traditional hajab  conservative bedlah with Egyptian crown  belly dance bedlah from Morocco

Soraya Unveiled as she displays a traditional Muslim Hajab or ladies head covering. This Hajab is beaded with sequins and is reminiscent of the style of ancient Arabian Nights.

Soraya backstage before an Egyptian wedding performance. She is wearing a more conservative bedlah and a custom made Egyptian Crown by Madame Hekmet of Cairo, Egypt.

This belly dance bedlah was made in Morocco for Soraya. The belt and bra is made entirely of bugle beads with a border made out of seed beads. The belt is made into a gentle V-shape and the jewelry is kept minimal. The veil she is holding is made of black and silver lurex fabric.

The Art of Costuming in Middle Eastern Dance

By Soraya, International Belly Dancer

The proper costume is very important in the Arabic art of belly dancing. First I will discuss the historical aspect of the Middle Eastern belly dance costume. Then I will discuss a little about how I chose a costume on a personal, cultural and professional level. The costume or “bedlah” as it is called in Arabic refers to the dress that the performer wears. It defines who we are, what we are and the personal and cultural message that we are trying to convey to our audiences. The costume is an integral part of our powerful persona as entertainers but most importantly, cultural entertainers. Middle Eastern dance costuming is a lot of fun because the artist can be as creative with it as she/he wants to be. You can let your imagination run wild. Many different skirts and harem pants can be worn at different times with the same belt and bra to achieve many different looks and effects. A costume can also be refreshed and reinvented when wearing new accessories as well.

full Egyptian bedlah  teal Syrian bedlah

Soraya performs in a corporate theme party in full Egyptian bedlah. The Egyptian style is probably the most readily recognized style of belly dance costume.

Syrian style. The bra features larger aurora borealis (AB) crystals, small pearl accents along the borders, smaller sequin appliques, rhinestones, and bugle beads rather than the smaller Egyptian beads.

Soraya does deep backbend

Soraya does a deep backbend in a ballroom event at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino. Notice how the costume’s fringe accentuates this movement.

The Costume, the Dancer

When a belly dancer performs she becomes the living and moving archetype of what the audience expects to see. To represent it well, a dancer must know what type of costuming is appropriate for what kind of music and regional dance being performed. For example, for a theatrical stage show, the belly dancer adorns her body with a beaded, coined or sequined bra, belt, skirt, veil, and matching accessories and jewelry. This costume is traditionally seen as the colorful, exciting, glamorous, and flamboyant accompaniment to the belly dance. Also with the midriff exposed, it puts the belly into focus, which is the center of how all life begins. Hence, calling this dance: “belly dancing.” Raks balady is how it is mostly referred to in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and the other Middle Eastern countries. This decorated bra and belt accent the movements, frame the steps, and draw the eye to the body part that is being utilized at that moment in the dance. If a dancer shakes or shimmies her shoulders, the bra should move along with the movement and vice versa with the hips. The beading or other hanging ornaments emphasize the isolations.

Our costume is the first impression that is made on stage and it conveys a strong statement to the audience at the very beginning of the performance. It is a continuing expression of our creative nature in the magic that we strive for through Arabic dance. This bedlah should always be tasteful, classy, elegant, and somewhat conservative. The best Middle Eastern weddings, events, shows, and concerts demand the crème de la crème in not only the dancing but in beautiful and authentic costuming. If a dancer wears something that looks cheap, unflattering, or worn out, an ethnic audience will pick up on it and it can ruin a show. Choosing the right costume is just as necessary as dancing correctly, presenting the art in an elegant manner as well knowing what to do with tempo and rhythm changes. It can’t be just a percentage; it must be the total package to really be great, unforgettable and truly spectacular.

modesty belly net

Soraya wears the “Egyptian modesty net” for her more conservative special events, corporate theme parties, some Arabic weddings for very religious families, and shows for children. Soraya wore the net recently for an Arabian Nights theme party for the Johnson & Johnson corporation.

Making a Statement

A dance artist makes a very personal statement about what kind of person they are, where they are from, how they dance, what they represent with their costume, even before any dance technique comes into play. A discriminating Arabic audience sizes up the entertainer in the first 5 minutes, and this can make or break a show. If they don’t like your costume, they won’t watch! It is the first thing that is visual to them, your costume and your appearance. Paying extra attention to every detail and aspect of your bedlah or dress is crucial when you are a professional. The costume identifies the dancer, their individuality, style, and ethnicity. The bedlah is the most popular style and most recognized not only in the Arab world but in other parts as well. The other costuming styles are very important too, and just as it is important for a dancer to know when you to use certain movements, steps, styles in the choreography, the right costume is necessary to do it right.

pailettes  Soraya models for Trump Taj Mahal

A black and white photo showing an Egyptian bedlah and arm gauntlets. The bra is beaded along with small pailettes to reflect light and colors. They resemble coins. The arm gauntlets are done in georgette chiffon, beads and sequins.

Soraya modeling for the Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City. Her belly dancing costume is in the Egyptian style and is heavily beaded. The bra straps and the belt have an Austrian crystal border. The color of this bedlah is actually purple iris even though it was shot in black and white for the advertisement. The black and white shows a good contrast to the elaborate beadwork.

Mme. Abla purple and blue iris  Soraya models for Trump Taj Mahal

Soraya is wearing a purple and blue iris Madame Abla bellydance costume. The sequins on the bra and belt are done in electric purple and the beading is in blue. The neck straps are finished in real Aurora Borealis Austrian crystals. The skirt is chiffon with hand beaded motifs in a flower design with matching sequins and beads.

A professional Egyptian costume in silver glass beads, Austrian crystals, and small seed beads. To make this wonderful and rare fabric for bellydance, Assuit, the Egyptians actually weave small metallic beads and metal decorations right into the material. It is one of the very ancient costuming traditions of the world. It is very expensive and shines beautifully under the stage lighting.

The costume should be reflective of the regional dance being performed. Some styles are: Cabaret/modern Raks Sharqi, (this encompasses the urban bedlah-bra, belt, skirt and veil), traditional dress (covers midriff and is usually topped off with a hip scarf or beaded belt), Saaidi folkloric balady dress is for Raks Al Assaya cane dancing from Upper Egypt. The Hegalla/dowry dress (the mildly flirtatious coming of age dance of the single village girl showing herself for the first time to the eligible men in her tribe). The country styles (other folkloric styles from Jewish people of Tunisia, Kuwait and other Gulf States). Debke, Raks Shabbi, Gawazee (Egyptian Gypsies) are other traditional folk dances that have a specific and recognizable costume. The dress that the female dancers wear is never beaded nor has any sequins, crystals, jewels, gems, or pearls. It is a cotton galabaya, thobe, or abaya. It resembles a long tunic with some embroidery around the collar and is more earthy than glamorous. The female dancer can also tie a scarf around her hips to emphasize the movements of the pelvis, thighs, buttocks, and waist. She may also wear a knit scull cap or a headscarf. The male dancers wear boots, loose fitting Moroccan style pants, a white cotton shirt, and a vest. Besides the costuming mirroring the dance style being performed and dictated, a dancer’s choice in costume reflect her unique and independent thought. In many cases, the cane dance is performed in the bedlah; a dancer does not always have to change into a Saaidi dress. It is OK and accepted to perform Assaya, the Egyptian stick dance in either the proper dress or the same costume that the dancer began her show in. Sometimes, depending on the timing of an event, I will change into my Saaidi dress, cover my head, and dance with the stick or cane.

Since costuming is such an important part of dance expression and style, it should not be limited by any societal constraint. A dancer should be able to enjoy his or her creative freedom, and still able to please the audience. In Egypt, it is required by law to wear the “modesty belly net” or you will get arrested. For my more conservative events such as very religious families, some weddings and corporate theme parties, I will wear the net. The net in these circumstances is required because the clients prefer me dancing without a bare belly. The net can be very attractive with the seams on either side of the torso and resemble fishnet stocking. In most cases, I dance without the modesty net. A dancer should never perform with too much of their body exposed to resemble a stripper. The forced adornment of the Egyptian modesty net is a perfect example of the costume being slightly restrained due to an official regulation within any society because it is required to wear it by law.

With Middle Eastern belly dancing, it is important not to ever be offensive, sleazy, or perverse with costuming or movement. A performer that is devoid of talent may choose a tacky, crude, and lewd costume in a desperate attempt to shock and divert attention away from a lack of technique, form, authenticity, and authentic presentation. This is very sad indeed. With belly dancing, it is always best to leave more to the imagination and never “sell out.” A dancer would not be able to pull this off with an upscale Middle Eastern audience. However, some other audiences who may not know the difference or care would allow an unprofessional dancer to get away with it, further perpetuating a negative image of what real belly dancing is. As I mentioned before in my past writings, this is NOT a strip tease and should never be lumped in with it. Unfortunately, this dance has become way too subjective, over the years with not enough reference points, so that makes it all the more crucial to dress properly and represent this delicate ethnic dance form with integrity and dignity at all times no matter what or don’t do it in public.

gold beading and Austrian crystals

A custom made Egyptian style bedlah. Soraya is wearing black sequins with gold beading that has been accented with Austrian crystals as she models on the beach. Notice the unique color separation of the beading and crystal appliques on the bra.

It is important to re-emphasize and reiterate that costuming is almost as important as the dance itself. It is an expression of who we are. It can be a statement of personal individuality, artistic identity or a reflection of a cultural and societal aggregate. The costume decorates, makes a statement and adorns the body yet enhances the movements used in belly dancing. The costume has a mind of its own, and in a lot of cases, the dancer doesn’t wear it, it wears the dancer and becomes the embodiment of the art of Raks Al Sharki.

Getting Every Detail Right

I would like to talk more about how a costume should always be appropriate for a particular audience. When I chose a costume for a show, I not only choose it depending on the type of event and the dance styles requested by my clients but I also consider the venue that I will be performing in. If it is for a casino showroom, I will pick something very dramatic and flashy that can be seen from a distance. For a wedding, I will choose something more elegant, heavily beaded and a little subtler because the audience will be very close to me. I also like to ask my clients, what is the color scheme of their individual weddings and I chose my costumes accordingly. I like to complement the colors in the ballroom that the bride and groom chose.

Just as I pay special attention to every detail of my dancing, I pay just as much attention to my bedlah, professional stage makeup, hair, nails, and even my skin. I use a special shea nut butter cream to make my skin glow under the spotlights. After I apply my moisturizer, I use some body glitter. All of these intricate, highly specialized elements go into my “total performance look.” This will bring it all together and make my show the best that it can be. Believe me, the audience notices everything! When you feel great about yourself, this will project into the crowd.

Most of my costumes have long beaded glass fringe and this is always beautiful and fun to dance in. They also all have accents of Austrian crystals, which is another favorite of mine. For corporate theme parties, I dress according to what the theme is, or if my client has a specific idea in mind, I always try to accommodate all individual requests. If the theme party is the “Arabian Nights,” I will wear a high ponytail like a Genie, harem pants, a more simple coin costume and no fringe. Sometimes, an Egyptian triangle hip scarf looks nice too. For “Ancient Egypt,” the costume will be more pharonic, reminiscent of the ancient Egyptian temples. I wear an Egyptian collar, more exaggerated Cleopatra style eye makeup, my bedlah will be very angular in design, and I top it all off with a headpiece. If I am doing a belly dance technique workshop, I will still wear a costume, but I choose my outfit of harem pants, no skirt and a beaded belt with sheer net stripes. Since what I am teaching is ethnic and cultural, I dress like an authentic Arabic belly dancer. I would not dress as if I am an aerobics instructor in a gym and ruin the beauty, mystique and awe of this magical art. This way, the audience can see what my legs are doing; the posture and the alignment of my body will be visible so that they will get a total picture of my personal technique and execution of steps, moves and transitions. Each venue, style of dance choreography being performed, event type, theme, individual audiences, or client special request factors into the costume and accessory choice for that evening.

When you are on stage make the most dramatic, creative, and artistic statement with your choice of costume and dance style. Always remember to smile and enjoy what you are doing at all times. The audience will soak up your excitement and see how much you love what you do. The greatest reward is feeling the pleasure, warmth, and delight of the crowd!

Happy Dancing!


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