Crafting a Set 4: my Costume Selection Process

Ana at Gothla 2019's Main Show, wearing a dark shiny costume over a dark background, holding a white fan
Talking of unfortunate costume choices…

I have talked about how I approach a gig, select my music, create my dance, consider my moves. Hopefully by now you have an idea of what parts of my process resonate with you -or not-, and how you’d tackle your own if you were following my steps.

With all of the above in mind, we can move onto costuming considerations.

First of all, take a look at all the previous steps, and see how they limit your options. For me, it is pretty much a process of elimination. Music style will give me the general ballpark for the costume, location and weather will add the first major restrictions, and I’ll aim for cohension. If possible, I try to avoid sending what I call “mixed messages”: extreme examples would be doing a cane dance to an R&B track wearing a galabaya, or having a very electronic track and wearing an old school ethnic costume. Sometimes I can’t help it, as there’s little or no changing time, or no changing facilities, sometimes there might be a reason behind those choices, but for the most part I try to focus on creating a performance where everything works in unison.

What follows is a weeding out process, where I pluck away the options that I have available, until I reach a handful of clothing items or ideas that would work. And this process of elimination follows the same path as the set creation. You could view it like a Choose Your Own Adventure type of decision tree.

I start with the style I’m dancing. If I’m doing ATS®, I will start with the basic ATS® costume and variations: 25 yard skirt, loons or Bessie, choli or choli dress, belt, maybe a bra, maybe a hip scarf or sash. Fusion? belt and bra, either a fishtail skirt, wide leg trousers or nice loons, and a hip scarf or sash. Maybe a shrug if I want to cover my arms, or a foiled or decorated choli if I feel the piece can do with a bit of toning down.

So I pick the first tier, and proceed from there. Next comes the music style and what it suggests. For example: at the end of 2019 I performed a few times an ATS® inspired solo, to a Bollywood track. I went with an ATS® costume, but with shisha mirrors, sari trims, and a block print skirt to reflect the music’s origin. I am now preparing for another piece using old school music inspired by Middle Eastern folklore. I’m bringing out the assuit/tel-kirma, and all the Old School stylisation, and I’d do the same for anything with a heavy Turkish influence, maybe add an Entari or Ghawazee style coat; these choices are a pull back to the Old School Tribal costuming that started it all. Flamenco inspiration? Perfect time for a Bessie skirt or similar, with the higher waist line and an elongated, simpler figure; maybe add a Spanish shawl at the hips; these are not that different from what a lot of contemporary Flamenco dancers wear. What about 20’s and 30’s jazz? Art Deco and Egyptian Revival, both art movements popular at those times and represented in the costume by long clean lines with ethnic touches and more assuit for that vintage feel! Modern music? If using cholis, time for a modern print or foiled fabric, and costume choices in line with contemporary dancing and fashion, and maybe keeping touches of the more traditional bedlah costume. The possibilities are vast, but I always try to keep a cohesive vision, and use the music’s point of origin, time and feel to inform my choice of costume.

Then follows the dancing itself. If I was doing floorwork, a tulip skirt would restrict leg movement, so it would be out, and I’d probably go with pantaloons or wide leg trousers. If I’m dancing with a Silk Flutter or Spanish Fan, I keep the heavy metal bras in the trunk, because the amulets can catch on the fan’s silk or lace. I’d also keep away from any big sleeves or heavy wrist jewellery as they would interfere with the fan’s floreos. Sword? Maybe skip wide netting shawls or anything that can catch the hand guards or point. Lots of intricate abdominal and torso moves? avoid big drapes around the area that will obscure the movements, like big cowl necks reaching to your waist. Am I dancing in a mixed gender group? Maybe some form of trousers instead of skirts will be better for visual unity. I follow a similar process when choosing my accessories.

At this point, I should have a rough idea of what I’d like to wear, but there are still too many options. So next comes the location. If dancing outdoors, I’ll probably look at my options for more coverage in case it’s colder, like a Ghawazee coat or a shrug. This is also a reason to look at possible footwear. If dancing at a theatre, one of my first questions is always “what is the background”, as I will need something that contrasts. If the stage is black, I will leave my goth card at home and go for intense colours. I didn’t follow this rule for Gothla 2019, thinking that the fabric pattern and holo foil in my costume when combined with the lighting would be enough to lift me from the background. It was *just* (not quite, really), and you can see the results in the photo above. If it’s a Hafla with dancing afterwards, I might prefer to go for lighter fabrics and a less formal costume so I can keep dancing afterwards.

Finally, I can match what my *ideal* costume would be, with what I have in my wardrobe. From there, I can see whether I’d need to make anything to finish my vision. There are plenty of possibilities that will match costume to the rest of the performance, without falling into a formulaic or boring look. But remember, no amount of good costuming will make up for lack of practice in the studio. So choose where you spend your efforts wisely, and allow for at least one dress rehearsal so you can see whether everything is behaving the way it should, skirts or pants are not too long, and costume pieces will not malfunction.

And that is it. It might sound like a *lot* to keep in mind, and you would be tempted to think it doesn’t matter. Non-dancing audience might not care too much, but adjusting your costume to the music and steps will help give a cohesive presentation, and you never know when you have someone in the audience who *does* know the difference. Never loose an opportunity to make a good impression by demonstrating you are knowledgeable and care about your art, even in the smallest details!

Do you have to follow all my suggestions? Of course not! I am not claiming this is the *right* way of doing things, nor the *only* way. I prefer to reason and justify my choices, because it helps me visualise the pieces as a whole. As I wrote at the beginning, I do come from a design background where analysis is the key. But whatever your process, I would urge you to make your choices at every point meaningful and deliberate. As Middle Eastern and Fusion dancers we are often accused of cultural appropriation, cultural insensitivity, and worse, and the way we present ourselves and our art can go a long way to overturn this. You only have one chance to make a good impression.

Or, to sum it up: tailor each set as a single coherent unit, to the best of your ability, and make yourself memorable for the right reasons.

What is your experience putting together sets? Do you love it? hate it? Leave a comment below, and don’t forget to subscribe and visit my YouTube channel!

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