yes, it is true that even dancers are made of dancers, and proteins perform some of the most amazing dancing of all by way of folding. Protein folding is actually a lot like belly dancing, with all of its vibrations and shimmying.

Now, I am not—by any leap of the imagination—a dancer, but I do happen to know a lot about nature’s smallest dancers of all. Perhaps you can find some inspiration in learning about our nanoscopic friends, and learn about the science of protein folding along the way!

Butterfly Protein
The humble butterfly protein. Or two chicken legs pressed together? Choose your own adventure (b).

A reason to dance. What, you think that the protein above woke up looking that beautiful? To understand how and why a protein folds, it’s important to remind ourselves of how they come to exist in the first place—the central dogma of molecular biology. DNA is transcribed into mRNA, and mRNA is translated in proteins. That probably sounds like an awful lot of alphabet soup, but let’s simplify things with an analogy: your cell is a small company called Cell Incorporated®. Every company needs a CEO to boss everybody around, and that’s “DNA” (deoxyribonucleic acid), whose office is located in the center (nucleus) of Cell Inc.®. However, even a visionary leader is powerless if they cannot communicate that vision, so they employ messengers called “mRNA” (messenger ribonucleic acid). Now, the company needs to produce something to make a profit, and that product is called “proteins.” Ergo, the central dogma of molecular biology: DNA -> mRNA -> proteins.

To make their product, Cell Inc.® needs raw materials—these are chemicals called amino acids, the steel from which proteins are made. As a protein is being constructed (or translated from the “language” of nucleic acids to amino acids), it is formed piece by piece in a long chain. Imagine that every component that makes up a cell phone was attached to one another by a tiny string; if you laid out that string, it would look nothing like a cell phone (let alone work like one), and the same is true for proteins. Unfortunately for them, cells don’t have the benefit of assembly lines and blue collar workers; therefore, the product must put itself together.

Understand the immense difficulty of this task for a moment: Cell Inc.® needs to make a product out of steel blocks connected by string that, due to the unique properties of each block, will self-assemble into something useful, something beautiful (cell phones are beautiful, okay?).

Wow.

Fortunately for them, however, cells possess the most powerful allies in the entire universe: the laws of physics (c). And it is these laws that govern what is possible, what is probable, and what isn’t. Using physics, Cell Inc.® came up with a solution to make its products self-assemble—to make the pieces of the protein fold nicely together: they dance.

Dancing with purpose. There, I said it: protein folding is dancing. Proteins jiggle, wiggle, twist, and turn, always moving, vibrating, and colliding with themselves and anything else around. Although the motions may be random, the dance itself is done with an immense sense of purpose, guided by the very nature of the protein itself. From chaos and entropy, proteins allow their amino acid bodies to guide their movements towards the native structure, the final, functional form of proteins that we’re familiar with (see the image above). From the very moment that a protein is born, it begins to fold—dancing, you might say, is an integral part of the nature of what it means to be a protein.

There’s an important life lesson to be learned from the humble protein, here. We should allow our natural talents and capabilities to guide our decisions, rather than force upon ourselves choices that deviate from the desires of our hearts. In the early moments of a protein’s birth, it seems impossible to foresee anything of worth or interest arising from a tangled mess of amino acids slapped together, moving erratically in the dark loneliness of a cell. However, perhaps if we live our lives like a protein—following our hearts, listening to our bodies, and maybe even a little dancing—we can find fulfillment, and become the best, most beautiful version of ourselves that we can be.

You do you, aquaporin. You do you (d).

To learn more about proteins, check out my second article here. I’ll be exploring protein folding in greater detail, and discuss how even one false move on the dance floor can transform an otherwise contributing member of cellular society into a murderer.

—Cooper

TL;DR:

  • Proteins are made up of amino acids
  • Central dogma of molecular biology: DNA -> mRNA -> proteins
  • During and after translation, proteins must fold to become functional
  • Protein folding happens as a consequence of the protein’s inherent chemical structure

Notes

(a) Adapted, surface structure of human NPC1L1 (3QNT) visualized in NGL. (1-2)

(b) Adapted, surface structure of human DNA topoisomerase IIa ATPase/ADP (1ZXN) visualized in NGL. (1-2)

(c) This is ultimately where biochemistry comes from; biochemistry is the study of biological chemicals, chemistry is the study of chemicals and how they interact, and those interactions are governed by the law of physics. Biochemistry is basically biological chemical physics. The laws of physics, as they apply to biological chemicals (biochemistry), govern the movements and interactions of proteins (which are also biological chemicals, albeit bigger ones)—just as they govern the movements and interactions of us.

(d) Adapted, surface structure of bioassembled human aquaporin (4CSK) visualized in NGL. (1-2)

References

(1) AS Rose, AR Bradley, Y Valasatava, JM Duarte, A Prlić and PW Rose. Web-based molecular graphics for large complexes. ACM Proceedings of the 21st International Conference on Web3D Technology (Web3D ’16): 185-186, 2016. doi:10.1145/2945292.2945324.

(2) AS Rose and PW Hildebrand. NGL Viewer: a web application for molecular visualization. Nucl Acids Res (1 July 2015) 43 (W1): W576-W579 first published online April 29, 2015. doi:10.1093/nar/gkv402.

Part 2 coming soon!