Photo of Shira



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

Pro Or No?

What Makes a Professional Costume?


Table of Contents




“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” --Mark Twain

Professional dancers experience a constant struggle to convince prospective clients that they are worth the fees they charge. Whether negotiating with a restaurant owner or with the person booking a dancer for an Arab wedding, it is important for the working dancer to convey an image of professionalism, glamour, and taste that convinces the client that she is worth her fee. Provided she indeed gets the job, the dancer then needs to make a favorable impression on the audience to generate follow-on gigs.

There are many elements that contribute to creating the professional image, and one of those is costuming. When the dancer emerges from the dressing room at a restaurant or bursts through the door at a private party, the costume plays a powerful role in creating the first impression. As the saying goes, “You only have one chance to make a first impression,” so it is important to make it count.

When people hire a dancer for a professional performance, they expect her to look more glamorous, more mysterious, more fascinating, more interesting than all the “mundane” people at the event. The costume needs to look as though the dancer assembled her ensemble with care, and it needs to make her stand out from the crowd.

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

Shira Wearing Turkish Costume



Fine for Students, Not for Pros

There are many affordable choices which are perfect for student performers and for hobbyists who just dance for the fun of it.  These people often don’t want to spend much money on the dance, which is logical because they are not earning money from it.

However, a dancer aspiring to work regularly in a restaurant or attain jobs dancing for lucrative private parties should retire these items from her performance wardrobe:

  • A hip scarf
  • A “coin” bra or belt made with light-weight stamped aluminum coins
  • A plain cotton stretch choli
  • A broomstick skirt
  • Anything purchased at a discount store
  • Anything made of nylon tricot, tissue lamé, or glitter dot fabric
  • Anything made with the strings of beads sold for use as Christmas tree decorations
  • A sequined butterfly-style top
  • Anything that is “one size fits all”
  • Sports bra or cut-off T-shirt, even if it has been decorated
  • Anything that looks like a craft project
  • Anything that looks like it could be found in a non-dancer’s closet, particularly if it is inexpensive
  • Anything that looks obviously homemade
  • Anything that could be described as “clever,” “adorable,” or “darling”

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by William M. Smith, Iowa City, Iowa.

Some of the above items, such as cholis, broomstick skirts, and hip scarves, are certainly fine for professional dancers to wear for private situations such as weekly classes, workshops, and troupe rehearsals. Also, teachers who sometimes perform with their hobbyist students might wear these items for such shows in order to blend in.

Shira Wearing Student-Quality Costume

Someone who aspires to become a pro may be tempted to wear the above items for informal shows such as haflas. After all, those events are casual, and the audience is just the local dance community. However, the audience members at these events often include local working professionals. These are the people with power to invite the up-and-coming dancer to serve as their substitute at restaurants and to refer private party gigs.

One of the best ways for a new dancer to get jobs is through referrals from other dancers, and the hafla provides an opportunity to show everyone she is ready to take on the challenge. Every aspect of an aspiring professional's hafla performance needs to be crafted to showcase her professional readiness, and that includes showing that she owns suitable costumes.

In the photo to the right, Shira is wearing a troupe costume that is fine for student and troupe performances but not quite right for professional work. The bra & belt set is professional quality, but the tissue lamé fabric of the turquoise skirt cheapens the look. If the tissue lamé skirt were replaced by a charmeuse or double georgette skirt, the costume would be better suited for professional work.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Jeff Halpin, San Jose, California.

Shira Wearing A Costume That Is Fine for Students, But Not Suitable for Pro Work



Bad, Even for Students!

Many bewildering things are advertised on the Internet as "belly dance costumes". Certain items are suitable solely for boudoir games and should never be considered as appropriate for belly dancing outside the home.

These items are not even appropriate for a student belly dance recital:

  • Anything sold for use as a Halloween costume
  • Anything sold for use as lingerie
  • Any bra that has had the front decorated but has left the straps and hardware in their original “underwear” condition
  • A cheap “costume” purchased in a souvenir stall while vacationing in Egypt or Turkey
  • Anything that comes with a thong or bikini briefs instead of a belt
  • Pasties



Achieving the Professional Look

There are many factors that go into creating a professional image. A dancer who is serious about launching a professional career will consider each of these carefully.



The costume should fit perfectly, and follow these guidelines:

  • It shouldn’t be so tight that the seams are straining, and it shouldn’t be so loose that it gaps away from the body. 
  • Skirts and flared pants should be long enough to graze the tops of the insteps on the feet.
  • Pants with elasticized ankles should cover the ankle bones.
  • The skirt should hang the same distance from the floor in both front and back.
  • The belt should fit high enough on the hips to safely cover the “rear cleavage” in the back and the “waxing zone” in the front. 
  • The bra should cover enough of the bust to reassure the audience that its contents won’t escape during the dance.

The fit should be tested while doing hip shimmies and twists (to ensure the belt doesn’t wander and the skirt doesn’t ride up), snake arms (to make sure the bra straps don’t fall down), bust shimmies while leaning both forward and backward (to make sure nothing escapes the bra), and raising the arms above the head (to ensure the bra, choli, blouse, or vest does not ride up exposing the bottom part of the breasts).

The costume pieces should be shaped with knowledge of the human body. Bra cups should not be cone-shaped. Belts should be designed with darts or seams in the back to allow for the curved shape of the buttocks and avoid gaps around the top.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Kaylyn Hoskins, Solon, Iowa.

Shira Wearing Perfectly-Fitted Dress



Cheap fabrics and trims immediately make a costume look amateurish. While it’s fine for amateurs (students and hobbyists) to wear costumes made with such materials at belly dance insider events, professional dancers should select costumes made with higher-quality materials. These guidelines should help newcomers to the professional scene distinguish between cheap and upscale:

  • Shiny items such as coins, beads, shisha mirrors, rhinestones, and sequins should not be tarnished unless intentionally aiming for a vintage look. 
  • Imitation coins should be a weight comparable to real coins, not light-weight stamped aluminum. 
  • Although glitter dot and tissue lamé fabrics may be attractive for student costumes and informal dance events, they look too cheap for professional costumes.
  • Instead of stretchy nylon tricot which is widely used for lingerie, costumes should employ fine woven polyester chiffon or stretchy mesh.
  • Jewels should be made of glass, not plastic. They should sparkle, and not be scratched.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Bill Corwin, San Jose, California.

Shira Wearing Costume Made Of Upscale Materials


Quality of Workmanship

It is risky to purchase costumes sight-unseen from unfamiliar vendors. Dancers who are preparing for their professional careers need to shop with care. It is best to buy costumes face-to-face, when the dancer can inspect the items and ensure that they are skillfully made. If this is not an option, the dancer should do some research to discover which vendors are known for producing quality items.

When examining a costume, the dancer should look for these issues:

  • There should be no loose threads needing to be snipped.
  • Seams and hems should be straight and even, not crooked.
  • The fabric along the seams should not be puckered. 
  • If the garment contains ruffles or other gathering, the gathering should be even all the way around.
  • If decorations are spaced at intervals around the costume, such as shisha mirrors, or dangling groups of fringe, the spacing should be even. 
  • The entire bra, including the straps and the back of the band, should be completely covered with the costume fabric and trim.  There should be no visible strap hardware showing. This applies even to bras that will be worn underneath some kind of vest or choli.
  • If the fabric ravels, any raw edges on the wrong side of the garment should be neatly finished off to prevent raveling.
  • Decorations should be sewn into place, not glued.

If the costume incorporates bead/sequin appliqués, those should be carefully placed and thoughtfully integrated into the overall design. They should not look as though they were slapped onto a generic bra/belt shape. For example, they should be surrounded by other decoration in a way that makes the end result appear to have been “designed”, not merely thrown together in a hurry.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by André Elbing, Bärbroich, Germany, at one of Shira's performances in Egypt.

Shira Wearing Well-Made Costume



Many dancers just beginning their professional careers look for affordable deals on used costumes. This can be a cost-effective way to build a costume wardrobe, but once again it is safest to buy costumes in situations  that allow the dancer to inspect the costume before buying.  When buying used costumes from other dancers over the Internet, there is a risk that the seller will not fully disclose problems with the costume in the description.

Even costumes that are sold as brand-new by vendors can arrive in poor condition.

When inspecting a costume, it is wise to check for these pitfalls:

  • All the colors on the costume (fabric, beads, sequins) should be vibrant and fresh.
  • The costume should not look as though it has been faded through exposure to sun or repeated washing.
  • Seams should not contain any gaps caused by someone trying on the costume or performing in it – any such gaps should be repaired. When inspecting a costume for this, it is wise to pay special attention to underarms, bustline, and hip areas.
  • The fabric should not contain snags unless it is an intentional slub effect.
  • All hooks and matching eyes should be sewn securely in place so that they don’t pop open while dancing.
  • There should be no visible safety pins.
  • The costume should be free of odors such as sweat, tobacco smoke, wet dog smell, cat urine, or chemical smells. Even new costumes may arrive reeking of such odors if the vendor is not well-established and reputable.
  • The lower edges of skirts should hang evenly. A skirt made of woven fabric which has been on a hanger in a vendor’s shop or in a dancer’s closet often stretches along the bias.
  • There should be no missing sequins, beads, coins, tassels, shells, or other decorations.

The fabric should not be stained by perspiration, food, or other things.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Randolph Lynch, Redwood City, California.

Shira Wearing Costume in Excellent Condition



Decorations should be thoughtfully placed rather than haphazardly slapped on.  It is risky to use a design that incorporates insects (butterflies), snakes, or other recognizable shapes. Such costumes can be done well, but many are not.

The costume should look attractive from a distance, and its style details shouldn’t look odd from a distance – for example, the design on the belt should not look like a diagram of a uterus. A gold circlet around the head with a bright red stone in the center of the forehead can look beautiful at close range, while from a distance it may appear the dancer has a large bleeding sore on her face.

Dancers should avoid design details that make them look like sex workers, such as nipple tassels, nipple flowers or targets, crotch tassels, or crotch-area fringe.



A professional performer knows that different environments require different color choices. In building a wardrobe, it is wise to consider where she hopes to perform, and choose costumes accordingly.

Environments with dim lighting such as restaurants, nightclubs, and theaters require brightly colored costumes such as bright red, turquoise, orange, yellow, fuchsia, and bright green. Dark colors such as black or navy blue will blend into a dimly-lit background, but may be beautiful for outdoor shows or people’s living rooms.

Generally speaking, it is wise to select costume colors that contrast with the dancer’s skin color. Dark-skinned dancers blend too much with costumes in dark colors such as black and navy blue, while light-skinned dancers can look washed out in pastels. These colors may look beautiful for everyday clothing, but for a dance costume it is typically better to make bolder choices.

If the dancer will be performing in a formal theater with stage curtains, it is wise to find out in advance what color the background curtains will be, and choose a costume that contrasts. A dancer who blends into the curtain will not impress the audience with her performance.

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

Shira Wearing Well-Made Costume


Flattering the Figure

The design details of the costume should call attention to the dancer’s best features and camouflage her problem spots.  For example, a very thin dancer may want to choose a bra that is encrusted with large, chunky jewels and swishing fringe to make her bustline seem larger.  A short-waisted dancer will want to avoid a bra design that includes low-hanging fringe that covers the midriff. A full-figured dancer may want to look for vertical lines such as straight skirt with a slit and long drape in the center front of the bra rather than the horizontal lines of multi-tiered skirts.

Bare skin calls attention to itself.  Therefore, a dancer should choose a costume design that bares skin on the parts of her body that look best, and covers others.  A very thin dancer may want to wear a bra with a series of straps radiating down from a band that circles the neck to disguise the fact that she has small bustline, while baring her midriff to show off her well-defined abdominal muscles. A full-figured dancer may want to wear a dress with a shapely bodice and low-cut neckline that accent her beautiful cleavage.  A short dancer may be able to create the illusion of height through a slit over one leg.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Jeff Obermann, Corvallis, Oregon.

Shira Wearing Very Flattering Costume


How It Moves

The belly dance costume needs to look fabulous not only when the dancer is standing still, but also when she is dancing. The cut of the costume should suit the style of the dancer’s type of movement. For example, a dancer who incorporates a large amount of spinning into her dance style might want to choose a full skirt that swirls with her turns rather than a straight skirt that does not.  A dancer who incorporates floor work into her routine will want to avoid straight skirts, and may want to consider a design that employs pants.


Appropriate Undergarments

Undergarments should look like part of the costume. Just as cheerleaders and ice skaters wear briefs that match the skirts, just as ballroom dancers wear briefs that match their dresses, so belly dancers should do the same. Briefs the same color as the costume work well when the costume is made of opaque fabric, and briefs the same color as the dancer’s skin work well under sheer fabrics. Professional dancers know that pastel fabrics tend to be more transparent than brighter colors and therefore choose their undergarments accordingly.

A professional dancer knows that a full chiffon skirt can fly up when she spins, offering brief glimpses of her underwear.  She knows that when she dances outdoors, the wind can catch that skirt and expose what lies beneath. She realizes that a thong, which exposes bare cheeks in the rear, can leave audiences believing that she is not wearing anything at all under her skirt. A black thong, in particular, can be mistaken for dark hair when the audience catches a glimpse of it.

A dancer with enough performing experience to work professionally realizes that a slinky lycra dress or skirt with cutouts in the hip area can slip out of position, revealing body parts that society generally feels should be covered. She also knows that sweat in her rear cleavage can create a vertical perspiration stain in the back of her lycra dress or skirt which can be embarrassing difficult to clean later. Lycra skirts can also creep into that rear cleavage causing a crease that is visible to audience members if there is no underwear to block the path.

Body parts that jiggle and move need supportive undergarments to hold them in place. Women should wear suitable bras and men should always wear undergarments that prevent their male body parts from moving around.

The dancer needs to choose undergarments that avoid creating visible panty lines. For this reason, boy shorts may work better than briefs under slinky lycra skirts.

Another purpose of underwear in a professional costume is that of protecting the costume against bodily secretions.  Wearing a liner inside the underwear provides further protection for the costume. This is particularly important if there is any chance the dancer will be wearing her costume while driving to a gig or while waiting backstage for her turn to perform.

The humidity of the pelvic floor can create a damp spot on the back of the costume. One dancer was horrified to discover after a performance that there was an oval-shaped crease on the back of her costume the exact shape of the cotton crotch of her pantyhose – this had been “steam-pressed” into the dress by her body heat when she was sitting backstage before her show.


Overall Appearance

The costume should have a sumptuous quality to its overall appearance.

It should not look as though it was mass-produced, even if it actually was.

It should not look as though it were purchased in a thrift shop, even if it actually was.

The finished look, complete with accessories, should look planned from the top of the head to the tip of the toe. This requires choosing hair accessories, hair styles, necklaces, bracelets, ankle bracelets, foot jewelry, and footwear that all represent careful thought to the final effect.



What Types of Jobs Are You Seeking?

Some dancers enjoy the sparkle of glass beads and sequins, while others are drawn to the earthier look of coins, cowry shells, and wooden beads. Each look has its place. A professional dancer considers the nature of her gig and chooses her costume accordingly.

“Traditional” performance environments such as Middle Eastern restaurants, bellygrams, birthday parties, and Arab weddings require “traditional” costumes. In all of these venues, audiences typically expect brilliantly-sparkling glass beads and sequins.

Arab audiences are often aware of the costume trends popular among dancers working in the Middle East, and will appreciate performers whose costume choices demonstrate familiarity with those trends.

American audiences hiring dancers for birthday parties and bellygrams enjoy the archetypal bra/belt set with beaded fringe, worn with a chiffon skirt, even if that look is out of style on the Arab circuit.

Dancers who rebel against wearing traditional costumes should avoid seeking work in these environments and instead develop dance opportunities that better suit their personalities.

Non-traditional performance environments allow for non-traditional costume choices. Trendy Goth clubs, alternative music festivals, experimental dance showcases, and other such events offer dancers who embrace Tribal or other alternative styles an opportunity to experiment with trend-setting looks. The potential pitfall is that the professional dancer needs to create a look that is a step above what the masses will be wearing.  She needs to stand out as The Professional Dancer, which means she needs to be just a bit more glamorous, a bit more exotic, and a bit more fascinating than everyone else.

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

Shira Wearing Costume In Style Expected by American Audiences



Related Articles




Copyright Notice

This entire web site is copyrighted. All rights reserved.

All articles, images, forms, scripts, directories, and product reviews on this web site are the property of Shira unless a different author/artist is identified. Material from this web site may not be posted on any other web site unless permission is first obtained from Shira.

Academic papers for school purposes may use information from this site only if the paper properly identifies the original article on using appropriate citations (footnotes, end notes, etc.) and bibliography. Consult your instructor for instructions on how to do this.

If you wish to translate articles from into a language other than English, Shira will be happy to post your translation here on along with a note identifying you as the translator. This could include your photo and biography if you want it to. Contact Shira for more information. You may not post translations of Shira's articles on anybody else's web site, not even your own.

If you are a teacher, performer, or student of Middle Eastern dance, you may link directly to any page on this web site from either your blog or your own web site without first obtaining Shira's permission. Click here for link buttons and other information on how to link.



Explore more belly dance info:

Top >
Belly Dancing >
Advice >
Index to Costuming Section


Share this page!

On Facebook


 Top > Belly Dancing > Advice > Index to Costuming Section

| Contact Shira | Links | Search this Site |