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!

Inspiration: FCBD Alumni at Reunion 2020

This is a wonderful clip featuring Kathy Stahlman, Wendy Allen, Sandi Ball, Jessie Loring and Colette Todorov. Lovely Old School ATS® with old school costuming.

Which was your favourite set from Reunion? Let me know below!

Crafting a Set 3: Dancing

Ana performing at Gothla 2019; dark costume, holding an open white fan
Intense…

In the last few posts I’ve written about how I put together a set, what I think about before I start, how I select my music. I mentioned that the next step was creating the dance, or at least the outline.

I will not write a lot about this part of my process because it will be very different for everybody, and will depend a lot on your style of dancing and how you connect with the music. ATS® may be improvisational, but that doesn’t mean it is haphazard! And it should be the same for any other style.

However, there are still things you can do, if you are working with a recorded track:

  • listen to the track, lots: figure out the structure, you can draw a line on a piece of paper to see where you feel the track ebbs or surges, where there is a particular piece where you feel there needs to be more emphasis, or even if there are repeated sections
  • map it somehow: can be by music phrasing, by “feel”, by vocals, by main instrument or by counts. We are supposed to be another instrument working in conjunction with the music, and we can’t do that if we’re not familiar with it. This will help stop you from something like starting a 32 count combo if you only have a 16 count phrase.
  • moves/combos: for ATS-ers, this can mean using Indian inspired combos if dancing a track with heavy Indian influence (see Bounce in the previous post), classic for old school like Helm, Hossam Ramzy or Upper Egyptian Ensemble. For other types of belly dancing, you can have a similar approach: golden age style for Om Kolthoum, etc. Reminding yourself of what you can do and practicing those is not cheating, nor it is “limiting your self expression”; it’s just giving yourself a framework
  • moves/combos 2: see if there are any parts of your music that you feel “calls” for a certain move, or a certain family or type of moves: percussive, continuous, or vibrating.
  • decide on improvisation or choreography: if you are doing an improvisational style, there is no debate; but otherwise, there is no shame in choreographing; one is not inherently superior than the other. You can also do a hybrid; have some set points choreographed, and improvise the rest.
  • intensity: if you drafted the dynamics of the track while listening, you can now decide how to represent them with your body and expressions. If you’re doing gestures, make sure you understand where these come from

Dancing is where most your efforts should go. You can compensate for a weak track or a dull costume with brilliant dancing, but it doesn’t work the other way around. Putting in the work dancing is where you’ll get beter, costuming is just the sprinkles on top. But ultimately, when you are creating your own dances, nobody can tell you what to do, and can only tell you whether it works or not after the fact.

Being prepared should not stiffle your artistic sensiblity, but overthinking might. Understanding the tracks and your reactions to it will ultimately allow you to flow in the moment.

Next time, I’ll write about my costume selection process.
What is your favourite way of creating a dance?

Crafting a Set 2: My Music Selection Process

Kanum player, public domain image courtesy of Wikipedia
An Arab Kanum performer *

Last time we talked about the general considerations for crafting a set for performance. This week I want to discuss my process for selecting music.

For me, it’s not as easy as picking up a song I like and boogieing to it. Different audiences have different expectations, and what I might enjoy dancing to might not be what gels better with them. We have far more leeway for indulging ourselves at an event for other dancers, but if we’ve been asked to dance at a restaurant, or and event for the general public, we need to think of the audience.

In my experience, general audiences will probably prefer music that is closer to pop and easier to listen to and assimilate. Drum solos are also popular. Leave the seven-minute slow mizmar pieces for a hafla or a show for other dancers, where they will be more appreciated. I enjoy dancing slow, and I do prefer starting slow so I can take those first few seconds to settle any possible stage nerves. But after a few flops, I also realised that the general public does not seem to “get” into slow, meditative movement as much as they do with more lively pieces. So I try to find music where there is a change of pace sprinkled along, adding interest, or that increases in speed or somehow intensity, so I can both have the slow moves I love and the excitement the general public enjoys.

This means I try to use music that has some level of complexity and dynamics, instead of a repetition of the same 32-count phrase in different instruments that has become so popular with Western musicians trying to imitate Middle Eastern music. I’ve noticed that people start zoning out and just loose interest very quickly when these pieces are played, so I try to avoid them.

Also, be wary of the lyrics, and if you do not speak the language, search online. Try to find a native speaker if you are not sure about the tone; double entendres might not be obvious on translation, and they happen often, particularly with Sha’abi, Reggaeton and Cumbia. If you are dancing to a piece in English, make sure the lyrics are appropriate to whatever event you are dancing at… I had been invited to a show, didn’t read the fine print, sent my music, and then as the show started and I listened to the intro talk about the fundraiser, I realised my choice was completely inappropriate due to the lyrics. It sunk like a lead balloon, of course. If you can’t find a translation, or even the general gist, you could try emailing the band. There’s no guarantee you’ll hear back, but I’ve done it a couple of times for Balkan bands singing in Rom dialects, and they were very helpful and appreciative that I was making sure I would not be offending my public or their culture by dancing to something inappropriate.

All fine and good, but what about specific pieces I enjoy? I will list some of them below, and you can find them in a handy YouTube list (link opens in a new tab/window, all tracks were uploaded by the respective music owners so the streaming supports the musicians!). They are just a few suggestions of tracks that are easy to find and relatively popular to get you started. This is not a comprehensive list, there’s a world of music out there for you to explore.

  • Farasha, by Helm: there are changes from slow to fast, but the song is fairly structured and easy to follow once you figure out the pattern
  • Derwood Green has to be my favourite Phil Thornton/Hossam Ramzy track; there are SO MANY textures overlaid in this piece!
  • Luxor Baladna, by Upper Egyptian Ensemble: contrary to popular belief, this piece wasn’t originally folkloric; it came from a movie, and was danced on screen by no other than Mahmoud Reda. It was also a rather pop piece. The Upper Egyptian Ensemble’s version is much more earthy, and goes better with the overall feel of the singing
  • Baburi by Yuval Ron: starts slow, picks up, goes slow again and increases intensity until the climax of the piece pretty much bursts through in the high notes of the flute. Brilliant track for a long-ish set that has it all
  • Bounce, by Solace: very hard hitting, upbeat track, never fails to make people clap and engage
  • Bulgarian Chicks by Balkan Beat Box: a fun track with a steady repeated pattern by some winds in the background, but varying gliding, melodic, and rhythm patterns over it, and a sultry horn solo in the middle that’s anything but boring!
  • God is God: totally different type of track, electronic but with a great Middle Eastern vibe in the vocals and a lot of texture and changes in the music despite the repetitive background; I’ve edited this track and danced FCBD®Style with a friend as part our very first Gothla set a few years ago. It’s super-energetic, the audience loved it, and if you are dancing a non-folkloric style, edited down you can get a *lot* of bang for your buck.

Of course, if you have the luxury of a longer set, you can instead do different pieces with different paces instead of cramming it all into 4 minutes. But in that case I would aim to start high, and end with a bang (fast) and leave the expressive, regal or soulful slow for the middle of the set. Always, keep the thematic unity as much as possible: if you are doing ME ethnic music, don’t throw in an electronic western piece into it, as the change will be jarring. If you really have to for whatever reason, see if there is any way of splitting your set, and take it out on its own, or maybe build up the switch.

You can also edit your songs to make them shorter but keeping dynamics, particularly for pop songs. This again, prevents the music from becoming repetitive. For instance, if the song has two verses, two choruses, and one instrumental part that repeats the verse melody, then a final chorus, you could edit it to have one verse, one chorus, instrumental verse, chorus, end. And if you need help editing your music, you can refer to my post about it.

How do you know if your music needs editing? If you find that you are tuning it off after a few moments, if the piece sounds the same all the way along and there’s hardly any noticeable changes in dynamics, if you start it randomly at different points and can’t tell where you are in the song just by listening, chances are the music needs some trimming, or even reconsidering. Remember, what’s wonderfully atmospheric to have in the background at home as you relax might not work at all in a threatre or a village green. This doesn’t mean that you should only dance to pop music. But leave the repetitive beats and phrases for the classroom. Performances are your time to shine, so don’t sabotage your efforts by drowning your audience in the same 4 bars repeated for 4 minutes.

Once your music is picked, make sure you follow organiser’s guidelines, but even if you send it as an mp3, it’s good practice to have it with you in an mp3 player, USB stick or CD -or even better, all- *just in case*; you never know when the system will go haywire, or even when you’ll be asked to do a last minute extra performance. Beware proprietary connections (Apple’s lighting connector, I’m looking at you!). I learnt this lesson the hard way, when I had to dance to a full theatre with the sound coming off my phone’s tiny speakers, because the connector failed. I went back home and ordered an mp3 player with a mini jack that I loaded with my performance tracks, and carry with me ever since.

What are your favourite tracks to dance to and why? Leave a comment below!

* Kanun, and mode of playing it, Palestine, picture p. 577 in W. M. Thomson: The Land and the Book; or Biblical Illustrations Drawn from the Manners and Customs, the Scenes and Scenery of the Holy Land. Vol. II. New York, 1859. Image courtesy of Wikipedia, under Public Domain

Inspiration: DeAnna at Tribal Migrations

DeAnna Padrón Freeman is a wonderful dancer, and one of the few Advanced Instructors for FCBD®Style. This is a solo she performed at Tribal Migrations in February 2020.

She also runs a great blog full of information for dancers, and runs online classes if you can’t visit her at the Datura Studios. You can view/join her blog at https://www.pranabellydanceandyoga.com/blog

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