Costuming tips for (and from) a plus-sized dancer

A saidi galabeya can be flattering for the curvier figure as it smooths and elongates lines.

A saidi galabeya can be flattering for the curvier figure as it smooths and elongates lines.

Holidays can be a time to plan or make a new costume. Here are some suggestions from guest blogger, Obsi. Who previously wrote a blog here about being a plus-sized belly dancer:

Costuming can be quite hard for the “plus size” dancer.  Especially since we come in all shapes and sizes.

We often fall into the trap of wearing loose-fitting clothing, to try to cover up the body – but I find that can often look less flattering than tighter fitting clothing can. I was originally taught that putting more fru-fru on your hips can make your waist appear smaller – so embraced  the large skirts with big poofy tucks on the hips. However I have definitely found that when I’ve worn tighter fitting costumes people have commented on how much weight I’ve lost, or how much more flattering that looks. The first time I had to wear a tight-fitting Saidi dress, I was really concerned that I’d look horribly fat, but I was pleasantly surprised!  I do still like my big skirts and tucks, but it is nice to wear something more slinky now and then – it definitely does create a different look.

I have what I call a “double belly” – a roll above my bellybutton and one below.  Which is a harder body shape to be able to disguise, I think. Some larger women like to wear mesh bodysuits to cover their belly.  There is even “powermesh” that supposedly sucks you in a little, but I find that’s not enough for me.  I confess that I like to wear “shapewear” (those elasticised tummy sucking in undergarments) to smooth out some of the lumpy belly. I also like to wear a black bodysuit because black is slimming and disguises some of the bumps. Which means I can’t get away with looking like I have an exposed belly like you can if you’re wearing a flesh coloured mesh bodysuit.  Although from an audience perspective, I can tell when people are wearing a flesh coloured cover (usually because they have no bellybutton!), which I find more distracting than a naked belly would be.  But I understand that the dancer needs to feel comfortable.

I tried once wearing a flesh coloured and less constricting version of the shapewear (so that it just looked like a flesh bodysuit), because I felt uncomfortable being the only person in the group wearing a black bodysuit when everyone else was bare bellied.  But I ended up feeling more uncomfortable dressed like that.  Every photo from that night just made me want to cry.  So I made the decision that I would rather stand out and be a bit different to everyone else, by wearing something I felt more comfortable wearing.

I think that is really a key point.  You have to feel comfortable in your own body when you dance.  If you’re feeling self-conscious, you won’t be able to dance as well as you could, and you won’t be enjoying yourself as much as you should. Your audience will probably notice you aren’t comfortable too. If you can’t look back on photos without never wanting to eat again, then that’s no good either.

So part of being a dancer really is to have confidence in your dancing, and feel that you are beautiful.  Costuming obviously helps the audience see what you’re doing and makes a better show for them (you can dance in a T-shirt and jeans, but it’s not going to look as good) – but it can also help you to feel more confident about yourself, which in turn makes you a better dancer.

A troupe needs to dress the same and it can be challenging to find a style that suits all figures.

A troupe needs to dress the same and it can be challenging to find a style that suits all figures.

Unfortunately when you dance with a troupe, you usually have to wear what the troupe wears.  Slimmer ladies can often buy costume pieces online and at cheap prices.  Whereas there can be much less choice for a plus size dancer, and often higher prices.  Trying to costume for a bunch of women of different sizes can be a bit tricky!  But it is important that you all can feel good about what you are wearing.

Even just finding class-wear can be a bit problematic sometimes.  I find the decorated portions of regular sized hip scarves and coin belts are nowhere near big enough for those with large hips.  Even in some of the so-called “plus size” ones they sometimes don’t cover enough.   Or if they do physically fit, often they only *just* tie up, and you’ll see the slimmer women with longer hanging ties, and feel jealous!  I have found though that searching specifically for “plus size” or “XL” and checking measurements, will sometimes allow you to find costume pieces that will fit.  Ebay is getting a better range of “plus size” costuming pieces all the time – which is great!  It means not only is there more variety for us, but it also means there must be more demand for it!!!

With shorter hip scarves that only just do up, I’ve taken to wearing them so that they tuck in at the sides of my hips and the rest dangles down the sides, rather than trying to do them up and looking obviously too small.  You can sometimes use one of the long rectangle ones at the front, and tie it to a triangular hip scarf at each hip, letting the extra bits dangle down.

As you can see from this gorgeous group of curvy dancers, they have tied two hip scarves together at the sides to extend and flatter.

As you can see from this gorgeous group of curvy dancers, they have tied two hip scarves together at the sides to extend and flatter.

If you’re a bit crafty, you can do things like sew 2 smaller skirts together to make one wider one, or add extra panels in to extend clothing to fit.   I’ve altered several skirts that were too narrow, by opening up the side seams and wearing them as a sort of “lap lap” style skirt with another skirt underneath.  Sometimes you have to be a bit creative to find ways to work around problems!

I quite like the idea of wearing a fitted galabeya (“Saidi dress”) costume, as it can cover some of those problem areas (belly and arms for me) while still allowing your movements to be seen.  Particularly those cut to allow your decorated bra to be shown.  These can be worn with bare legs if you’re happy to do so (if your thighs won’t rub together – hello bike shorts!), or with a full skirt or harem pants if you want to cover more.  The modern galabeyas are usually made from very stretchy lycra, so I’ve found that especially the plus size ones, can stretch to fit a very ample dancer!  I have also seen some dancers where I suspect they took regular size ones and opened up the side seam, adding an extra panel down the sides – which is a great idea to get extra room if you need it.  The same can be done for tighter fitting skirts and harem pants too.

Beaded fringing that hangs in a straight line across can make the torso look shorter.

Beaded fringing that hangs in a straight line across can make the torso look shorter.

Over the years I’ve come to realise some things that (in my mind) flatter or don’t flatter the fuller figure.

I’ve learned that a decorated bra without any fringe, isn’t as flattering for a fuller bust as one that has fringing – the fringing helps distract the eye I think.  But also too much fringe, or too heavy fringing can be unflattering.  I have one decorated bra I made with very long chunky fringing (to hide the belly) that mostly went across in a straight line just above my belly button.  While it hides the part of my belly I’m most uncomfortable with, it just doesn’t look attractive, and makes my torso look very short. It’s better to concentrate fringing to a V shape at the front of the bra –  the part you want to focus people’s eyes on.  The V shape is far more flattering than a straight fringe.

If you haven’t been blessed with a large bosom, and want to give yourself more, try giving your bra a more 3D effect.  This can be done with things like the cupped flower shaped sequins, rather than using flat ones.  I’ve seen people using ruffled fabric.  You want to make sure the cups fit, and by all means try some bra inserts to give you more lift.  But if you can add extra oomph with the decorations on the outside of the bra, it can create the illusion of fuller breasts without any worry of any “chicken fillets” falling out mid performance!

With belts, likewise I have found that straight belts aren’t as flattering as ones that have a curved or pointed front and back section.  I also find belts with some sort of fringing look more flattering than plain ones.  I think it has to do with creating an illusion of your body being longer than it is.  Straight lines just cut straight across and can make you look shorter and chunkier.  So breaking that straight line with fringing or dangles, and not using a straight line, can really help.  Sometimes I think a little protruding belly hanging over the belt can look better than a “muffin top” effect by wearing a tight belt across the belly.

I see a lot of plus size dancers wearing their skirts on their waist instead of the hip.  I can understand the reasons for this – when I started dancing I wanted to show as little belly as possible, so wore my skirts up high.  Then as I grew in confidence, my skirts lowered. I know there is often a practical reason to wear skirts higher, as some body shapes make it difficult to wear a skirt on the hips without it falling down (nobody wants that!).  Wearing a skirt on the waist can disguise the “double belly” thing too.   However wearing a skirt lower on the hip can elongate your torso, making you look slimmer.  It also means that the belt will be on or closer to your hip, so that hip movements can be accented properly.  I’ve found the point on my hip in which I can wear my skirt without it falling down, but since I also wear a bodysuit, I pin pin pin!! just to make sure it won’t slip down!

Wearing sleeves has the added bonus of not only feeling less self-conscious about flabby upper arms, but can balance out the hips visually. Tucking skirts up into the hip belt can make the waist appear smaller.

Wearing sleeves has the added bonus of not only feeling less self-conscious about flabby upper arms, but can balance out the hips visually. Tucking skirts up into the hip belt can make the waist appear smaller.

My upper arms are also quite flabby, which makes me very self-conscious of my arms.  I don’t feel comfortable going sleeveless  (not even in class).  Luckily there are a few different options for sleeves – and it’s not something that looks out of place if you have a bare belly but with a little sleeved vest.  Obviously if you’re covering your belly with a body suit or something, you can opt for one with sleeves (short or long) which covers 2 problem areas at once.  But if you’d like bare belly but sleeves, you can go for a little vest with sleeves attached, a “shrug”, a tie-top or choli etc.   You can go for full coverage or use a coloured mesh or lace if you’d like to just disguise things a little.  If you have larger arms, it might be a good idea not to draw attention to them by having upper arm jewellery or decorations.  Focus the decorations on the forearms or wrists to draw the eye away from where you don’t want people to notice.

But make sure you don’t hide.  Wearing loose-fitting outfits can sometimes make you look bigger than you are, while hiding some of the body movements.  Try to work out which features you’d like to show off, and design the costume around that.  Got a great set of legs?  Maybe you’d like a skirt with (tasteful!) splits so that you can make the most of them. Want to hide the front of your belly, but the sides and back are fine?  Try a costume design where you have a covered section (perhaps glittery mesh) attached to your bra and belt, that covers just the part you want to cover and leaves the rest bare.

Use colour wisely.  Black is obviously slimming, and light colours can be unattractive, but unless you are after a dark look, you may find an all black costume doesn’t have the effect you want.  Using brighter colour in the areas you’d like to highlight and darker ones in the areas you’d like to disguise, you may find you can create something flattering for your body.  I found out the hard way (back in my belly baring days) that an all white/gold bra and belt set doesn’t always look flattering from a distance on very pale skin.  I had the unfortunate effect of looking almost naked!

The coverage of the bra must be ample enough to cover without "spillage".

The coverage of the bra must be ample enough to cover without “spillage”.

One thing to watch out for is to make sure your costume fits well and nothing is spilling over.  I have seen a few “Plus Size” dancers who looked larger than they probably are, due to the fact they were squeezed into costumes that really weren’t suitable.  You certainly don’t want people to be wondering if you are going to pop a seam or fall out of your bra!

Bras that are cut too low can seem like the cups are about to runneth over, even if they are perfectly secure.  So sometimes you may need to add an extra section to the top of the cup to give extra coverage.  Tight fitting clothing can make you appear slimmer than baggy clothing, but make sure it doesn’t look like you’re wearing a costume several sizes too small.

Luckily there is a great amount of flexibility you can have with bellydance costuming – there are many different styles and designs out there.  So you have the freedom to create something to suit your body shape.

Survivors wear their scars with pride

These breast cancer survivors in Taiwan performed belly dance at a Taiwan Breast Cancer Alliance Conference.

These breast cancer survivors in Taiwan performed belly dance at a Taiwan Breast Cancer Alliance Conference.

Women have started belly dance classes with me for a variety of reasons, offline or online. One of them is a way to celebrate life after Cancer. Especially “women’s cancers”. You spend so much time and energy feeling like your body is the enemy, you end up with parts missing, extra scars, and when you are one of the ones to beat it – then what? One way to learn to love your body again and celebrate the living body, with a new shape and a new mind, is to do something that gives you pride and pleasure. Belly dance is one way. This lady, Kellie Green, chose another.

I think she looks beautiful. Are you any less of a woman without breasts? (or scarred ones?) Without a uterus? Or ovaries? It may feel that way at first. But it’s not your female genitalia which makes you “female”.

Here’s what one of my student’s said about recovering from breast cancer: “I was diagnosed with breast cancer 3 years back when I was 31. Went through mastectomy (breast removal), chemotherapy and then a breast reconstruction. When I was planning my reconstruction, people said I was being stupid to go for another surgery since looks don’t matter. I agree looks don’t make me what I am but I did this to make myself happy. Today (with all the scars), I feel more happy with myself than I ever did and your classes are way of celebrating this love that I have developer for myself.
Thanks and Regards
Shruti Sharma”

Peace and happiness can come after the battle.

Peace and happiness can come after the battle.

The scars can run deeper than the skin. Some women opt for a complete breast reconstruction, some of these are not successful. Being able to look in the mirror and like what you see scars and all, can be incredibly confronting and brave. Tattoo artist, Amy Black, has mastered the 3D looking nipples tattoos, or tattoos over the area where a breast used to be, so looking in the mirror is easier and enjoyable.

Look in the mirror and be proid of what you see

Look in the mirror and be proud of what you see

Never feel you are being “shallow” for wanting to look good. Build your self-esteem, allow compliments and be proud of what you have achieved, survived and gained. Life.

 

Need more information? Want to do more?
Click these links for further help or information on breast cancer or ovarian cancer or other cancers. Also click on the link on this website to give women free mammograms to enable early breast cancer detection. Or do something to celebrate and raise funds with a “Girls’ Night In” fundraiser.
For more information on the belly dancing suvivors from Taiwan read more here: http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2006/10/31/2003334121

Thoughts from a Plus size bellydancer….

While I have filled my blog with plenty of personal stories, anecdotes and feelings, this blog is thanks to a guest blogger, a “plus-sized” bellydancer called Obsidian. I am grateful that she shared her inner thoughts, feelings and insecurities as well as the more practical drawback to being larger, and how bellydance has helped her feel better and more confident about her size.

Thoughts from a Plus size bellydancer….

Obsidian shares her thoughts and feelings on being a "plus-sized" belly dancer.

Obsidian shares her thoughts and feelings on being a “plus-sized” belly dancer.

I don’t really like talking about my weight…. I suppose not many people do 😛  I don’t like the fact that I am considered a “plus sized bellydancer”, rather than just a “bellydancer” – but at least “plus size” sounds better than “fat” 🙂

When I started bellydancing, I was smaller than I am now, but I was still what people would consider overweight.  It was really only that one of the first bellydancers I saw had beautiful curves and was very positive and inspiring, was the reason I thought I’d be able to be a bellydancer at the size I was.  The first time I went to class, I saw a wide range of body shapes and sizes, and the teacher from a sister-school was also a larger woman – so that all gave me more confidence that you can bellydance no matter what shape or size you are.

I find it great to see photos and video of other “plus size” dancers.  I find it inspiring, I feel a sense of sisterhood with these women, as I’m sure they have at times felt like I have, and they are getting out there and strutting their stuff.  I think it’s fantastic to see.  I remember the first time I saw a photo of one particular “plus size” dancer, I was so excited – she has a belly that looks like mine!  A double-belly.  While I’m still a bit too body conscious to let mine be bare in public (though I’m working on that), hers was free.  It made me think that, you know what… it doesn’t actually look bad at all!  You’re too busy looking at the whole picture – how lovely her face looks, how bright and colourful her costume is.  The belly is only a small part of the overall picture.  I admire her confidence, as I’m not yet in a place where I’d be able to bare my belly, but seeing hers, and others like it, is getting me closer and closer to the point where mine may be free one day too.

There are definitely some challenges that the more ample of us, have to overcome, and not just whether to show off a flabby belly or not.  My body size actually has a big impact on my dance.

The emotional side is a topic large enough for its own article!  I have self-esteem issues, like a lot of people do.  I sometimes find it a challenge to get up and dance in front of people when I feel uncomfortable about my weight.  It has taken quite a while for me to get to the point where I can not only feel ok about putting a costume on and dancing in front of people, but actually feel that I look good.  I couldn’t have got there though, without bellydancing.  By learning to dance, it gave me the ability to see my body as being something that can look good and can move well – which has boosted my self esteem enormously!  When I’m all dressed up in my costumes and someone comes over to say how well I danced or how great I look, it really lifts my spirits.  Ultimately I dance for myself, and to some extent for the camaraderie with the other women I dance with.  However there is a part of me that dances for the confidence boost of having people be appreciative of your performance!

Obsidian talks candidly about what it is like to have extra curves as a dancer.

Obsidian talks candidly about what it is like to have extra curves as a dancer.

I find that being a “plus size” dancer is also hard physically.  While fitness isn’t always tied to your weight, I am personally not very fit, especially compared to others in the group – I also have more body to move around, so I get puffed quicker and seem to need to take drink breaks more than they do.  I also seem to sweat and overheat far more than they do too (I guess it’s all the extra insulation I have!) So for practice I usually dress far lighter than the others, I hate dancing in summer and I hate dancing in winter when everyone wants the heaters on. I always end up looking like a bedraggled mess while they somehow manage to look all effortless and non-sweaty. 🙁

For some reason I’ve been blessed with a head that sweats more than the rest of my body combined.  You’ll probably laugh, but I’ve taken to wearing a sweatband for practice in warmer weather!  Daggy but worth it!  I also like wearing head scarves, because they are a bit more of an elegant way to achieve a sweat-band  🙂 I also found (through a great tip from a fellow sweaty-face dancer) that you can get an antiperspirant for your face!  My saviour!

My body can feel very frustrating at times.  The sad reality is that some bellydance moves just don’t look the same on a larger sized woman.  Some can look great I think (bigger bust and hips can do fantastic shimmies!) but some movements you just can’t see as well if the dancer has a larger shape.  Particularly things like undulations and belly rolls (I’m sure I have muscles in there somewhere).  Which isn’t to say that larger women shouldn’t bother doing bellydancing – far from it!  Anyone of any size can be a great dancer!!  It’s just how it is.  I personally find it easier to just accept that, on my body, some moves may not look the same as they do on someone slimmer.  So rather than feel disappointed or upset that I can’t look that way, I have to tell myself that different body shapes look and move differently, and that’s ok.

I also found I had to work hard to look graceful – because I’m reasonably short as well, I don’t have the graceful long limbs that some dancers have.  So I spent a lot of time working out how to make my body flow nicely.  I feel that by being aware of that – thinking about how to hold yourself and trying to think and feel graceful, is quite important for everyone, but especially a “plus size” dancer.  Because if you can dance well, it doesn’t matter what size or shape you are, you’ll look AMAZING!  Looking at yourself in a mirror and experimenting with arm and hand positioning, trying to extend your arms to give you that longer line, keeping your chest lifted so you look a little taller and more elegant, can really change how your body looks while dancing.

Confidence is a very important part of the dance.  The audience can see if you feel self conscious, and I think that makes them notice imperfections more than if they are presented with someone who seems to be confident.  But, if you don’t have it – you can fake it!  Honestly, for me bellydancing as a form of acting.  It’s not me who goes out there on stage – it’s the bellydancer-me… and that person isn’t shy like I am, they have more confidence than I do.  Which is why I find the costuming helps me to dance better, even in class – because it is easier to get into that “role”, to be a different side of me that is different to my everyday self.

Costuming is another big challenge.  It can be tricky to find costumes and accessories that fit, are comfortable and look good.  Even just finding class-wear can be tricky if you can’t sew your own clothing.  While shops and online stores are slowly stocking larger sizes, it’s still mostly only available in smaller sizes.

I think it definitely helps to be able to think creatively and be prepared to make some modifications to clothing, to be able to get some of the things you want.   There are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way to help me costume for my size and shape.  But having to search through things that will never fit you, to try and find something that does, can be very soul-destroying at times.  I find it just reminds me that I am fat and won’t fit into regular clothing, and that can be a bit depressing.  Though the thrill of finding something that does fit, can be uplifting. I even have a coin belt that was an XXL size that is too big!  Imagine that!!  So the annoyance of it not fitting, is overshadowed by the fact that for once I am too small for the clothing, not the other way around. 😀

Obsidian often feels the largest one in the group while belly dancing

Obsidian often feels the largest one in the group while belly dancing

All in all though, I am eternally grateful that I found bellydance.  It is such an important part of my life, that I can’t imagine what I would do without it.

Someone asked one of my teachers once why she danced, and her reply was “because I can’t not dance”.  Which I always found so beautiful, simple and absolutely true.

Schooling for the teacher

A true teacher never stops learning.

A true teacher never stops learning.

I have just been schooled. I pride myself on using phrases that work inline with mental imagery and brain learning systems, using NLP techniques and always keeping it positive.

I refuse to accept the word “can’t” in my student’s vocabulary, they have to say “I am finding this difficult” or “I haven’t mastered this move yet”. I encourage positive ways to think and feel about your body and engaging your muscles.

However. I have just read the most interesting Huffington Post article by tap dance teacher Amanda Trusty. She points out that using phrases like “tuck your booty under” and “suck your tummy in” give both an incorrect engagement of the muscles and contribute to negative feelings about the body. I am guilty of using the phrases “tummy in, tail under” A LOT! Now a booty/tail should be tucked under, but this is not because a booty is a bad thing – (definitely not! Especially a sticky-out booty like mine!) it is all postural to protect the lower back. A tummy needs to be pulled in, not because a voluptuous tummy is a bad thing, it’s so as to engage the core muscles for strength and stability. But ‘just’ sucking your tummy in doesn’t actually engage the tummy muscles. Amanda points out that we can use better phrases to get a better result – and without the body image stigma attached to it. Since as Amanda is a positive body image advocate and blogs about her recovery from eating disorders – I am going to listen!

She recommends:

1. Visualise a beautiful tail feather at the base of your spine in whatever are your favourite colours. Then say: “point your tail feathers to the floor”.

Aim your tail feathers to the floor while shaking them!

Aim your tail feathers to the floor while shaking them!

2. Use “Engage your belly”. She uses Pilates exercises to teach about the core, and then encourages her students to check standing in the mirror that they are not raising their ribs or shoulders while doing it.

3. “Show off your necklace” she asks her students to imagine they are wearing a beautiful necklace and they want to show it off. This means keeping shoulders down and chin up and lifting the ribs slightly. To remind someone she will say “I can’t see your necklace” and instantly their upper body posture will change and chin will lift.

Amanda lives what she teaches. Here is a video of her dancing to Katy Perry’s Roar. Where she starts out demure, covered up, restrained. Then she takes off the layers, undoes her hair and more importantly rips off the limiting words (literally) and breaks free enjoying the freedom and movement of a body with curves. Go Amanda!

An alien in the belly

Charni did workshops with Ava and her belly this year

Charni did workshops with Ava and her belly this year

I recently had the opportunity to do two workshops with the gorgeous Ava Fleming from Arizona, and she talked about how when she performs it is like watching an alien move around her belly. The funny thing is, just last year I had done a couple of workshops with another US belly dancer, Princess Farhana who did a whole workshop on different tummy techniques including having an alien in the belly. I wonder if it is something about the US?

Charni did a tummy bellydance workshop with Princess Farhana in 2013

Charni did a tummy bellydance workshop with Princess Farhana in 2013

 

 

 

Their styles are quite different, though they sharedsome other similarities (besides the tummy thing), and I got a lot out of both. I like to take workshops with visiting dancers, as there is so much to learn about this wonderful dance form, and it is ever evolving. I can see myself at 80, still dancing, and wondering if I am ever going to learn it all!

Angelina Jolie had it in for me

Charni used belly dance to help her feel good during pregnancy

Charni used belly dance to help her feel good during pregnancy

In 2006, while pregnant with my first child, I was convinced that Angelina Jolie had it in for me and was taunting me. Not very rational, as I know she was unaware of my existence, however, I happened to be pregnant with my first child at the exact same time that she was with hers. I’m talking due dates the same and everything. So in the beginning, while I was dealing with tiredness, nausea and sore breasts, I would see her grinning on the cover of a magazine with Brad. As her bump expanded with mine, her slimness was applauded, she was asked for health advice and would go to gala nights looking carefree and glamourous, while I navigated maternity wear and stretch marks.

Angelina Jolie's first pregnancy was at the same time as Charni from Belly Dance Lessons Online

Angelina Jolie’s first pregnancy was at the same time as Charni from Belly Dance Lessons Online

Was it fair for me to compare? No. She had staff to take care of housework, errands, cooking, plenty of money firmly in the bank, plus personal trainers, and a team of people to glam her up to go to the gala events.

The question was – how could I not compare? When a celebrity is pregnant, she is often snapped looking great and the media comments on it favourably, with Scarlett Johanssen being the favourite at the moment.

Scarlett's curves have been emphasised by pregancy the media has pointed out.

Scarlett’s curves have been emphasised by pregancy the media has pointed out.

Notably, Catherine Zeta Jones, Milla Jovovich and Charlotte Church were criticised for gaining too much weight during a pregnancy – since when did the media become obstetricians?

Catherine Zeta-Jones was critisised by the media for gaining "too much" weight during her pregancy.

The media was quick to point out Mila's weight gain during her pregnancy
The media was quick to point out Mila’s weight gain during her pregnancy

So I had a choice, I could dislike a woman who was probably going through her own set of insecurities and health issues, as well as feeling pressure from the media to look good, or I could work out how to deal with this on my own terms and ignore the magazines.

So I turned to belly dance. I had been a belly dancer for a number of years at this stage already teaching for three years with Happy Hips Belly Dance here in Melbourne. I started to focus on how the pregnant curves of my body enhanced my dancing. I became aware of how the baby behaved during different moves (he seemed to like the gentle shimmies the best). My belly rolls looked amazing, though I had to reassure my students that it would not hurt the baby (no matter how hard you pull your tummy muscles in, they are not strong enough to hurt the baby especially through the amniotic fluid cushion). I found the regular exercise was great for keeping fit and my morale improved. So I started researching more about how this dance form was used for thousands of years in the Middle East as preparation for birth and recovery afterwards.

One of my main reliable sources of information about bellydance; the dance ethnologist Morocco (Caroline Varga Dinicu) also known as “Aunt Rocky”, was able to witness a very private birthing in a Berber tribe in Morocco known as “dancing the baby into the world”. Going in “undercover”, she was privileged to be a part of a sacred circle of women dancing and singing around the birthing mother. The movements and singing gave her a sense of comfort, well-being as well as encouraging her to do different movements for the different phases of the birth.

Morocco or "Aunt Rocky" got a rare glimpse into the traditional way to "dance a baby into the world" in a Middle Eastern Tribe.

Morocco or “Aunt Rocky” got a rare glimpse into the traditional way to “dance a baby into the world” in a Middle Eastern Tribe.

Aunt Rocky, accounts how in is this modern age, a lot of birthing classes focus on relaxation – the idea being that a tense and scared birthing mother is more likely to experience complications and longer labour, hypno-birthing is becoming more popular with the same idea . The women in the tribe, did not know that they were causing an hypnotic state during labour, and the women also didn’t know that birth was supposed to be scary and painful. As a result, it was joyful, and the birthing woman, without any medical intervention, simply squatted over a hollow in the ground and safely birthed twin boys and then the placentas. According to Aunt Rocky, the only sign of strain was the “perspiration soaking her hair and forehead”.

I myself ended up using many belly dance moves during labour as I found it a great way to ease the back aches, plus it gave me a way to move through the contractions and something to focus on. Many times, I didn’t consciously pick a move to do, I just moved however it felt right at the time – maybe some of them even echoed the women in the Moroccan tribe?

I would think that if it was suggested to any of these Moroccan women that they should spend their pregnancy focussed on looking svelte, lean and fit, they would laugh loudly and long.

Did Angelina Jolie have belly dance in her life? Probably not – hey – maybe she is envious of me!

The bellydancer who saves animals

Caroline Evanoff is an Australian belly dancer living and working in Egypt

Caroline Evanoff is an Australian belly dancer living and working in Egypt

I was able to interview Australian born belly dancer Caroline Evanoff who now resides in Cairo, Egypt about living in Egypt, staying safe, and her work with animal welfare agencies in Egypt.

How did you come to live in Egypt?
I caught the traveling bug years earlier while backpacking around the world, and particularly enjoyed my stay in Egypt. So years later, after studying belly dance in Sydney, I found myself with an affinity for the dance style of Raqia Hassan, who I had on VHS tape. After wearing it through from watching, I found it hard to find a teacher in Australia who specialised in her style of dancing. So I decided to go to Egypt for three months to study. This turned out to be a pivotal moment in my life, as I went for a short stay and moved there for good instead! In fact everything just seemed to fall into place. I met up with a dancer who then introduced me to Raqia, then very soon after I was offered work, I didn’t even have a proper performance costume but was introduced to Eman Zaki who agreed to make one for me and I could pay later. After that I never looked back, being in constant work ever since.

What can you recommend for tourists wanting to come to Egypt, is it safe?
People have always been scared of coming to Egypt, but since the revolution, people seem to be even more scared. As long as people take normal precautions, it is as safe as anywhere, and much more safe than a lot of other cities in the world! Petty crime has increased since the revolution, so avoid wearing lots of gold, wear a shawl and dress modestly, but you don’t have to be completely covered up either! It is fine for tourists to come, especially if you are there as part of a tour or stay with a local.

The Egyptian bellydance festivals are still running, and while the numbers are down, there are still a lot of people coming to them, if it was unsafe they would have cancelled them. Festivals such as the Nile Group Festival, Sphinx Festival or the Ahlan wa Sahlan Festival run by Raqia is the one I’m involved with runs each June, she also runs a Winter Teachers course in December.

I  also run a holiday program in Dahab on the South-East coast of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, where the focus is on a holiday and some gentle belly dance using Khalleegy, because that is the local dance style. The focus is on relaxing, enjoying the beautiful Mountain Sinai and the Red Sea.

Belly dancer Caroline Evanoff is passionate about animal welfare

Belly dancer Caroline Evanoff is passionate about animal welfare

I hear you do a lot of animal rescuing and encouraging others to do the same?
Yes, I am a volunteer at ESMA (Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals), Touch of Life Organisation and when I go to Dahab, I support “Help Dahab Dogs”, plus all my personal rescues. I have seven cats [unfortunately, one of her cats, Sami, died not long after her return to Egypt after prolonged liver problems]. I go to the shelter and visit but I mainly focus on fundraising. When I travel, at least one of the places will hold a fundraising night so I can take the money to Egypt. You are unable to have a Paypal account in Egypt which makes it hard to donate otherwise, so I collect it and give it to them. Also on FB someone will post that a dog has been run over at such and such corner and direct people to help. I also do a lot of walking around Cairo, so if I see an injured animal regardless of what it is, I will want to help; dogs, cats, sheep, donkeys, goats, foxes, and once there was a crocodile!

I live in a shaabi neigbourhood, and the local children used to torture the animals in fact one of my cats, Frankie, was dipped in car oil and left to drown. Now after 6 years, the children will be the first ones to run to me if they find an injured animal, or a dog has been beaten or they find kittens, and get quite angry if I don’t take them in straight away. But I have a policy of waiting for the mother to come back to the kittens. So they are really on to it, and I am really happy about that. They are the next generation so it is good to see these changes occur now to them while they are young.

This interview first appeared in OMEDA‘s The Shimmy Newsletter December 2012

Turning smarmy to smiley

Charni from Belly Dance Lessons Online had to learn how to have a confident smile while performing

Charni from Belly Dance Lessons Online had to learn how to have a confident smile while performing

We have all had the odd embarrassing gig, with costume malfunctions, or music glitches or even the classic trip up getting on stage, but I wanted to share an experience which happened a few years ago involving what to do if your audience thinks you are a stripper!

I was more at the beginning of my belly dance career, and had only had a few gigs under my hip belt when I was asked to perform before a lecture on Egypt by a Museum. The audience was made up of a very eclectic mix of people; students, friends of the museum, curators, Egyptologists and fans of the genre. In particular there was one person in the audience that I actually recognised. I will keep him nameless, but I had known him since I was a baby as he was a colleague of my Father’s. As I started dancing and saw a familiar face I thought “oh good someone I know”, unfortunately it soon became clear that this man who was standing in the front and not taking his eyes off me was not looking in admiration but in sleaziness. I could feel him undressing me with his eyes and I felt very uncomfortable with the leery grin fixated on me (or more specifically, my breasts) and I didn’t know what to do. I continued dancing focussing my attention on the others of the audience a smile on my face, but he was very hard to avoid. Then something in my mind went “bugger him, this is meant to be fun and I’m not going to let him spoil it!” and I threw myself even more into the music and the moves. I started engaging with the audience and letting my face reflect what my body was doing: as in a mock look of surprise at my shimmy or an eyebrow jump at the same time as a hip or shoulder, peeking cheeky looks over my shoulder etc. Then I aimed this directly at this man and ramped up the comic aspect. As I invited the audience to enjoy it with me, so too did this man, who ended up looking at me as a human being, his posture relaxed and he started clapping with all the others and tapping a foot to the music. The beast was tamed and began to genuinely smile. I finished with a flourish, proud and relieved to have turned the situation. Now I always scan my audience and if I see a similar look, I know just what to do – make it fun, it’s hard to laugh and leer at the same time!

This article was originally published OMEDA‘s The Shimmy Newsletter Spring 2010

“Can you teach a cat to belly dance?”

Can a cat belly dance? Watch the video and find out how Charni of BellyDanceLessonsOnline.com fared with the challenge!

Can a cat belly dance? Watch the video and find out how Charni of BellyDanceLessonsOnline.com fared with the challenge!

I was talking to a friend who was doubting her ability to learn belly dance, whether that be offline or online. She told me that she was too uncoordinated. I have heard this many, many times over the 12 years or so I have been showing others the joy of belly dance for themselves. In every instance, that’s right EVERY TIME, it was not true. You see if you can walk across a room and walk between obstacles and go through a doorway, you are coordinated enough to belly dance. And even then, if you have difficulty crossing a room due to a disability, there’s a lot you can do on the spot, or even sitting down.

Most of the time, when a person believes they are uncoordinated, it is usually because at some point in their youth, they were told it by an adult or bully. That child believed it, and the adult still does.

So to make a point, I told her that ANYONE could learn. She said “What? Even a cat?” so challenge accepted! Here is the result caught on video 🙂

She thinks white belly dancers should be banned?!?

Charni of Belly Dance Lessons Online should not be dancing or teaching belly dance as she is not arabic, according to Randa Jarrar.

Charni of Belly Dance Lessons Online should not be dancing or teaching belly dance as she is not arabic, according to Randa Jarrar.

There has been a furor in the media recently over an article written by Randa Jarrar called “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers” she states that she feels it is “appropriation”, that this dance form is originally danced by arabic women and should remain so. Hmmmmm.

She refers to a white belly dancer as being dressed in “arabic drag” as  “that’s what that is, when a person who’s not Arab wears genie pants and a bra and heavy eye makeup and Arabic jewelry, or jewelry that is meant to read as “Arabic” because it’s metallic and shiny and has squiggles of some kind”. Ms Jarrar, I feel that it is a form of flattery, and is spreading the dance around the world. Also, as a side note, which seems to contradict Ms Jarrar’s points, belly dancing is a highly unacceptable dance form for Arabic women in Egypt, and most of the professionals in Cairo, are, in fact, not Arabic at all. And those who are, are actually shunned by their families.

There has been a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal from Sam Doloncot called “Yes, White Belly Dancing Is Inexcusable Cultural Appropriation”. He points out that, going by Ms Jarrar’s arguments, no-one of non-Chinese ethnicity should eat at a Chinese restaurant, and someone “who suffers a serious but non-permanent physically debilitating injury shouldn’t be allowed the use of a wheelchair, as this is an ableist appropriation of differently abled culture”, and other (quite amusing) comparisons.

I would also like to point out that Randa Jarrar is half Palestinian, half American, educated in the USA. So can she really speak on behalf of all Arabic women? Do I wish I had an arabic heritage? Yes, in many ways, I feel there are parts of the dance and culture I am not understanding properly; plus, as I don’t speak Arabic, I can only go by translations I am given of songs I am dancing to. However, to change my heritage would change me, a child of immigrant parents from the UK to Australia. And it was only a few generations ago, one side of my family immigrated to the UK from Italy, does this mean it is okay for me to eat pasta and pizza without feeling I am taking inappropriate cultural liberties?

Is it culturally disrespectful for me to belly dance or an homage?

Karim Nagi actually discussed this topic (in a reasoned and logical manner) in a panel discussion in the Diwan 2009 conference at The Arab American National Museum in Deerborn Michigan, USA. The audience consisted of Arab artists from various fields. Karim, an Arabic musician, discusses the Americanisation of Arab dance in America, and how Arabs can reintegrate into the developement of their own art forms.

What do you think?