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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Choosing Costume & Acts Appropriate to the Situation


By Saqra



Table of Contents



Two Types of Performance Goals

A cardinal rule of performing arts is, "Know your audience!" This tip shares some of the simplest rules for selecting costumes, music, and theme for best results.

There are two different audience goals a performer is most likely to be choosing from:

  1. A pleasing entertainment or thought-provoking art performance designed for the audience, or
  2. A display (often shock) performance that requires no audience rapport or response.

The goal for the first type of performance is to appeal to the audience's emotions or minds. It requires an awareness of the observers and what will move them.

Display performances, in contrast, do not need to consider anything about the audience. They exist despite the audience instead of for the audience. Often their purpose is to make a point, or to make the performance exist somewhere other than in the artist's head. A good display performance exists by itself, with no dependence on the response of an audience. It often requires a specific themed situation to provide context.

This tip does not apply to the "display" style of performance.

In order for this tip to apply to what you are doing, you must first assess your act. What do you want to elicit from your audience? If it is nothing, then skip this tip!  

However, if you want to increase your appeal to your audience, then these simple guidelines can help!

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Saqra by Ian Cartlidge, Leeds, United Kingdom.




Selecting Costuming

There is a continuum for belly dance costume styles based on time of day, environment, and formality of the occasion. A dancer needs to be aware of this.

i could give a full lecture on so many aspects of this topic, but I will attempt to be brief.

At the core, the default costume style for our dance tends to be a long, elaborately-decorated look, originally designed for a formal indoor entertainment situation, usually presented in the evening. We make changes to this look, adding pants, mini skirts, and other variations. However, we rarely add denim, burlap, or plaid unless we have a special theme in mind as an exception.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Saqra by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.

Time of Day

To adapt this basic style, to make it fit different situations, first consider the time of day.

The later it gets, the less costuming you wear, and the more makeup.


During the daytime, families and children are typically present. A more conservative, covered look is usually appreciated in these situations. Also, the increased light from daylight tends to make heavy makeup less appealing.


During the evening, people are more likely to expect entertainment for adults. This is the time for your more risqué costumes. Heavier makeup is usually required to provide more contrast under the lower light levels of a normal evening setting.

Heavier makeup is also needed under extremely bright light in a stage setting, to allow the audience to see your facial expressions.

Environment can also have an effect. Daytime is well lit, but usually more informal.


Indoors vs Outdoors


Natural fabrics and textured jewelry are most effective. Color is more important than glitter.


Glitter visually comes first, then colors. If glitter is inappropriate for some reason, pay strong attention to colors.

I am restraining myself from giving a million examples, but I will offer one: Mahmoud Reda staged indigenous dances with bright jewel tones instead of the native black because he understood that stage appearance was less effective in the indigenous colors.

Formality of the Event

On a sliding scale of casual to formal, determine what non-dancers would be wearing to the event. Then, choose costumes that are somewhat more glamorous than what the audience will be wearing, but not too far.

Costuming is more elaborate than street wear, but there is still a continuum in costuming. From simple costume style with natural fabrics to an elaborate costume dripping with texture, glitter and detail, we end up with a range of choices we can rank by formality.

Your most elaborate costume and jewelry shouldn't be the first thing you grab for a farmer's market gig.

Okay.... I think that is enough to explain. If you have questions, ask.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Saqra by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.




Selecting Act Content

"Appropriate" content is content that is most likely to be acceptable to the specific audience that you will be performing for.

Okay, don't shriek and run off if hearing "cultural appropriation" makes you cringe... I'm just mentioning it for a moment, not going into a big thing.

This will be quick: I'm an advocate of cultural respect in creating our dances. I suggest you look up cultural appropriation and really understand what it means. It is not a big, "No, you can't dance". It really is just asking you learn more about what you are doing and the lives of the people the dancing comes from. You are probably interested in that anyway, and the concept is simply asking you to try to present your dance without slurs and stereotypes.

You're going to make mistakes, and that is okay. Just listen and learn. Learning is the main thing.

There... done! Now back to directly practical suggestions....

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Saqra by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.


Look up the lyrics in English for the songs you want to use. This is much easier to do than it used to be in the past, thanks to sites like lyricstranslate com and Even if the song's lyrics are actually in English, pay attention to what the words are saying, know what you're dancing to, and think about appropriateness to your audience.

Check for historical and cultural issues in the music you have chosen for a particular audience. Familiarize yourself with the history of the region and the history of the specific group. This sounds like a lot of work, but it actually takes only a few quick web searches. For example, you should probably learn some stuff such as Turkey occupied Greece for 400 years and tried to exterminate their own Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian populations in the early 20th century. Do you think that is old history that can be ignored? Consider the Confederate flag stuff that has gotten so much attention in the U.S.... how far back does the history of that date?

Also consider: Although the audience isn't stupid, they are unfamiliar with the style of music we often work with, so I would suggest that you pay attention to how sophisticated the event audience is. [Be aware that there is some disagreement about this in our field.]

For a street fair, you might look for shorter pieces that don't do things to trick the audience. For example, it can alienate the audience if the music contains sudden stops that sound like the end, then restart. Or, if the song features a rhythm that inspires the audience to start clapping, then suddenly changes to something completely different. Reserve the extremely technical and complex songs and the six-minute mizmar extravaganzas for a more sophisticated audience.


Sensitive Content

Give careful consideration before presenting sensitive content in your performance, and talk to the event producer about your plans ahead of time to ensure it will be welcome in that environment. Controversial art around the world is staged in venues that actually accept controversial art, or it is staged in private venues.

Presenting something deemed inappropriate by the venue can result in the loss of the venue to future dance performances and events. One fair would not hire my or any belly dance performers for many years because a previous group included dancing by children not wearing pants under their skirts on a raised stage. If your content is deemed inappropriate by the venue at which the event is held, the event producer can lose use of that place for future events or incur a fine. It can even lead to a fine or arrest for the performer.

Sensitive content includes all of the traditional categories: political, religious, racially related, violent, and sexually related.

It can be fine and even important to explore these topics, but it's important to ensure the place where you intend to dance will support doing so. If you fail to do that, you are making choices that the producer has to take responsibility for without any control over what you do.

The best way to present your sensitive material is to negotiate your own contract with a venue, and produce such an event yourself.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Saqra by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.




Closing Thoughts

Generally our goal is to entertain — not to frighten, bore, or offend. But, whatever your own goal is, most of us want primarily to communicate... and you can't communicate with an audience that is running away from you.

Your mileage may vary, but we want it to be the best it can be.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Saqra by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.




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About the Author

Saqra (Seattle, Washington, USA) is a powerful dance artist and a master instructor. Her fluidity, grace, and technical skill is highlighted by her friendly demeanor and clear joy of the dance. She did not inherit the diva gene.

Saqra won titles in Belly Dance USA (Oregon), Belly Dancer of the Year (California), Belly Dancer of the Universe (California), Wiggles of the West (Nevada), and many other competitions. She was voted "Best Kept Secret of 2005" and "Instructor of the Year 2008" by readers of Zaghareet Magazine.

Saqra's journey in this dance form began in 1977 and has led her to study with many of the best dancers in the world, including in America, Canada, Turkey and Egypt. Saqra continues to travel and study both in the USA and abroad and prides herself on proper research for anything she teaches. Folklore, fakelore, and stage creativity: all three are valuable, and Saqra clearly presents for each what they actually are. Saqra is constantly expanding her expertise in the traditional ethnic forms of the dance, the modern stage variants, and the continuing evolving fusion techniques, all these areas combined keep her material fresh and current.

Saqra is widely known as an event promoter, musician, music and instructional video producer, and a registered hypnotherapist in the state of Washington. That is enough stuff to start explaining what she has been doing in belly dance since 1977. Visit her at

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California. In the photo, Saqra is holding her Teacher of the Year 2008 Award from Zaghareet Magazine.

Saqra with Award



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