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ATS Costuming: The Great Equalizer
~Sharon Moore
Originally published in Caravan Trails,
in her column "Of the Tribe", 2003

Of course I am completely caught up in the idea of costume. I am a COSTUMER, for heaven's sake! The question is, how does that guide my hand when designing and coordinating a full costume ensemble for myself or another dancer? And when it comes to a full troupe look, how do I reconcile the desire to speak with our individual voices through our costumes while still maintaining a cohesiveness in appearance?

One of the great things about tribal belly dance is that it is SO MANY things at once. It is never the same way twice, and from person to person and troupe to troupe, it is only more evident the many ways we can explore every aspect of dance and costume with freedom. We don't have to conform to any particular aesthetic. In fact, the founding mothers of our dance are arguably found among those belly dancers who fervently struggled AGAINST having to conform to a particular "look" in order to perform. Looking back into our herstory, we find that many of our roots are sunk deeply into Jamila Salimpour's Bal Anat, for whom the term "California Tribal" was coined, later to morph and become known as American Tribal Style. The term California Tribal, the coining of which is attributed to Morocco (the dancer, not the country *grin*), was used to describe the eclectic gypsy style of dance and costume that was emerging at the time on the Ren Faire circuit on the West Coast. Belly dancers who wanted to forge their own way and define their own style without having to conform to the regular nightclub scene's requirements for performance, were finding kindred spirits at Renaissance Faires, SCA events, and the like. Here they could pair ethnic textiles with Turkish vests and gypsy blouses and jam with abandon. They favored earthy cottons, layers of bangles, and richly woven details over the filmier and ever-skimpier Turkish and Egyptian cabaret costumes that were popular (and often required) in the clubs. They unabashedly stomped and spun and shimmied with their feet firmly set upon the earth, instad of coyly flitting on the stage floor.

Jump into present day, and you will see the fruits of the labors of the women who came before us, who made it possible for us to wear the beautiful costumes we do and be able to proudly present ourselves as respected belly dancers. It wasn't always so. And in some parts of the world, even here in the US, it still isn't. The West Coast had a head start on tribal, being that it began here, so the look and performance of tribal is much more accepted. As you travel further East, you find equal parts fascination with and resistance to the idea of tribal belly dance, and the costuming that follows it. "It's not AUTHENTIC belly dance," you hear most often. Of course it isn't (what is, anyway?!). We put it on the label, didn't we? "AMERICAN Tribal Style"! We don't feel the need to apologize for our art, or confine ourselves to a too-stringent set of rules of what constitutes the physical manifestation of our art. It's simple. Tribal is structured group improv. The look is an earthy, eclectic mix of cultural influences, both in dress and in movement. From there, we launch into so many different colorful branches of our family tree, it would be silly to try and lump any two groups together except to say we follow our passion for tribal.


Classic tribal style costuming, what is recognized as the Fat Chance style, has been called The Great Equalizer. I love that term. I have seen evidence of it more than once. What is it about this costume that has such wide appeal, and is so flattering on everyone who wears it?

Starting from the "ground" up, begin with the skirt and pantaloons. The A-line of the tier skirt is slimming to the waist, drawing the eye down. Then we often add a band of color or a second contrasting skirt layer peeking out, further drawing attention to the motion of the hemline as we move. Then tuck a colorful surprise beneath it all in the form of voluminous pantaloons. When we spin and sway, this splash of color is revealed, creating more texture and motion in our every step.

Coming up to the hipline, we load up on color and texture in the form of fringe, tassels, embroidery, mirrors, and/or jewelry. Every piece added extends the width of the hip (did you ever think you'd want to do that? Haha), emphasizing to our snaps and shimmies. Even the tiniest hips become big and beautiful, and wider hips have herein found their calling. It helps to further delineate the line between our upper and lower body, helping to accentuate the skill in our isolations. It also underlines the torso--our bellies--the source of our greatest power and the focus of much of our dance.

Up to the choli, in the classic style we find a v-neckline, which is flattering on every bust. It has the effect of showing off the loveliest cleavage, and can help accentuate smaller bustlines with the plunging hem. The upward V also draws attention to the exposed collarbone and enlongates the neck. The long sleeves draw a sinuous line from shoulder to wrist, lengthening and slimming even shorter or rounder arms, and accentuating the snake-y movements of both arms and hands. Capping the sleeve hem with layers of bangles draws further attention to the length of the arm, and helping paint to stories in space with movement and color. It further serves to accentuate the wrist and hands as they perform flutters and floreos. The open back frames the spine, emphasizing the length of the torso and exposing a view of the movement of the muscles on the back, which drive undulations and support strong arms and posture. It also has the effect of visually lengthening the trunk of the body, making shorter dancers look taller.

Finally, we reach the signature turban. Not only does it frame the beautiful face of the tribal dancer, and draw attention to the bindis and tribal markings which are also often found as part of the ensemble, but it makes everyone taller, both physically and mentally. Similar to the effect of a crown on the heads of royalty, the weight of the turban makes a dancer carry herself with greater poise and balance, making her stand taller just by being more aware of her posture. In turn, the height of the turban itself, the layers of fabric and jewelry, all serve to draw the eye up, making every tribal dancer seem taller. It also happens to (usually) cover the hair of the wearer, so you can't tell a blonde from a brunette, and no grey either! It makes the older dancer look younger, the younger dancer more mature and poised, and makes each troupe member appear immediately equal and coordinated with the rest of her group.